Phang-nga is famed as a broad bay filled with otherworldly limestone spires thrusting high out of the calm waters of the inner Andaman Sea. Sail east out of Phuket and you encounter hundreds of them.
But Phang-nga is more than that. It is a large province with a sizable land portion that is as impressive as its tranquil sea. This mainland region is now attracting a sizable number of adventurers seeking a break from the endless delights of Phuket’s gorgeous beaches. A day-trip north on Phuket Sealand’s "Whitewater Rafting, Trekking, Eco-Adventure" provides a buffet of Phang-nga’s best.
On the 90-minute journey en route to the Phuket Sealand base camp in Phang-nga province, we drive past lush rubber plantations, (tin was once Phuket’s prime revenue earner). Cashews trees and pineapple plants occupy the gaps between the rows of tall trees. Across the causeway, we plunge into typical tropical with small villages, thick oil and coconut palms, tapioca, bamboo, and lotus ponds. The scenery contrasts sharply with the beautiful beaches behind us, a refreshing world apart.
As we roll through Phang-nga town weirdly-shaped limestone mountains rise on either side of the road, immersing us in beautiful scenery that makes the journey to base camp fly by. Passengers are glued to the bus windows, mesmerised.
Hurtling Down The Rapid
The base camp is a cluster of buildings in the middle of a rainforest. Behind them flows the Song Phraek (Twin Brooks), a medium-sized stream that in moments will become a full-fledged river. The organizers divide us into four-person teams and assign us to rubber rafts steered by a tillerman and a bowman. After a safety and paddling lesson, we don helmets and lifejackets, grab our paddles and head down the riverbank beneath the sheltering trees.
The Song Khraek’s normally-placid flow is augmented by the turn of a wheel that transforms a mild run into a exciting descent. As we hover on its bank, water released from an upstream dam raises the river’s level 30-40 cm. Before our eyes, mid-stream rocks disappear and boats that moments before were firmly lodged on dry land begin to float.
Phuket Sealand is one of five companies sharing the river on these runs. That translates into a large number of boats competing for traction before the torrent of water diminishes. The stream becomes a log flume with the rafts as bumper cars, bouncing and careening off each other. Those looking for a classic river run quickly discover that resigning oneself to the mad melee is where the fun lies.
The guides add to the excitement, joshing each other good-naturedly. As we pinball down the river, the paddlers need only hold on since the rushing water does all the work and the guides simply stick a paddle in here or there. Boats collide but one never feels he is about to be dunked. Our raft hangs up on a rock but rather than struggling to break free, the guide sits, waiting. A moment later, another boat bumps it free and we continue hurtling downstream.
There are animals in the surrounding forests but everyone is so focused on the thrill of the descent. Birds must be singing but their songs are drowned out by the thundering rapids and the happy hollering of the paddlers.
The wild stretch of the river is four kilometers long but one is so caught up in the adrenalin rush that it seems to take much longer. Less than an hour later, we’re directed to the beach on river right and we pull in. While the boats are piled atop trailers to be taken back upstream, we board baht-buses for the drive to the elephant kraal.
If the river is a sprint, the elephants are an immersion in serenity. In their lumbering fashion, they slow the pace to a tranquil trundle.
We are told the usual facts about earth’s largest land animal: their phenomenal appetites (300 kg. of food and 70-200 liters of water per day), their huge output, and that African elephants ears are bigger than those of their Indian (Asian) cousins. And that of the 5,000 elephants in Thailand, 3,000 are wild.
But the guides impart a few new fascinating facts: the trunks of African elephants end in two “fingers”; Asians in one (the amazingly-versatile trunk comprises more than 100,000 muscle units). Their skin is an inch thick. It is the only animal with four knees but also the only animal that cannot jump. Elephants communicate in cat purrs; on our ride, we’ll hear many phrases from their broad vocabulary.
We’ll gain more respect for these behemoths once we’re aboard. Hint: Take off your shoes and rest your bare feet on the beast’s shoulder, a sensual experience without rival.
We ride females because they are more tractable than males whose behavior is unpredictable and can be dangerous. There are undoubtedly wild animals lurking in the surrounding brush but it is the birds in the tall canopies that we hear.
Soon, we’re invited to become mahouts. The Thai mahout slips off the elephant’s neck and we settle into the saddle formed by its neck. We’re taught the three commands in elephant language:
“Say it forcefully and more than once, or the elephant won’t respond.” I try it and the elephant obeys. I also gain new respect for the animals’ able-footedness in negotiating steep terrain. Another hint: rest your hands on the elephant’s massive head to steady yourself against the jouncing.
Being a mahout also provides a chance to experience the beast’s strength; the strong shoulder muscles flex against my inner thighs. The ears (the softest part of an elephant’s body) flap, flap, flap, against my legs; the sound is like plastic tubes being banged together softly.
After rewarding the animals with baskets of bananas, we move to Tone Pariwat Wildlife Sanctuary with its stunning waterfall. The Sanctuary holds bear, deer, and other tropical species but we’re making such a ruckus—splashing in the pool and luxuriating in cool water pouring down on us—that the animals are likely concealed by the sheltering branches, warily watching us. The only wildlife we see are iridescent butterflies, a multitude of gorgeous creatures often the size of one’s hand, flashing their neon-blue and bright green in the bright afternoon sun. It is a tranquil ending to the day.
The mood on the bus ride back to the island contrasts with the excited anticipation of the morning. Worn out by the day’s excitement, passengers talk quietly or nap, dreaming of gently rolling elephants, gliding rafts, and refreshingly cool pools high in the hills, far from the sea.