Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Warm, tropical air greeted us in Phuket. I was so happy to lose the chill of Chiang Mai. We had about an hour before our tour group was to take us for our three day jungle safari in Khao Sok National Park. I popped in the airport’s medical clinic to inquire if they have any medicine for Will’s face–his bites had really flared up. The staff were really concerned and repeatedly asked if he had a fever. I reassured them he was fine. They gave me some ointment but cautioned that I should take him to the hospital if he got a fever. The van was late, and the drive was longer than I anticipated. It seemed as if the driver got lost a few times. We arrived at Elephant Hills camp, and they rushed us into the dining area for lunch before we would begin our first activity. As soon as we finished eating we were whisked on to an open air bus that Will named, the jeep bus. Anytime Thailand was mentioned over the last month, Will would say, “Going to Thailand and going to wash elephant.” We were finally on the way to bathe those elephants.
We drove about fifteen minutes through the beautiful park. Khao Sok is gorgeous. It is one of the oldest rainforests on the planet and has these giant limestone formations that tower all around. We exited the bus and walked to a field with an elephant wandering about. As we walked under the pavilion a few more handlers rode elephants into the yard. Elephants had traditionally been used in the logging industry in Thailand. When logging was banned a great environmental victory was won. However, Thailand was left with too much deforestation to support elephants returning to the wild. In addition, elephant owners now had to find a way to support these giant beasts that can live 50+ years. Many turned to tourism to generate necessary cash. Yet many of these activities, including elephants riding, are considered cruel to the animals. Elephant Hills has won many awards for their work as an elephant rescue sanctuary including being the winner of Thailand’s Animal Welfare Award. They are also a current finalist for a National Geographic conservation award.
Our guide, Fon, explained about Elephant Hill’s history as well as general information about elephants. A few elephants hung out along the edge of the pavilion. Will was drawn to the edge of the shelter, mesmerized by the giant beasts . One elephant kept extending her trunk to him which did freak him out a little. After the presentation, we walked to the edge of a pond where a couple elephants were allowed to swim. We watched them play, swim, splash and roll in the muck. Will loved it.
Once the elephants were good and dirty, it was bath time. Three elephants were led to the bath spots. Fon explained how to wash them and cautioned us to avoid walking too close to their behinds. Will was beyond excited at this point. We decided to put him on my back. This was a great decision. Not only was it safer, but he was able to reach higher on the elephant. The fire fighter in him loved operating the hose. I actually wonder if squirting the hose was more fun than washing the elephant. We scrubbed the elephants with coconut fibers and gave them lots of pets and love. When they were all sparkling clean, we returned to the pavilion to prepare their snack. Pineapple, sugarcane and bananas were on the table. I was glad Will was still on my back as we were given large cleavers to hack the pineapple and sugarcane. Once all the goodies were chopped up, it was feeding time. As brave as my boy is, he was definitely a bit scared to feed the elephants. After watching Mike and I do it and realizing that they were taking it with their trunk that can’t bite, he found the courage to help too. The elephants definitely preferred the bananas and pineapple often rejecting the sugarcane or throwing it onto the ground. When the animals were sated, we got to pet them one more time to say our good-byes.
We climbed back on the jeep bus and drove to the canoe launch on the Sok River. We loaded into an inflatable canoe equipped with a guide to paddle us. The canoe ride was awesome. The Sok River twisted and turned between giant limestone towers. I felt better than I had in days and relaxed into the canoe. I wish my photos came out better; I don’t feel a single photo from Khao Sok did this amazing place any justice.
We returned to the camp, and were given the key to our luxury tent. We had to laugh since we had never had a lock to a tent before. Our large furnished tent was equipped with electricity and a nice large attached bathroom. We opened the flaps and turned on the fan and a cool breeze pushed out the hot air. We showered and returned to the communal area for the night program. Local school girls danced followed by a papaya salad cooking demonstration. Will happily played with the only other two children there. A staff member lifted him onto one of the large elephant statues and climbing on those became his new playground. I was nervous about his behavior since I’d anticipated more children on the tour. In addition, dinner wasn’t being served until 8 pm, an hour past his bedtime. I knew we had a full day the next day and didn’t want my tired child taking away from other’s enjoyment. Once the dinner buffet opened, we ate quickly. By we, I mean Mike and I. Will was too tired to eat and begging to go back to the tent. I shoveled my dinner down my throat, managing to taste a bit of the yummy Thai food then rushed to get Will down. Thankfully we all slept great enjoying the cool, fresh air that blew through our tent all night.
