The wild side of Phuket
Sunset over a beach in Thailand.
After serenading me with a harmonica, the elephant makes his move and plants a giant sloppy kiss on my neck.
I'd been warned I could see some surprising sights in Phuket, but this was going to take some beating.
The elephant flaps his ears happily as his owner smiles and pats him.
Hoping to earn a few baht from the increasing number of tourists who visit Thailand's largest island each year, entertainers line the jungle-fringed roads which lead to many of Phuket's major hotels.
But novelty street shows are only part of the attraction here. Long palm tree-lined white sandy beaches, along with picture-postcard emerald waters, make this a tropical paradise. Phuket really does look as stunning as the pictures you see in the brochures and magazines.
I've come here seeking a relaxing break, but I'm keen to see as much of the local wildlife as possible. Fortunately, animal encounters are a recurring theme during our stay on the island. We don't even have to step foot outside the hotel to come face to face with jungle inhabitants.
The manager of the upmarket Paresa resort, our first stop, tells us that guests have found monkeys taking an early morning dip in the infinity pools at one of the hotel's private villas.
Secluded and with spectacular views over the Andaman Sea, I can see why the mischievous creatures might want to make this their home. Designed in an understated style and built around several Banyan trees, the resort blends gently into its surroundings.
Sadly no monkeys come to visit my pool, but I do see a few swinging through the trees on my way to breakfast.
Keen to experience more of the local flora and fauna, I book a tour on a John Gray Sea Canoe Experience out to the islands of Phang Nga Bay, arranged through the hotel.
A short cruise on a traditional longtail boat takes us out to the bay, giving us a chance to catch a few sun rays up on deck. The next thing we know, kayaks are being thrown over the side.
The guides show us how to paddle and steer the canoes before gently leading us around the remote islands. We paddle slowly, in absolute silence, over-awed by the impressive limestone cliffs.
It isn't long before we have our first wildlife viewing. One monkey puts on quite a show for us, clambering over rocks and branches, pausing to pose for pictures, before scrambling high up in the trees to join the rest of his family.
Before heading back to the boat for a Thai lunch, we take an opportunity to dive into the warm emerald green water. It's difficult to drag myself back on board, but the smell of spicy curries kicks my appetite into action.
That afternoon, we climb back into our canoes and head for one of the many hidden caves in the area.
Led by torchlight, we follow our guide's canoe into one of the caves. It's a thrilling experience and I feel shivers run up and down my spine as the temperature drops and we are plunged into darkness.
"Watch out for bats overhead," warns our guide, eliciting gasps of fear from some members of our group.
People seem much more enthused by the idea of playing with magical bioluminescent plankton glowing in the water like electric sparks.
Any preconceptions I'd had about Thailand being "nothing but a beach holiday" are quickly dismissed. Yes, there is plenty of opportunity to work on a suntan, but anyone seeking action-packed adventure can find it quite easily here, too.
Back on land, we find plenty of adrenaline-pumping ways to amuse ourselves. Booked through Phuket ATV Tour, we take a quad bike ride through mud and rubber plantations and even into local villages.
Sweat dripping from our brows, we need a way to cool off - and quickly. The flying fox zip wire is an ideal solution. Skimming over a lake, our toes almost dipping in the water and wind rushing through our hair, we're left instantly refreshed.
With good safety briefings provided by the company, both activities are suitable for adults and children.
Phuket is becoming an increasingly family friendly destination, with many hotels now actively catering to younger guests.
One such property is Centara Grand, where we spend the remainder of our stay on the island. Situated on a secluded patch of Karon Beach, the five-star resort has a good choice of pools and restaurants, along with tennis courts, a fitness centre and spa offering a number of luxurious treatments.
An active kids' club hosts children aged four to nine, keeping them entertained with a daily activity programme. For guests above 10 years old, there is a separate games area and playground. Adults, meanwhile, can either relax on the beach or take advantage of various classes on offer.
I opt for the latter, and am proud to say I can now cook the perfect Thai green curry from scratch. My efforts are definitely impressive, although I did go a little overboard with the chilli - even by Thai standards!
After watching a classic pink Thai sunset, we spend most evenings exploring the nearby night markets. When we have enough energy, we make the journey to Patong, where most of Phuket's infamous beach parties take place.
Unable to party all night though, we settle for a visit to some of the lively bars, where entertainers perform some very interesting tricks!
There's nothing to compare to the harmonica-playing elephant I'd encountered on my first day, but this is arguably wildlife of a different sort.
From pulse-racing activities to extraordinary sights, Phuket exceeds my expectations in so many ways.
Key facts - Phuket, Thailand
:: Time to go: December to March have the best weather for tourists.
:: Don't miss: The John Gray Sea Canoe Experience which offers a variety of trips to a number of islands. For more information visit www.johngray-seacanoe.com.
:: Need to know: Shoulders and knees should be covered and shoes removed before entering temples.
:: Don't forget: Beachwear and lots of sun lotion!
Emma Sword travelled to Bangkok with Travelbag.
Travelbag has six nights at the 5-star Centara Grand Beach Resort in Phuket (staying on a B&B basis) and four nights at the 5-star Paresa Resort (staying on a B&B basis) from £1,529 per person including flights with Vietnam Airlines from London Gatwick to Bangkok and Air Asia to Phuket. Book by 31 November, for travel between 1 November and 8 December.
To book call 0871 703 4240 or visit www.travelbag.co.uk