One of the most popular requests we get from our clients travelling to Thailand is an elephant experience. It’s one of the best countries to get up close and personal with these beautiful creatures and it’s no wonder that so many wish to make it part of their Thailand adventure. However, with so much in the news recently about the importance of ethical animal interaction, and the increasing rejection of elephant riding, how do you make sure that you’re taking part in a cruelty-free experience?
Enter Elephant Hills Tented Jungle Camp, an ethical and sustainable luxury tented camp in the stunning and remote Khao Sok National Park. Home to retired logging elephant of all ages, this elephant camp is one of the few in the world that is completely chain-free, and has been recognised for its efforts by the likes of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and National Geographic. I was lucky enough to spend two nights here recently and I wanted to give you an idea of what you can do across 48 hours at this wonderful place.
Be prepared for an early start! We were met by the Elephant Hills staff at Phuket airport around 8.30am. However, be prepared to start as early as 6.30am, dependent on where you’re staying beforehand. The Elephant Hills camps are deep in Khao Sok National Park, with at least a two-and-a-half hour drive through winding rural lanes. I found this to be so comfortable and scenic, so see it as part of your experience!
Our driver picked us up directly from our hotel and gave us water and a little packet of nuts for our journey. As part of their effort towards sustainability, Elephant Hills have stopped giving out plastic bottles of water, and now each guest is presented with a metal water bottle which they can use throughout their stay.
We arrived at Elephant Hills at around 11am, and went straight into an orientation with one of the guides to help you get used to your surroundings. You immediately feel at ease, with an explanation of the camp itself and a debrief on the rest of the day’s activities. We had time to drop our bags at our tent and freshen up a little, before enjoying a buffet lunch cooked by local villagers. This is the time to get to know your fellow campers, as you will eat, drink and take part in all of the activities communally for the next two days. I found this was also a great opportunity to take in the landscape around me, as it really does feel like something out of Jurassic Park!
After lunch, we were split into two groups and spent the afternoon taking part in two activities. First, we took a bus to the river and jumped onto a canoe with a local guide, who floated us through mangroves and propelled us round with his paddle to make sure we could see the towering karsts around us. Our guide took us off of the main track and we soon found ourselves alone among the trees. This was great, as it really added to the ‘wild’ experience. These guides are all local villagers, as Elephant Hills tries, where possible, to employ those who call the national park their home. Because of this, you may find the English language skills of any non-rangers is patchy at best, but this just increases the charm of your surroundings.
Next, we were taken to where the elephants reside – the main event for many visitors. While the name Elephant Hills suggests you spend all your time with these animals, it isn’t actually the case. You will only spend a couple of hours with them on the afternoon of your first day. However, this is more than enough time and it demonstrates Elephant Hills’ mission to put animal welfare first, which I really admired. Over the next hour or so, we watched the elephants frolic in the water (at the time of visiting, the lake had flooded, and as you can see, the elephants loved the extra water!), helped to scrub and bathe them, prepared their food and fed them snacks. Throughout these interactions, the guides and mahouts (each elephant has one of these and they are like a human guardian that stays with the elephant at all times) spoke to us, and told us all about each elephant. By the end of the activity, we really felt like we knew them all! Each one is completely free to do as it pleases, so if one decides they don’t want a bath, or isn’t hungry, they’re left to their own devices.
Our first evening was spent back at Elephant Hills camp. We headed back to the main camp to freshen up, before joining everyone else in the main dining area. First, we watched a documentary all about the Asian elephant, how they have been used in Thai traditions throughout the years and how the ban on logging left many elephants begging on the streets or forced into the circus trade. It’s so important to understand the position the elephant has in this country, and this informed us perfectly! After this, we were treated to a traditional dance performance by local school children, ranging from the age of four to around nine. I’ve been to Thailand four times and have never seen anything so humbling.
Before dinner, we all gathered for a cooking demonstration, where we were taught how to make one of the dishes on the menu that evening, a delicious curry. We got to smell and taste all of the local spices and ingredients, and had little tasters with our evening buffet.
As the darkness drew in (and the bugs came out!), we retreated to bed early. The early start and the day’s activities had really worn us out, and we wanted to get a good sleep, ready for our second day in the national park.
There are many different packages at Elephant Hills that you can partake in while in Khao Sok National Park, but our favourite is the Rainforest/Lake Safari combination, as you get to stay in their incredible floating camp. After a hearty breakfast, we boarded a bus that first took us to a local market and then to a scenic viewpoint. Seeing so much fresh food on display, with locals haggling for the best deal, was a very different experience to a hectic supermarket shop in the UK!
Once we’d picked up snacks and refreshments and taken some photos at the viewpoint, we hopped in a traditional longtail boat and headed out onto the lake. The team encourage you to take a small daypack with overnight things, while leaving your big bags and plastics behind, and you soon see why. The lake is breathtaking, with turquoise waters and pure jungle. It was the most exhilarating ride to the floating camp!
On arrival, we were shown to our floating tent and again enjoyed a buffet lunch, before exploring our surroundings. There was a family of gibbons in the trees just behind the camp, and the guides handed out binoculars so we could spot them amongst the leaves. We then decided to head out on kayaks independently, where we spotted more gibbons, macaques and even came across locals fishing for catfish with their bare hands! It was such a unique afternoon and I completely fell in love with our location. Alternatively, you can take a guided trek to some caves and around the jungle to spot the flora and fauna. My advice for your night on the lake is to get an early one, as you’ll have an early start the following day…
We were woken up at around 5am to the wild monkeys calling to each other and marking their territory. I can’t explain how loud, or enchanting, this sound is. It echoes all around you and it’s incredible to sit out on your terrace and watch the sun rising over the trees and the mist hanging over the water.
The journey back to the main camp, and then onwards to your next adventure, is always going to be bittersweet. You may crave the luxury of a hotel, and the comfort of a huge king-sized fluffy bed, but you’re also leaving some of the most beautiful scenery, and memorable experiences behind you. Include Elephant Hills on your next holiday to Thailand and I promise you, you won’t be disappointed!