Treasures of Thailand Asia: From majestic island towers, caves and reefs to rain-forest elephant marches, Phuket and the blissful western coast are nothing short of stunning.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I knew we were in for an exotic vacation when - a few hours after arriving in Phuket - we walked from our hotel down to the beach and came upon a pair of baby elephants. It was around 3 o'clock, and the animals were returning from their afternoon swim in the green waters of the Andaman Sea on Thailand's West Coast.

As we met them on a path, their trainer barked commands in Thai. The lead animal knelt down on one knee and bowed toward us. The bow - called a "wai" - is an act of respect in Thai culture.

My wife, Julie, and I had flown to Thailand for a relaxing break from the rigors of urban life and a little adventure. One day, we went trekking on the backs of elephants to a pair of waterfalls in a mountain rain forest. On another, we rode inflatable canoes into the caves and lagoons of Phang-Nga Bay, where a collection of limestone islands jut hundreds of feet out of the water. The striking scenery was featured in the 1974 James Bond film, "The Man with the Golden Gun" and 1997's Bond movie, "Tomorrow Never Dies."

About an hour's flight south of Bangkok, Phuket is an island of 250,000 people where modern tourist conveniences blend with a landscape of rice fields, lush mountains, water buffalo and white beaches. You can spend the day reading by the sea at a luxury resort, sailing along the rocky coastline or snorkeling on reefs where the fish are so accustomed to people they eat out of your hand.

Among the islands

The best part of our visit to Phuket were the exotic day trips. Soon after our arrival, we set off in a boat for a few hours of canoeing among the islands of Phang-Nga.

I'd first glimpsed this extraordinary landscape in a suburban movie theater at age 13 while watching my first James Bond movie. In the finale, Roger Moore flies a seaplane toward the villain's hide-out, one of dozens of limestone islands that rise straight out of the water. I had never seen anything like it and assumed the bay probably lay hidden in some remote corner of Asia.

After about an hour on the boat, I spotted the towering karsts draped with shrubs, trees and vines. Inside some of the islands lie "hongs," or inland lagoons, which canoes can only enter through caves at certain times of the day.

The tidal change runs about 14 feet in Phang-Nga. At high tide, some of the caves are underwater. At low tide, many of the lagoons are reduced to mud flats where thousands of fiddler crabs dart about.

We climbed into an inflatable, yellow canoe and sat back as our guide, Chai - an affable 20-ish Thai who had grown up on the bay - paddled toward an island where the lagoons were only accessible during a full moon. As we approached the cave's mouth, we lay down in the bottom of the canoe so as not to scrape our heads against the ceiling where the jagged shells of an old oyster bed hung.

Once we floated through the opening, the island unfolded into a series of limestone canyons. The interior was a maze of green, primordial lagoons filled with mangroves, birds, insects and monkeys. The canoe glided beneath rock arches and past sheer walls to which palm trees and cactus clung.

Along the mangroves' twisted roots sat mud skippers, which looked as if they had just made the evolutionary leap from sea to land. These fish, which can live out of water for several days, scurried about waving their fins.

An hour or so later, we arrived at a second island and the most exciting moment of the day. We paddled up to a tiny opening in the rocks - so small as to be barely discernible on the island's craggy face. It was perhaps 18 inches high, less than 3 feet wide and completely dark.

Suddenly, we heard a rush of air escaping from the canoe and felt a jolt as the boat sank a little in the water. Chai had opened up one of the plugs to reduce the canoe to a size that would fit through the cave's opening.

Following his instructions, Julie and I lay down with our arms at our sides and listened as Chai pushed the canoe through the small hole. As the boat scraped against the rocks, it sounded as if it might rip at any moment. The opening was so tight we could feel the rubber pressing against our shoulders.

After three hard pushes, we slipped through the opening and floated quietly into a large cave where small stalactites resembling shark's teeth hung from the ceiling. A few feet further, the beam of my flashlight fell on a cascade of sparkling stalactites resembling a waterfall. Inside the island lay a large lagoon surrounded by cliffs rising as high as 600 feet.

No one seems quite sure how the hongs were formed. The islands began life 130 million years ago as coral reefs. Shifting plates within the earth's crust pushed them out of the water 55 million years later. Wind, waves, rain and currents carved them into the unique shapes seen today.

Some think the hongs were once large caves. Over the years, rainwater weakened the roofs, which collapsed and formed lagoons, according to one theory. Whatever its origin, there are few places in the world like Phang-Nga Bay.

Elephant trek

While we set seeing Phang-Nga as one of our goals before coming to Phuket, a second unplanned day trip was nearly as rewarding. After a day relaxing at the beach, we headed off in a jeep to the mainland for elephant trekking.

The drive took three hours, partly because we had to stop at a village market to buy bananas to feed the elephants.

The animals, which live in a national park, are very domesticated and seem like big dogs. They scoop the bananas out of your hands with their trunks, then shovel them into their mouths. If you walk away with the bananas, they may follow you.

On their backs are wooden saddles the size of a bench with small railings and foam-rubber cushions. A barefoot driver sits on the animal's neck and lightly kicks its ears, urging him forward.

After feeding our elephant, Julie and I climbed onto a platform, stepped onto his shoulders and held on for a wild ride through the jungle. Our 23-year-old guide, Yusef, aptly described the journey as "elephant motor-cross." The mountain trail was steep, treacherous and sometimes a foot deep with mud.

