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Tusk masters; Go off the beaten track in Thailand - and have a 99% chance of seeing wild elephants BY OCTAVIA LILLYWHITETry a safari in Thailand.

Byline: OCTAVIA LILLYWHITE

Le h ook down there,'' said our guide. ''Through the trees.'' We gazed down the overgrown path and collectively held our breath. About 600 yards off something moved. A branch? A bird? No, that flash of white was a tusk. A wild elephant.

Spotting elephants in the wild is no exact science. However, Thailand's Kui Buri National Park - 180 miles south west of the capital Bangkok - offers one of the best chances of success in the world - almost 99 per cent sure, said our guide.

Which had me a bit worried, because this long-distance glimpse wasn't quite what I'd been hoping for.

like I'd thought that they'd look like, you knowelephants. Was this it? ''We go on,'' said the guide. Cue collective sigh from those in our safari jeep. Then, around the next bend in a stream, there stood two male elephants eating trunkfuls of vegetation, swatting away heron-like egrets with their big ears.

jackal Wild elephants, just yards away, so close I could see their wrinkles. In fact, they could probably see mine.

Further on we watched a whole MAGICAL Herd of elephant in Kui Buri national park herd, six adults and five calves, crossing a valley.

One baby was separated from the rest by a jackal, but its mother trumpeted the intruder away and the little guy came galumphing back. Nearby, gaur (huge wild cattle) roamed the plain as well.

It was like being in Jurassic Park, with the great, green expanse stretching away to the mountains. I found myself looking out for pterodac-pterodactyls, but only saw a hornbill.

Don't, whatever you do, forget your binoculars. The magic thing about Kui Buri is the elephants aren't there for tourist dollars (like the ones chained up for rides, or being forced to walk tightropes, dance or ride bikes in shows). They live there, free to roam.

Audley Travel is the only UK's tour operator to offer this safari, which goes to the heart of what the firm does - bes ind bespoke travel, tailor-made for each individual booking, and triplechecked ch in ev bi tr baby local experts to offer incredible experiences you wouldn't even know to Google for. Like the bicycle tour of the Chiang Rai countryside in north Thailand, following back roads, tracks and river paths.

Taking in the area at cycle speed a glorious way to explore.

TEMPLE

We stopped to talk to locals in the rice paddies as we passed, photographed the water buffalo, and ended up at Chiang Rai's sparkling White Temple, which looks like a more ornate version of Queen Elsa's ice palace in Frozen.

Then there was the trip down the River Kok from Chiang Rai to Fang in a long-tail boat. (Why drive when you can make the journey part of the destination?) It took about four hours to speed down the muddy river, expertly skippered through the eddies and swirls.We passed green hills capped TURN TO PAGE 30 FROM PAGE 29 with distant temples of sparkling gold, grand white Buddhas that gazed serenely down from the water's edge, and isolated villages where fishermen cast their nets into the current.

Or the overnight stay in the charming Phumanee Lahu Home Hotel in Fang, where the owner, Yok, laid on a candlelit dinner in a rice field and told us how the king had visited her grandfather in their Lahu tribe village, Doi Pu Men.

TRAVEL FILE

He taught the villagers to abandon the crippling opium trade, and supplement traditional tea plantations with eco-tourism: inviting travellers to their mountain village.

The next day Yok trekked with us to her village, three hours through the mountain jungle.

BOOK IT Audley offers tailor-made thailand. A nine-itinerary visiting Rai, Fang, Chiang Am, Kui Buri Park and Bangkok from [euro]3,146pp sharing, including Heathrow flights Air, domestic accommodation, transfers and audleytravel.com Thailand

TOP TIP

Serious repellent is if you pack DEET in a sealed bag it leaks it can burn through your I discovered).

I won't lie, it's a demanding hike through virgin rainforest and I'm a little scared of spiders. If you chicken out (I nearly did) they'll take you up the bumpy road in a 4x4 instead, but try to hold your nerve for the trek - it's worth it.

MORE INFO Go tourismthailand.

EAGLES Following the young man who'd strolled down to collect us (with his jungle machete), we clambered through bamboo forests as tall as skyscrapers, past banana groves and plunging waterfalls.

GENTLE TOUR Octavia travelling at cycle speed We watched eagles soaring above and, yes, even saw a couple of impressive banana spiders.

Just at the point I was wondering if it was actually beyond me, we came out of the dense jungle to a mountain plateau that overlooked the valley for miles below.

The village crouched in the hillside ahead. It was sort of life-affirming view that makes you feel invincible.

With Yok at my side keeping my pace even (''Go slow,'' she smiled, ''we're making great time.'') we tottered into the village in just 21/2 hours. Apparently villagers can do it in about 40 minutes. An amazing lunch of chicken wings and steamed rice wrapped in a banana leaf was being cooked for us in one of the bamboo houses which was raised up on stilts with a glassless window overlooking the valley.

It was one of the simplest houses I've ever visited, with easily the most incredible view.

Audley checks every hotel it includes on its itineraries.

So even if you're just there for a night, you can rely on it being friendly, comfortable and delightful - like the Anantara Serviced Suites in Chiang Mai, a twominute walk from the famous night market, or The Siam in Bangkok, where a private riverboat can take you into town in 15 minutes.

My personal favourite, was the X2 Kui Buri Resort on the coast near the elephant reserve, where most villas have their own private pool.

Just the thing thing for freshening up after a day on a magical wild elephant safari.

TRAVEL FILE BOOK IT Audley Travel offers tailor-made trips to Thailand. A nine-day itinerary visiting Chiang Rai, Fang, Chiang Mai, Cha Am, Kui Buri National Park and Bangkok costs from [euro]3,146pp for two sharing, including Heathrow flights with EVA Air, domestic flights, B&B accommodation, transfers and excursions. audleytravel.com Thailand TOP TIP Serious insect repellent is essential, but if you pack DEET keep it in a sealed bag because if it leaks it can burn through your passport (as I discovered).

MORE INFO Go tourismthailand.org Know your massaman from your khao soi Wild elephants, night markets and sunshine aside, one of the best things about travelling in Thailand is the food. Thais like their dishes really, really hot, but luckily they usually tone it down for foreigners. Here are four classics to try: MASSAMAN CURRY Chicken, lamb or beef - whatever the meat, this rich, dark, thick curry from southern Thailand is one of my favourites.

PAD THAI Fragrant rice noodles with egg and prawn. If you want to have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner you can - most hotels have it in their buffet breakfasts. Yup, I went there. It's an easy dish if you're not sure what to try because it's not super-spicy.

KHAO SOI A must-try if you're in northern Thailand (you probably won't come across it in the south), this chicken noodle curry with coconut sauce is very tasty.

MANGO STICKY RICE It looks like a simple plate of rice and mango, but the magic coconut sauce is the key (as well as mango that was probably picked that morning). It's the only pudding you need to know about.

CAPTION(S):

SPARKLING Octavia at the White Temple

DELIGHTFUL Landscape in Chiang Rai

GENTLE TOUR Octavia travelling at cycle speed

WORTH THE TREK Village beside the River Kok
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Feb 18, 2018
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