Elephant trekking, luxury and great Thai food

This luxury beach resort was devastated by the 2005 tsunami. Now it’s back and better than ever

THE PERFECT way to end an unforgettable afternoon spent trekking through the jungle trails of Khao Sok National Park in Phuket, Thailand is to give a leathery, old elephant a sunset bath.

With Bauthong (lotus flower) repeatedly submerging almost all of her body underwater, I was able to scrub her wrinkled grey hide with my bare hands, before leading her out of the water and rewarding her with a big bunch of bananas.

This up-close-and-personal elephant experience was the highlight of our week-long stint at The Sarojin, a luxury boutique hotel set on 11km of white-sand beach in Khao Lak.

That said, the day spent “extreme trekking” through the wild Bang Yai Jungle (part of the greater Sri-Phang Nga National Park) was a pretty close contender.

For five or six hours straight, we found ourselves clambering over craggy outcrops, clinging on to narrow ledges, paddling waist-deep through rock-pools with our bags hoisted high above our heads, and beating down shrubs and vines to clear a path through the dense tropical rainforest.

At the end of the trek, our physical efforts were rewarded with an ice-cold beer and an even more welcome supply of refreshing chilled towels (which seemed to pop up in an outstretched hand just when we needed them).

Having changed out of our wet gear (and picked off the last of the leeches), we were presented with a feast of Thai dishes – imagine hot and sour tom yum soup and mouth-wateringly tasty prawn red curry – laid out on a table complete with white linen tablecloth, and two large goblets of chablis.

Back at The Sarojin, I made a beeline for the Pathways spa, a thoughtfully-designed retreat that has been carefully integrated with its natural surroundings in a deserted coconut grove.

From the comfort of my thatched hut, I enjoyed a traditional Thai herbal compression massage that involved steamed pouches of herbs being pressed and pummelled all over my body, and a series of sharp elbows working into my tired muscles.

The cool and contemporary resort is located an hour north of Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, and is blessed with stunning beaches, fine sand and the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea.

The stretch of shoreline around The Sarojin is reasonably secluded, although there’s no such thing as a private beach in Thailand, meaning other tourists and passers-by are in close proximity at all times.

While this may not be to everyone’s liking (particularly if you’d been dreaming of a deserted island paradise), it does make you feel a little more connected to the local surroundings.

In fact, just two weeks before the planned opening of The Sarojin back in January 2005, Khao Lak was hit hard by the Boxing Day tsunami which swept away the guest residences and caused major damage to the central building. Fortunately, no one was in the hotel at the time, although many of the staff lost family members.

Despite the devastation, owners Andrew and Kate Kemp refused to be beaten, and worked with staff to rebuild the property which re-opened less than a year later.

The efforts of the Kemps and their team were most definitely rewarded, as more than eight years on, the resort is well-established, the serenity has returned, and the rooms still feel almost as new as the day they were built.

Designed in a contemporary Asian style, there are 56 deluxe residences, with guests able to choose between pool rooms and garden rooms, all set in 10 acres of lush tropical gardens.

On arrival, we were ushered through the vast bedroom (complete with towels lovingly tied into two little turtles), to a luxurious bathroom where there was a rainfall shower suspended over smooth pebbles, and a bathtub big enough for two, strewn with petals.

But the real clincher for us was the stone plunge pool located on the outside sundeck; hidden from view by dense flora and fauna – the perfect place for a refreshing dip.

Breakfast is taken very seriously at The Sarojin and is served for most of the day at Ficus, a Mediterranean restaurant located beneath the hanging roots of an ancient Ficus tree.

We could choose any number of dishes from an a la carte menu featuring pastries, cereals, pancakes, cheeses and Thai omelettes.

For dinner, guests can head to The Edge, a candlelit beachfront Thai restaurant which serves up dishes ranging from beef massaman curry to charcoal-grilled whole white snapper and wok-cooked rock lobster.

For dessert, try the banana fritters and coconut ice cream.

If you’ve been to Thailand before, you’ll know wine is hard to come by thanks to the high taxes, yet The Sarojin’s cellar is very well stocked, and has been rewarded with a clutch of awards.