The elephants clomped up and down, sending sheets of muddy water flying with each footstep. Some descents were so steep we had to lean back, brace our feet on the elephant's shoulders and hold onto the saddle with both hands to keep from tumbling off. On occasion, our elephant would drop to his back knees and slide down the muddy trail: an extraordinary sight given his weight of nearly 4 tons.

In addition to the elephants' dexterity, we marveled at their strength. When they came across a thick branch lying on the trail, they simply wrapped their trunks around it and tossed it off the hillside like a matchstick.

After an hour of climbing, we came to a 25-foot waterfall that tumbled into a cool, green pool. As the elephants bathed downstream, Yusef and I went jumping off a cliff next to the falls.

We rejoined the elephants and went on to the second waterfall. Along the way we passed iguanas, teak trees, countless hanging vines and even a Venus flytrap. Yusef ran ahead taking photos. Our group was composed of eight people and four elephants. At times, Yusef had as many as three cameras hanging from his neck.

We dismounted near the second waterfall, walked across a stream on a pair of wooden planks and climbed onto a bamboo raft moored in a pool beneath the cascade. Sitting on blue and red mats, we dove into a terrific Thai lunch of fried shrimp, chicken with cashews and vegetable stir-fry.

After lunch, we waded into the pool during a downpour. We grabbed a rope tied to the shoreline and pulled ourselves up into the rapids pouring out from the foot of the falls.

On the final mile of the trek, the elephant drivers climbed off the animals and gave the passengers a chance to drive. As we spoke no Thai, we didn't get very far.

I climbed onto the bristly neck of our elephant and draped my legs over each side. As instructed, I used my feet to kick his ears. He didn't care. Instead, he took advantage of my inexperience and had a snack of plants.

After many hours beneath the shade of the jungle canopy, we marched out of the rain forest on the elephants' backs into a terraced valley of grass and ferns. The day's adventure had come to an end. We fed the elephants our remaining bananas, patted their trunks and said good-bye.

As we looked out the back window of the jeep, we watched as the elephants headed back into the forest.

An ideal day

8 a.m.: Read the Bangkok Post over a buffet breakfast by the pool.

9 a.m.: Sail a Laser in the green waters of the Andaman Sea.

11 a.m.: Go shopping at Thai Style Antique & Decor Co., which is 23 kilometers south of the airport on Route 402. It offers a variety of antiques, including teak furniture, wooden sculpture and bronze work. A driver will pick you up at your hotel and bring you there. Ask for a discount. (6676) 215-980, 238-960, 238-961.

1 p.m.: Barbecue lunch on beach.

2 p.m.: Read and doze beneath the palm trees as the waves lap the shore.

3 p.m.: Feed the baby elephants and watch them swim.

4 p.m.: Competitive game of beach volley ball.

6 p.m.: Catch a tuktuk (a three-wheeled colorful taxi) into nearby Patong Beach, hunt for some good Thai cuisine and soak up the night life.

When you go

Getting there: Until Dec. 17, United Airlines offers round-trip flights from Dulles to Phuket starting at $1,485. Stopovers in either San Francisco or Los Angeles and Tokyo will be made.

Tips: Thailand is an extremely easy place to travel, and the Thais are quite savvy when it comes to tourism. Many people in tourist areas speak English. If you have a problem, just keep smiling. It's an integral part of Thai culture and the best way to resolve things.

Lodging: Phuket offers scores of hotels.

* Le Meridian Phuket (standard room: about $120) has some advantages, including a private beach with sailboats and six restaurants. Cuisine includes Italian, Japanese, Thai and Mediterranean. U.S. reservations: 800-225-5843.

* Sheraton Grande Laguna Beach (superior room, ocean view: $130) has water sports, tennis and five restaurants. (6676) 324-101-7.

* Banyan Tree Phuket ($270 for a garden villa) has a golf course and spa. (6676) 324-374.

* Dusit Laguna ($110 for a standard room) is 15 minutes from the Phuket airport. (6676) 324-320-32.

* Laguna Beach Club ($225 for a superior room) sits between lagoon and the Andaman Sea and is among the better resorts for accommodating families. (6676) 324-352.

Tours

* The elephant trekking trip to the pair of waterfalls in Sogprek National Park on the mainland costs $64 per person for the entire day. Try to avoid the shorter elephant treks on Phuket proper, as the scenery is limited. Ask your hotel for more details.

* The day-long canoeing trip in Phang-Nga Bay costs $78 per person and is worth every penny. You can contact SeaCanoe Thailand at (6676) 212-252 or e-mail: infeacanoe.com or http://seacanoe.com.

* Aopomary Tourism Co. (6676) 235-342 offers a day-long snorkeling trip ($52 per person) to a pair of islands where you can feed a variety of small fish from your hand. Many hotels have tour offices that can book these tours.

Famous connections: Phang- Nga Bay stood in for the South China Sea during some spectacular scenes in the James Bond movie "The Man With the Golden Gun." Tour groups offer trips to the island where the villain, played by Christopher Lee, had his hide-out. Scenes from the latest Bond film, "Tomorrow Never Dies," were also shot in Phang-Nga.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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