Thailand's connection with elephants goes back centuries. They are regarded as a symbol of Thai power and identity, most notably the rare “white elephants” owned by the King, and are still used in important ceremonies such as weddings today. However, in recent times unregulated deforestation severely reduced their habitat and wild populations became unviable, except in a few places. Two are now protected as National Parks at Khao Yai and Kuiburi, which offer the opportunity to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat just a few hours' drive from Bangkok.
Khao Yai is the more visited of the two but sightings are almost guaranteed because the elephants' habits are well known and the animals closely monitored. A qualified wildlife guide will introduce you to the different kinds of forest found in the park, leading you along old elephant trails to a watchtower to observe the diverse wildlife all around you. You might also be lucky enough to spot some of the sun bears, wild boars, clouded leopards, monkeys, tigers, gaurs or mountain goats that live here. One thing not to miss is a swim in the Haew Suwat waterfall, famous from the movie ‘The Beach’.
Kuiburi, most easily reached from Hua Hin, is home to a herd of around 320 elephants and well as 100 gaur, the biggest buffalo in the world. It is probably one of the easiest places in Thailand to spot large species due to its easily accessible open areas and wild mammals such as leopards, deer, bantengs and langurs are common. Access to the park is only by vehicle with a local guide, keeping visitor numbers down, and for a really wild experience you can even stay overnight in one of the park bungalows.
For a brief but brilliant period of 130 years from 1238-1365, Sukhothai reigned as the most important city in Thailand as it emerged from the weakened grip of the Khmer empire of Cambodia. Before the Sukhothai era there were only tiny competing local fiefdoms, but by the end of his reign King Ramkhamhaeng had conquered almost all of modern day Thailand, leaving as his legacy a unified nation of Thai peoples and a phenomenal artistic heritage.
The Sukhothai (literally, “Dawn of Happiness”) era is traditionally seen as the golden age of Thailand, the beginning of the modern state and the cornerstone of all things Thai. It was in this period that Theravada Buddhism became the main religion of the country and the alphabet was conceived and introduced. Sukhothai was undoubtedly a major spiritual and commercial centre which has left some of the most striking art and architecture in Thailand and grown into one of the country’s most striking historical sites.
The city today is an impressive collection of elegant ruins, which has been designated as a historical park and UNESCO World Heritage Site covering 70 square kilometres. In its heyday it boasted over 40 separate temple complexes, centred around the walled royal city that contains the most important ruins. After years of restoration and jungle clearance, you can now appreciate the keen aesthetic sense of the planners, especially the symmetry and breathtaking use of water to reflect and offset the massive stone temples. We recommend hiring a bike for the day and meandering through the ruins at a leisurely pace – the unexpected sight of a massive Buddha as you round a corner, clad in saffron robes and mirrored in a lotus-filled moat, is one that you won’t forget in a hurry.
The main reason that people visit Kanchanaburi province is to see the infamous bridge over the River Kwai, built by Allied and other prisoners during the Second World War. Over 16,000 POWs from England, Australia, Holland and the USA and 90,000 labourers from Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia died during the construction of the “Death Railway”, meant to establish supply lines for Japan's newly-captured territories in Burma. Tragically, the railway was only used for 2 years before being torn up for scrap, but the bridge still stands today as a memorial to those who lost their lives.
Depending on your schedule, you can travel from Bangkok by private car, or take the longer but more atmospheric train ride. In Kanchanaburi town, you will visit the moving war cemetery before continuing on to the Hell Fire Pass museum, situated in a cutting through the mountain made by the Allied prisoners. Along a 4km walking trail, visitors can envisage the difficulties faced in constructing the Death Railway using simple tools. The pass is approximately 500m long and 26m deep and was completed within six weeks in 1943 by Australian POWs employing hand drills, picks and shovels, baskets and dynamite. A visit to the museum, which displays contemporary photographs, maps and models from the period, will bring this tragic period of Thai history to life.
As well as history, Kanchanaburi offers wild, untamed forests and rivers with great opportunities for kayaking, mountain biking and wildlife spotting. In nearby Erawan National Park you can trek along a nature trail that winds between massive trees, believed to be protected by spirits, to some splendid waterfalls with emerald-coloured pools suitable for swimming. And for those looking to get away from it all, the Kwai River is also home to some very special floating raft hotels where you can relax completely, immersed in the sounds and smells of the jungle.
Khao Sok National Park, in the south of Thailand, is one of the country's best preserved habitats for tropical plants and wildlife. Within its large boundaries you will find virgin jungle, waterfalls, clear sparkling streams, dramatic limestone cliffs and a wealth of animals and birds. Even better, you can stay in a wooden treehouse perched among the branches, a unique and romantic way to relax and soak up the ambiance of the nature all around you.
The forest is best explored on foot along easy jungle trails, accompanied by an expert guide who will point out the hidden details of the jungle that you might never see on your own - an amazing bird's nest, a giant stick insect or the delicate bloom of a wild orchid. We can also arrange an incredibly relaxing trip down the Klong Sok river by tube or kayak (depending on water levels), which is run by local villagers who want to share and preserve their special environment. The journey takes you past towering cliffs and shoals of river fish and includes as your guide takes care of the paddling, leaving you free to sit back, relax and take in the lush scenery, brightly-coloured birds and monkeys on the shore.
The highlight of most visitors' stay in Khao Sok is a trip to Chiaw Laan Lake, known as “Guilin of Thailand” due to its stunning scenery of limestone islands and cliffs. You can spend a night in this exquisite setting on a basic floating raft house, swimming in the emerald green waters of the lake before enjoying a dinner of southern Thai food and fresh fish, with just the stars and sounds of nature as your backdrop.
And to cap it all off Khao Sok can easily be combined with relaxing on the beach, as it's just a short distance from some fabulous low-key resorts at Khao Lak. Khao Lak is also the jumping off point for scuba diving cruises to the Similan islands, renowned as one of the best dive sites in the world. If it's spectacular natural beauty you're after, Khao Sok should be at the top of your list!