The elephant is Thailand's national animal – a symbol of royalty and strength. Koh Samui has tropical rain forest in its centre and to travel through this verdant lushness on elephant back is to experience Thailand at its most natural. You will pass exotic fauna and flora, stop at refreshing waterfalls along the way and discover Samui in the most regal way possible.
You can meet the elephants near Namuang One waterfall. Many different tour operators organise guided elephant treks through the island's tropical forests. Treks can last 15 minutes, half an hour, one hour or half a day, and each elephant has its own handler ("mahout"). These skilled "elephant drivers" are in charge of training, feeding and taking care of the animal, as well as riding the elephant with the "passengers" during the trek. A mahout normally stays with the elephant for its entire life and they form a very close bond with the animal.
Elephants are no longer used as for work in the forests of Thailand, and for many animals, trekking therefore guarantees their survival. It is always important, however, to make sure that the elephant looks healthy and seems well taken care of. If you don't wish to ride the elephants, but simply want to spend time with them, buy some bananas from the handlers and feed and stroke the elephants. You may even be lucky and see a calf!
Asian elephants are smaller than the African ones, but are still quite large when fully grown. Usually there is a seat on top of the elephant, where one or two people can sit. The guide sits on the elephant's neck. It's a pretty bumpy ride and quite slow. Often the guide will let you sit on the elephant's neck for a photo, and my wife was able to ride on the neck while the guide walked. The whole experience can cynically be called ‘touristy", but I believe it is a good experience for all visitors who have not done this before. We took a 30-minute ride and frankly this is probably all most people need.
Several companies around the island run elephant ride operations and many can be booked through travel agents, often in combination with all day tours of the interior. Over fifty elephants call Samui home and all work in the tourist industry. Some companies take visitors up into the hills for magnificent views over the island, others go through waterfalls where riders run the risk of receiving a cooling shower. Chaweng Elephant Trekking (Tel. 077 231 210), Living Thailand (Tel. 077 418 680) and Island Safari Co (Tel. 077 230 567) are three companies that were recommended to us but if you just want an elephant ride and you have your own transport you can make your way to the base near the Namuang 1 waterfall and negotiate a price there.