When I first started to research a holiday in Thailand a couple of years before going, I knew that supporting elephant conservation in the country had to be a part of our tour. The three-day jungle safari at Elephant Hills fit the bill – a stay at the comfortable oasis inside Khao Sok National Park that strives to educate visitors about the environment, elephant care, and local village life.
That said, Elephant Hills isn’t the most convenient place to get to – obviously, the hope is that the isolation will be both a deterrent for poachers and a large enough natural space in which the elephants will feel at home. We were picked up at 4:45am and taken to Bangkok airport for our flight to Phuket. Upon arriving, we were then bundled into a van with other guests and enjoyed the increasingly rural scenery during our three-hour transfer. For a country that many would classify as “emerging,” I was constantly amazed that things here run as efficiently and promptly as a Swiss watch. Upon arriving, we were served lunch in the open-air dining room overlooking the craggy mountains, then checked into the tent that would be our home for the next two nights. It was all very British-colonial-civilized-jungle-camp meets the Dirty Dancing east coast resort in the way that we were alternately plied with food and booze while keeping to a strict activities schedule. There are no televisions in the tents but there’s better 4G and faster wifi than in our house in England – go figure.
Elephant Hills Camp
Not really 'roughing it'
Hammocks on both side of the tent - comfy!
View from the road
Immediately after dropping our bags, it was elephant time! A small group of us were taken to a part of the elephant care center, where we learned about some of the residents (all females, ages 12 - 72!) and watched a few elephants play in the pond. Then we and the elephants were led to an area of concrete pads with water hoses and coconut husks next to them. Apparently the coconut husk is the elephant loofah of choice, though it might be an idea to weave several of them together to cover more area at once. We took turns scrubbing and rinsing our elephant, who seemed to be enjoying either the attention or the cool water.
Elephant Care Center
Close up scrubbing
Ok, you're clean
Back to camp for snacks
After bath time, it was snack time – we learned how to prepare the food for the elephants and fed them by hand. (This is the only tourist attraction I've been to where everyone was given a sharp cleaver. What would Health & Safety say?) We were warned that some of the elephants would only want to eat the sweet fruits and not the grasses or natural “medicine” pouch we had made for them. I didn’t experience that problem. My elephant was a fatty who greedily inhaled everything within trunk-distance, sometimes even her neighbor’s rejected food. It wasn’t much different than feeding my three Chihuahuas at home since the youngest one, being a whopping 15lbs mutant Chihuahua, always feels that he’s entitled to the food bowls of my two elderly girls. I think the elephants were probably easier to train. We then mingled with the elephants some more and they posed for pictures with us.
Making the elephant food
That's my arm, not a pineapple...
Pose with the tourists
Places like Elephant Hills were created after the Thai government banned the use of elephant labor in the logging industry in the 1990s. That was great news for the elephants but not for their handlers, called ‘mahouts,’ who usually stay with the same elephant all of their lives until one of them dies. It costs a lot of money to feed and house an elephant and, unfortunately, the government banned elephant labor without having a plan in place as to where these elephants would live, what they would do, or who would pay to feed them for the rest of their lives. We were shown films at the camp of emaciated elephants and their handlers begging on the streets of Bangkok because there was no work for them.
Elephant conservation experts from around the world stepped in to help the Thai government and non-profit partners create a more extensive network of safe park areas for the elephants to live, work, and breed. Yes, I mentioned work – these elephants are domesticated, intelligent, and trained to work – they cannot survive in the wild on their own. Deforestation has removed most of their habitat in Thailand and they must be constantly protected from international poaching rings. They are no longer subjected to the hard labor of the logging industry, but they still need activities to fill their days. That’s where tourist experiences like Elephant Hills are making a difference. Visitors like us are very happy to pay for one-on-one cuddle time with the elephants and to feed and bathe them. This model educates the general public while still giving the elephants a ‘job’ that earns money for their care. They are still very much ‘at work’ when the tourists are visiting. One woman expressed her displeasure at seeing the handlers lead the elephants with an elephant hook or by sitting behind their heads. We learned that neither practice is painful for the elephant when used correctly - it's like putting a leash on your dog to take him for a walk. This tourist-turned-elephant expert apparently thought that the elephants would just run up to her to be fed and allow her to wash them without stepping on her if the handlers weren’t there…
Our elephant time over, we walked a short distance to a river bank where men were waiting in canoes to paddle couples down the river and point out wildlife along the way. The scenery was lovely and serene and we were amazed at how our guide could point out snakes in trees – they would have bitten us before we’d seen them! I failed to either see the animal or photograph it before it ran away. We were rounded up and driven back to the camp, just in time for a shower, then cocktails and dinner followed by a documentary and local school children’s performance. It had been a loooong day. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow at 9pm.
