Trunk Show

The best way to see the lush Thai jungle? From the back of an elephant By Josh Dean

In Koh Samui, savvy travelers are ferried (and sometimes splashed) by the local elephants.
Tim Davis/Corbis

Trunk Show

The best way to see the lush Thai jungle? From the back of an elephant By Josh Dean

If you're lucky, and you find yourself on a backcountry trek on Thailand's third largest island, your jungle taxi may be one of the largest animals you've ever seen. And don't look now, but your driver is probably steering it with his feet.

It's OK. This is how it's done in Koh Samui, or, as the locals call it, Samui (pronounced sah-MOO-ee)—a tropical paradise (with almost no crowds) that features white sand beaches, swaying coconut palms, temperatures in the 80s, and yes, jungle elephant tours.

Koh Samui is only 21 kilometers across at its widest point, but once you leave the coastal towns and beaches, the island gets wild fast. Chittraboon Ruengchan, guest relations executive at Conrad Koh Samui, understands that it may be tempting to stay coastal and simply sit on a lounge chair staring at the perfect aquamarine water. But you'd be remiss not to see that lush jungle for yourself—especially since you can do it in such a unique fashion, on the back of a hulking pachyderm. After all, elephants are the largest land mammals on earth. So they come with a view.

The private villas at Conrad Koh Samui (above) offer stunning views of the Gulf of Thailand.

It's two adults to an elephant—plus that driver, known as a mahout, who is busy using his feet to push on your ride's left ear to turn left, or right ear to turn right. Accelerator? Brakes? Not so much. But the elephants do understand vocal commands and are accustomed to carrying passengers. Which means guests tend to return to the hotel raving about their adventure.

Their favorite parts of the journey? Monkeys. Yes, there are monkeys, and plenty of them. In fact, the elephant caravan stops in a local village for a homegrown monkey show, in which villagers show off the indigenous long-tailed macaques that many of them keep as pets. The monkeys do tricks—for instance, climbing up palm trees and retrieving coconuts.

But the real highlight of the trek is a visit to one of the spectacular Na Muang waterfalls, two of the largest on the island. Once there, you can ogle the magnificent tumble of fresh water and swim in the pool at the base, or go into the water while still on the elephant. She'll gladly splash and play and even—if she's feeling frisky—slurp up some water and spray it on you. It's no day at the beach. In some ways, it's even better.

After exploring the lush jungle (right), take in the beauty of the Conrad Koh Samui infinity pool (above), or savor the ocean views from Jahn restaurant (below).