Visit Thailand's adorable isle of Koh Samui and its new elephant sanctuary

A CYCLONE is heading your way in 24 hours and you have missed the evacuation.

Usually cause to panic when on a remote tropical island.

Unless, of course, you’re looking for any excuse to stay.

Yup, even the once-in-60-years storm Pabuk (so don’t be put off) has done nothing to dissipate my love for Koh Samui, the most charming of all Thailand’s tourist isles.

In fact, once we had tried to establish our own safety, given all flights on and off the island had been cancelled, our thoughts turned to the elephants we had fallen in love with a few days earlier.

For decades, the great shame of western tourists to Thailand has been the tacit support for the elephant trade.

Sure, that elephant ride or show might have been great fun. But did we really believe the guides’ assurances that these majestic creatures were being treated correctly when they looked downtrodden, battered and, in many cases, broken.

That’s why I was so excited to bring my mum Mary, dad John and sister Ash to the recently opened Koh Samui Elephant Sanctuary.

It’s an ethical project that is starting to home older female elephants who have been treated appallingly for many years — logging, performing in circuses and street begging.

The elephants at the sanctuary are being cared for by full-time professional keepers but the ten acres of facilities are a little rudimentary for the moment.

Charismatic and entertaining host Guita told a story of one of the elephants recently escaping and wandering into the local 7/11 store.

I don’t think she was joking.

During a half-day visit, you get very hands-on, getting to meet the elephants and feed them bananas and pineapples, before watching them bathe and play.

It was unforgettable.

The passionate local guides gave just the right level of information while keeping the experience light and fun.

For example, you have to stand on only one side of the delightful Mae Kham Kaew because her despicable former owner blinded her with a slingshot after she had worked for hours and hours with very little food.

You are allowed to take your own pictures for social media — which the cast of The Only Way Is Essex lapped up on a recent visit while filming their Thailand special.

Oh, and the Thai lunch afterwards was delicious.

I would never previously have taken a ride on an elephant — to me it’s always been morally and ethically wrong. But I do understand the desire to get to interact with these wondrous animals and this sanctuary is the only way to do that.

For the non-cyclone portion of our trip we stayed in the Manathai boutique hotel, which is located on the simply gorgeous Lamai Beach, the second longest on the island.

Everything at Manathai exudes old- fashioned elegance.

Across the road from the hotel facilities and restaurants — Pad Thai was my favourite — is one of their two pools for guests.

We went to a delightful dinner party the hotel hosted on the beach one night, which was great fun.

There’s much to explore by foot locally, too. Wander just a few metres down the beach to find the best Thai massage in the world, which you can experience for next to nothing while listening to the lap of the waves.

Close by are New Hut Bungalows, with a stunning restaurant right on the sand — where the fresh seafood is delicious and, again, dirt cheap.

Another must-do for bargains and culture is the Sunday night Lamai Street Market, a feast for the senses with all sorts of local food and products on sale alongside street entertainment.

Just a short walk from Manathai is the majestic Tamarind Springs, which became the island’s first dedicated day spa in 1998 and where I heartily recommend you spend at least half a day.

Built into the unique rocky hillside, the location is genuinely magical.

We had our massages in treehouse-style raised huts amid the lush tropical vegetation.

But the best experience — part of the Dream On package — is the chance to exfoliate and spend time in the herbal steam caves and cooling rock pools which have been built into giant granite boulders.

For a more traditional massage, I recommend visiting the spa at the Centara Grand Hotel where I tried the speciality salt-pot muscle melter.

The Thai ritual combines the pressure of a deep-tissue massage with hot salt-pot compresses — containing a blend of coarse salt and medicinal herbs — to release tension in the shoulder and lower back muscles.

Luckily I was feeling quite zen-like because it was directly after this massage that I was told our day trip to the Ang Thong National Park had been cancelled because of the fast-approaching cyclone, which we needed to take pretty seriously at this point.

All flights off the island were soon cancelled and we were stuck.

Now, this was a slight shock, given that all the research we had done had assured us of glorious weather in January.

But in this potentially disastrous situation, I saw only opportunity — to spend more time with my family and on this island which I was falling totally head over heels for.

So, with that in mind, we decided to splash out for our unexpected extra few nights by moving to the honeymooners’ paradise that is the W Koh Samui hotel.

It’s one of the world’s greatest hotels, in my opinion, but we got a great discount because most of the other tourists had already fled.

We were supposed to be staying at the fantastic W Bangkok hotel before flying home, but I wasn’t complaining.

If you are looking to celebrate a special occasion I recommend one night at the W Koh Samui, where you can experience ultra-luxurious facilities — including a private beach and an Instagram-friendly cocktail bar where you sit in pods within the water.

Thailand is my favourite country to visit, largely because of the incredible people — who shone in the island’s dark hour as the cyclone swept in. Nothing was too much trouble, even in the buffeting winds.

And what about the elephants? Well, luckily they were all completely unscathed — and some of them seemed to enjoy the drama, according to the staff at the sanctuary.

A little bit like me on this once-in-a-lifetime family holiday to Koh Samui.


GETTING/STAYING THERE: Two nights at W Bangkok, plus seven nights’ B&B at the Manathai Resort Koh Samui is from £1,269pp based on two sharing, including private transfers, a full-day Ang Thong National Marine Park by Speedboat Tour and return flights from London. See or call 020 7368 1200.

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