Charismatic resort manager David Koegelenberg is also a true wine connoisseur and will help guests handpick a selection of bottles to enjoy during their stay.

If you’re looking to eat outside of the resort, there are two nearby beach restaurants situated just 100m away which serve basic but decent Thai dishes that are popular with locals and travellers alike.

While many people come to the resort just to flop on the beach – or in one of the cabanas located around the infinity pool – it would be a shame not to sign up to a handful of the activities on offer.

With no under-10s allowed, the focus is on grown-up fun – although you mustn’t forget to pack your credit card, as the adventures don’t come cheap.

Aside from elephant swimming and extreme trekking, you can take your pick from Thai cooking classes, traditional long-tail boat trips through the mangrove waterways, and sunset cocktail cruises aboard the resort’s private yacht.

Offshore, there are also some superb diving opportunities, including the Similan Islands, one of the world’s most spectacular marine national parks.

Koh Bon, for example, is well-known for attracting groups of mantas and leopard sharks.

If you’re looking for vibrant nightlife, there’s not a lot close by, as the closest town of Khao Lak offers little more than a smattering of shops, bars and restaurants, and a gently buzzing night market to sip beer and sample spicy snacks.

Patong is Phuket’s pulsating centre where you’ll find bigger bars and clubs, but this may not be to everyone’s taste – this is what the majority of visitors to The Saroji are trying to escape. Most are looking for their own slice of white-sand tranquility – and that’s exactly what they get.

NEED TO KNOW
Kuoni (01306 747008; Kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights at The Sarojin in Khao Lak, Thailand, in a Garden Residence with breakfast and private transfers from £1,645 per person. This includes flights with Thai Airways (ThaiAirways.co.uk) and is based on two sharing.

Thailand is generally very hot, and particularly so between March and May; the monsoon season runs from June to October, when the climate is still hot but humid with torrential rains.

For information visit Sarojin.com; also visit TourismThailand.org.

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
1 Fly through the unspoiled forests of Phuket by booking an eco-adventure at Flying Hanuman. The attraction offers several ziplining and abseiling packages through stunning vegetation with meals included or “seasonal fruit sets” from 2,300 baht.

2 Take advantage of Phuket’s hilly landscape by getting together with a friend or relation and 40 litres of water, inside a giant plastic ball. Two wacky expats founded Rollerball Zorbing Phuket to give other tourists a bumpy ride around Thailand that’s out of the ordinary.

3 Turn your holiday into a spiritual experience by visiting the historic town of Wat Chalong. There are 29 Buddhist temples – or wats – scattered throughout Phuket. Each has their own distinctive history. Visit the gilded statue of Poh Than Jao Wat, one of the most famous landmarks in the town, for a spot of good luck.

4 If you love kicking things on grass just as much as you love hitting things on grass, then this specially designed course is for you. Football Crazy Golf in Kathu has 18 holes for you to tackle throughout the day.

5 Get up close and personal with big cats at Tiger Kingdom. The furry but ferocious felines have been trained by humans at the attraction their entire lives so are more docile than tigers you’d come across in the wild. The organisers even encourage visitors to stroke and cuddle them.

6 Give your feet a rest and learn about Thai history and culture at the same time at the Siam Niramit Phuket theatre. Located north of Phuket Town, the 1,760-seat theatre is surrounded a traditional Thai village with floating market and a Thai/International buffet.

7 The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is located in the beautiful tropical forest of Bang Pae and it is run by volunteers who gave the cheeky monkeys a home after saving them from unscrupulous poachers.

8 Realise your childhood dream of climbing a tree at Jungle Xtrem Adventures Park where you can venture from tree to tree via a series of suspended bridges and walkways, among other challenges.

9 Explore the flora and fauna of Thailand at the Phuket Botanic Garden. The attraction in the Muang District is split into 30 different zones containing tropical palms, herbs, fragrant plants, fruit orchards, and an orchid pavilion.

10 An island off Phang Nga Bay with distinctive tall, moss-covered rocks was made famous after it featured in a scene from “The Man with the Golden Gun”. The Thais have dutifully renamed it James Bond Island.