Floating in paradise and running for my life: Elephant Hills Part II

When I booked our dream trip to Thailand, I never expected we’d be running scared through the rainforest.

Following a special day at the Elephant Camp, we set out at 9am for another unforgettable experience in southern Thailand.

Both campsites at Elephant Hills are located in the wonderful Khao Sok National Park, but we’ll be spending our last night at the rainforest camp, a set of luxury tents built on the water in the heart of the Cheow Lan lake.

Cheow Lan lake

Measuring a vast 64 sq miles, this is actually a man made lake – a dam was built here in 1982, and after five years of collecting rainwater and redirecting rivers, it now provides a great source of hydroelectricity. Home to a range of wildlife, it also attracts tourism as a small number of floating camps have been built in the park, with Elephant Hills being the first.

cheow lan lake viewpoint

We stop off at the viewpoint by the dam first to admire the view – the dramatic limestone cliffs which rise out of the water provides a breathtakingly beautiful scene, and looks similar to the landscape found at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.

In the distance, long-tail boats disappear into the horizon, and that’s the same journey we’re about to make from the pier nearby.

The jungle lake camp

The floating lake camp is about an hour away, and each minute of this crossing is filled with views more stunning than the last. Our long-tail boat roars through the expanse of the lake, and brings the breeze of the hot tropical air against your skin. Reaching your hand over the sides lets you touch the water as it splashes from underneath the boat, and feels nearly as warm as the wind.

cheow lan lake boat ride

cheow lan lake

Looking out at the limestone cliffs towering above, and the emerald green lake just below, the beautiful scenery feels even more dream-like as a layer of morning mist still lingers across the clear blue sky.

As our boat starts to slow down, the view of the camp appears in the distance. It’s exactly how it looks in the pictures which first drew me to this place, yet somehow the setting still overwhelms you.

elephant hills lake tents

Once our boat comes to a stop and the sound of the engine disappears, the serenity hits you immediately. We sip a sweet welcome drink and look back towards the horizon from where we came, and I can’t quite believe that I’m here.

Small islands lie on the other side of the lake, with nothing but unspoilt rainforest ashore and the luxury of silence all around.

elephant hills cheow lan lake

elephant hills floating camp

There are 20 tents which rest on the peaceful water, with two large canopies on either side where meals and drinks are served. All the rooms are named after wildlife in the area, and after lunch we check into tent number 10 – the hornbill. Inside, rooms are more or less identical to those at the Elephant Camp, but here you also have two kayaks which you’re free to use throughout your stay.

We didn’t waste any time, and jumped straight into the lake which can be accessed directly from our deck. Floating around in the most perfect water temperature, I found paradise here.

The activity on offer this afternoon was a trek through the rainforest. I’m not a very fit person, and having to really exert myself is not my idea of a holiday. But I’d travelled halfway around the world to be here, and so I wasn’t going to pass up on a rare opportunity to explore the world’s oldest rainforest.

Looking back, I can say I’m really glad I did it, but had I known then what I’m about to write now, there is absolutely no way I would have signed up to this…

The jungle trek

About a 20 mins boat ride away from our camp is where we begin our 2.5 hour trek into the jungle.

There are six of us from the group, plus our tour guide, and a rainforest ranger who’s carrying a machete-like knife around his belt.

We walk on an incline through dirt trails for about an hour, and make a few rest stops along the way before reaching our destination – a cave.

This cave.

rainforest cave

This insect-filled, bat infested, poisonous spider cave.

We’re given a torch before heading inside, and the light behind us disappears quickly with each step we take. The temperature drops but it’s not cold, with a calm air that has the kind of coolness only felt somewhere completely devoid of sunlight.

I turn on my torch and immediately see a swarm of flies appear around the bright beam in my hand. I turn it off and try to follow the others, but turn it back on and point it to the floor for fear of what might be at my feet. I see something crawl across the ground in front of me and turn the light off again.

“Crickets”, our guide says, “sometimes they jump on your leg!”

I make my footsteps heavier on the ground and start to march on the spot now, afraid to stand still in case I turn into a cricket-climbing frame. But that’s the least of my worries, as the ranger we’re with now starts to point out the venomous spiders to stay away from, and the sound of bats becomes louder up ahead.

A member of our group asked us to turn our flashlights off, which we do. Standing in the pitch black (still marching on the spot), the darkness of the cave swallowed us. I’ve never experienced a complete blackout like that, and I’m not ashamed to admit I was the first one to turn my light back on!

You can really start to see the bats overhead as we near the end of the cave. Their screeching becomes clearer, and echoes loudly against the walls. It’s intimidating when you realise how many there are, as shining your light into the darkness above illuminates huge clusters of black objects that hang against the grey, stone ceiling. Some of them start to drop off and fly around from ledge to ledge, and it was when a small colony of them dived quite close to our heads that we decided it was probably time to leave…

The near death experience (kind of)

Outside, we sit on the rocks at the entrance of the cave and share a relieved sigh that we made it out in one piece.

It’s about an hours walk back to the boat, and we start to make our way downhill through the dirt path in a single file.

As I’m concentrating on my footsteps, I look up and see a scuffle at the head of our group. Before I get the chance to ask what’s happening, the girl in front of me turns to me and says, “run”.

I do just that, heading back uphill as fast as I can, afraid to turn around to see what we’re running from. Reaching a safe distance, I stop and look down at the group. I see those at the front have now huddled together, and cautiously begin to walk back towards them to find out what’s going on.

“Snake!” Our guide says. “A king cobra, in the bush there. I heard it hiss at us when we walked past!”

The ranger watches as the reptile slithers away, and we all hurry past the spot and hot step it back to the boat.

Back at camp

Arriving back unscathed, we share our story with the rest of the camp who were now feeling pretty pleased they’d skipped the trek.

With a couple of hours to spare until dinner, it’s time to relax and enjoy the rest of the daylight from our deck.

elephant hills camp deck

elephant hills lake view

One of the best things about being somewhere so secluded like this is the peacefulness it brings. The silence here was pure bliss, only occasionally broken by the sound of a fish splashing as it comes to the surface of the water, and the amusing call of gibbons who reside in the surrounding rainforest. If you’ve never heard the sound a gibbon makes, you should definitely watch this video.

Exhausted and relaxed, we head to bed after dinner and feel sad to be leaving this beautiful place tomorrow.

There’s a guided canoe trip the next morning which we join, and we were lucky enough to see some lemurs swinging up high in the trees, as well as a wild boar drinking from the river bank – a great ending to a wonderful stay.

The time for us to leave came after lunch, and you won’t be surprised to hear it was difficult to say goodbye. We spent two weeks in Thailand altogether, but our time at Elephant Hills was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had, and three days which I’ll never forget.

Bye for now Khao Sok, I’ll see you again soon…

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6 things to eat in Bangkok
See Bangkok’s unique markets
Visit the Grand Palace in Bangkok
Try snorkeling at Koh Phi Phi and Maya Bay


Need to know

  • Two-night jungle lake safari from 18,475 THB per adult (approx. £370)
  • If you can, book two nights at the lake camp!
  • Transfers and onward hotel travel is included
  • Meals and activities are included
  • Elephant Hills is not suitable for children under age 7

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