We boarded the jeep bus at 9 am and drove 45 minutes to a nearby town to explore a rural Thai market. Tons of brightly colored chilies and peppers were displayed as well as pig heads and other various animal parts. We meandered around and as always Will’s blond head got lots of attention. He’s mastered the Thai greeting, “Sa wat dee khrap” so the locals found him absolutely delightful. The best part of the market was the adjacent 7-11 where we able to load up on some snacks for Will. The bus then took us to an overlook at Cheow Larn Lake. We took a short break to use the restrooms, take in the view and walk through the garden. Next we boarded a long-tail boat, a rustic wooden motorboat, and set out for a tour of the lake and onward to Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp. Cheow Larn Lake blew me away. Honestly, I almost cried at one point because I was so in awe. As along the Sok River, giant limestone formations lined the lake and spiked out in the water. Will passed out on the way due to the hum of the motor, the stiff breeze and/or exhaustion from the day before. We laid him on the boat’s floor and simply enjoyed the majesty around us. I love exploring beautiful places especially those unobstructed by crowds. There were 2 boats with our group. One was our tour group; the other a group that would spend the night at the Rainforest Camp (this tour included additional activities at the lake but does not allow children). We saw a couple other boats, but it was largely our group alone enjoying the scenery.
About an hour later, we arrived at the Rainforest Camp. Tents, dining areas and docks floated in the lake. Fon had warned us the lake was deep, so we reminded Will that he needed to keep his life jacket on at all times. Will and the other boys quickly discovered a large school of fish that wisely hung out at the back of the camp near the kitchen. Fon gave them some fish food, and we had to drag him out of there when the lunch bell rang. We ate lunch then we were free to use the kayaks or swim for the next few hours. I admit I was again nervous as to how Will would do since there was really no escape or exit strategy if he hit his limit. We grabbed a kayak and set off to explore the lake. There were multiple forks off this section of the lake. We selected a different one from some of our fellow travelers. We should’ve followed them as they found a tons of monkeys. We only saw birds, but it was a relaxing jaunt. The lake was beautiful, peaceful and quiet. Will fell asleep at the end of the ride, so I just stayed in the kayak with him on my lap, floating near the camp. Some of the other guests lounging on the dock smiled sympathetically and asked if I was OK. Mike had passed me some life jackets to prop behind my back. I was comfortable, enjoying a beautiful backdrop with a sleeping child snugged on me. I was about as content as could be. When Will woke up, we joined Mike who was swimming in the lake. I’d been concerned that we were going to have to kill time and all of a sudden it was time to take the boat back. By the time the long-tail boat returned to shore, Will was more than ready to remove his life jacket. I told him we’d take it off when the boat docked The second it did, he unbuckled it. Mike and I raised an eyebrow. We didn’t know he could undo it himself, I was super proud that he kept it on all day.
On the boat and bus ride back, I was on cloud nine. I found myself wondering if maybe Khao Sok was my new favorite place. As time passes its really difficult to weigh one destination against another, but I knew that this park was high on my list of favorite places. Back at the camp, Mike wanted to try to keep Will up for dinner, but as I suspected he fell asleep first. I hung out in the tent and read while Mike attended the Pad Thai cooking demo and ate a quick dinner. He returned to the tent so I could take my turn at the buffet. I filled a plate and joined some of the other guests that nicely flagged me down to join them. One woman told me how impressed she was with Will’s behavior and ability to handle the day’s activities. This somewhat confirmed my fear that some people were initially disappointed about sharing the tour with a two-year old. However, I was very happy to hear the compliment. A couple others also chimed in about how well he was doing. A British woman, I particularly liked, told me she could tell that we must take him on a lot of different activities as it was obvious that he was comfortable with all kinds of new situations. Empowered by the dinner conversation and high on the day’s activities, I couldn’t wait for the next day.