We were up bright and early for breakfast the next morning, then off on a day-long adventure to the floating rainforest camp. We stopped by a local market in the town of Takhun along the way offering meat, produce, clothes, and any other goods the locals might need - including the fermented delicacy "Thousand Year" or "Century" eggs. We were encouraged to take photos of anything we were unfamiliar with and then show them to the guides for an explanation. I found plenty of things to ask about in the food market. It's worth noting that the baskets in the slideshow below are made specifically as offerings for Buddhist monks and are available in markets all over the country. The offerings can really stack up in large temples, so the monks will usually take a basket if they need it and donate the rest to charity. I was finally able to find the breezy elephant-print long trousers I had been looking for in other markets - a previous tour guide had told me that they are made specifically for tourists, the locals won't have them. I guess that means our previous market outings were VERY local!
Thai market slideshow
Pigs' heads and various bits
Nothing goes to waste
Lots of local produce
Fermented pink 'Thousand Year Eggs'
Offerings for Buddhist monks
We then went to a vista point near Ratchaprapha Dam maintained by the Thai electric company and took in the view of the man-made reservoir known also known as Cheow Lan Lake. The crystal blue water and limestone mountains made for breathtaking scenery. We had long-tail boats waiting for us at the pier, which took us on a beautiful tour of the lake en route to the rainforest camp (see more photos). Once we arrived at the floating camp, we were treated to a buffet lunch then decided to try our luck at a two-person kayak to look for wildlife around the lake. We had not ventured into a two-person kayak since the great kayak disaster of 2013 in St. Lucia. There are no waves on this lake, so we thought we’d be better at it this time. The kayaking was great, albeit HOT! After paddling around for a little while and not seeing any wildlife – but feeling as though we were the ones being watched from hidden eyes along the banks – we packed it in and went back to the camp for a swim. After getting cleaned up, it was time for our boat ride back to the pier, then to get the bus back to the jungle camp. Again, cocktails, dinner, cooking demonstration, documentary, and dance performances from local children before hitting the hay at an absurdly early hour.
Cheow Lan Lake
The Ratchaprapha Dam flooded the valley and created the lake.
Park overlooking the lake has a tribute to the recently deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej during the year-long mourning period.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej had been the longest-reigning monarch with a reign of 70 years.
Golden Buddha statue in the electric company's park
Boat ride on Cheow Lan Lake to the rainforest camp.
Beautiful clear water and limestone mountains.
Closer to the mountains
A few floating camps for tourists have been built on the lake.
The next morning we joined the jungle trek just behind the campsite, which again reassured me that I will never make it as a wildlife photographer. We saw how the locals tap trees for rubber. It was once a very profitable venture, now it doesn’t earn nearly as much of an income. We were treated to lessons on the local flora and fauna and fortunately did not see any snakes. We stopped for a coconut preparation demonstration (shucking, grating, making coconut milk) in a thatched hut, followed by a lunch of barbecued pork, which really hit the spot after a long walk. We returned to the camp, showered and packed our bags. Soon after we were saying our goodbyes and hitting the road again for the five-hour drive to the island of Koh Lanta!
Elephant Hills Trek
The river crossing is a raft and pulley system
Tapping a rubber tree for the latex industry
Massive tree roots!
Jungle kitchen for our barbecue and cooking demonstration
Pork bbq, it was yummy.
Grating coconut with a seated grating device
Baby bat having a daytime snooze