Throughout the night, Will whimpered and moaned. He was sharing our bed, and I realized that he was burning up. We tossed and turned together. It was a reasonable assumption that he now had the bug I suffered in Chiang Mai, but what if it was something else? Maybe he had malaria or dengue fever or some other tropical disease. How comfortable could I be assuming it was something benign? In the morning, Will woke up quite lethargic and with a high fever. Mike and I debated on taking him to a doctor. I’d read there was a medical clinic in Railay, our destination that evening, but upon further research it sounded like more of a first aid clinic for injured climbers. Then Will vomited, which was not something I’d experienced when ill. We could sit in a hot tent going out of our mind with worry or we could find out our options for medical care.
The Elephant Hills staff was wonderful. They encouraged us to get some breakfast then had a guide take us to the hospital about forty-five minutes away. In hindsight, it seems like an overreaction. However, Will rarely gets a fever, and he had the horrible bites. And my mind was filled with maybes and what ifs. Will is a pretty tough child, but he is so small and therefore vulnerable too. I knew getting to a hospital from Railay would be difficult if he didn’t improve. I needed to know what was wrong or at least eliminate the scary things. I admit I had second thoughts once we arrived. The hospital was small with an open air waiting room that felt less than hygienic. It was busy and crammed with sick people. I huddled Will to my chest wondering if it was crazy to bring him there. To make matters worse, the locals kept stroking him either to comfort him or simply out of curiosity. I fingered the yarn bracelet the Buddhist monk had given him hoping it would indeed keep him safe. I tried to reason that we were at least having an authentic medical tour experience. We waited a couple hours before some blood was taken and tests ran. A short time later we were called into an office and they told me it was not malaria. However, they would have to send the test for dengue fever and typhus scabies (they were concerned that the bites on his face could be from mites that carry typhus) to a larger hospital and results could take 7-10 days. Luckily with the help of Sam, the guide from Elephant Hills, the doctor explained all the signs to look for if it was one of the other diseases. She recommended that if his fever persisted and remained high for the next 48 hours to bring him to the hospital in Krabi, the closest one to Railay. She assured me they could run any necessary tests on site and treat him. I was so thankful Sam was there to help with any language barrier and ensure questions and answers were clear. We left the doctor’s office, and Sam directed us back to the waiting room while he went to the pharmacy and administration desk. He came back with a cream for Will’s bites and a health certificate summarizing the visit. I asked him where we needed to pay the bill. He informed me that Elephant Hills paid it. I tried to explain that we had insurance, but he stopped me and told me since Will got sick while at their resort it was their responsibility. Wow.
As much as I loved Khao Sok. I’m not terribly upset to have missed hiking in one of the world’s oldest rainforests. Yes, it would have been great to have a healthy child and hike in a beautiful place. However, I feel I did what needed to be done. Even after arriving in Railay and seeing there was a clinic advertising tests for tropical diseases. It was fantastic to have Sam help navigate the process and to get some medical advice for the next couple days. We returned to Elephant Hills, showered in our very hot tent, and headed to lunch. They told us we could enjoy the lunch buffet but also handed us some wrapped plates saved for us from the jungle cookout. Once again, I was blown away by the hospitality. Maybe if Will hadn’t gotten sick this would truly be my all-time favorite place.
Since I don’t know when I will finish the third and final blog of our Thailand trip, I will let you know that Will bounced back within 24 hours so the fear of Dengue Fever and Typhus Scabies was eliminated.
More photos and travel info below.
Here is a video about the Elephant Hills Jungle Safari tour–there are also videos of their other tours. Gives a bigger/better picture than I can. http://youtu.be/0UOtEFyh1zI
Elephant Hills Website: http://www.elephanthills.com
Note to readers thinking about doing Elephant Hills with small children: Elephant Hills’ current policy is no children under 1, and they don’t recommend children under 4. Physically Will can do most things a 4 year old can do. We have hiked and kayaked with him extensively. He did great but in my opinion Elephant Hills is better for children 7/8 and up. One of the main reasons is the 8 pm dinner time. After a full day of activities, I think this is hard on young children. We rode to Krabi with the other family with children; they told me the trek was much more difficult than they anticipated–“more than a nature walk”. It had quite a bit of climbing and the temperature was very hot. We would have carried Will when he got tired, but it may be difficult to carry a four or five year old up a steep trail. I would say they allow you to bring children, but nothing was specifically geared to children. Evaluate the activities and your child’s ability and temperament when making the decision to bring them. Let me know if you have any questions.