06 Sep An unforgettable experience: Elephant Hills, Thailand
Ever since we came back from Elephant Hills and Rainforest Camp I’ve been trying to come up with the words I need to use to make this experience justice. At some point I understood that there’s no way I can show you exactly what makes these places so exceptional. It’s like being witness of such a spectacular sunset that you try and try to capture it with your camera, until you realize that anything you say, or as many photos as you take, they will never be enough to capture exactly why that moment is so magical. I’m definitely gonna try though. Because, truly, this is one of the most special experiences we’ve had in Thailand and I can’t wait to share it with you.
The problem with Elephants in Thailand
The bottom line is that when elephants are used for rides, shows, or performances, they need to be broken down first. The methods for doing this often include taking baby elephants away from their mothers, systematic torture, and starvation, to name just a few.
It may also come as a surprise but elephant’s backs are not as strong as they seem. Riding them with a chair on their backs, often for hours a day can cause them serious damage.
Until a ban in 1989 elephants were used to haul timber by the logging industry. Prohibiting this was supposed to be a step in the right direction. However, new problems arose. At this point, only about 15% of Thailand’s forests remained. Certainly not enough to house the entire elephant population. Sadly, most domesticated elephants couldn’t be freed into the wild.
Elephant owners now faced the difficulty of feeding these huge animals. Elephants need at least 200kg of food everyday in order to survive. And without the logging industry, both mahouts and elephants were left unemployed. This is when unethical tourist practices were born. Elephant owners began using them as attractions in order to raise money- working them with no respite, chaining them so they couldn’t move at all, starving them, torturing them, and keeping them away from other elephants.
Camps like Elephant Hills were created as a sustainable and ethical solution to help support both mahouts and elephants, without the nasty practices. They provide a safe home for elephants while also giving tourists a unique encounter with them.
When we learned that Elephant Hills was awarded the Thailand Green Excellence Award 2015 in the category “Animal Welfare”, ranking Elephant Hills as the most animal friendly elephant camp in all of Thailand, we knew that it was the place to go.
We were picked up at our hotel in Phuket and driven to Elephant Hills. The ride was 3.5 hours in a comfortable air-con van. Once in Elephant Hills we were welcomed by Win, our guide, who proved to be an exceptional, kind, and friendly guide throughout our stay. After a brief rundown of the itinerary we were given the key to our tent!
I’ve never been glamping before and I don’t know if this can be considered as such, but for the sake of the post (and because I just want to say that I’ve gone glamping) lets just assume it was. Our tent was bigger than I expected, with two chairs and two hammocks outside. Reading in those hammocks? Yes, please!
Inside it was cozy, safari-esque, spacious, with a big private bathroom, and completely covered by mosquito nets. The cutest touch were the small elephant details all around the tent, like the light switches and the figurines left on our pillow (chocolates would’ve melted in a nanosecond).
Soon after we jumped (literally) on the bed, three continuos gongs announced lunch. It was a Thai buffet with a few Western dishes. They gave us the option of vegetarian food so we took it, and it was always curry with vegetables and rice. The food wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great either.
Canoeing Sok River
After lunch it was time for our first adventure: canoeing down the Sok River. For this activity, a local guide takes you for approx.1.5 hours down the river. What a trip. The scenery is amazing: Khao Sok National Park as a backdrop, limestone cliffs towering towards the sky, all blanketed by the greenest vegetation.
Hello, heart of the rainforest!
Back on land, we jumped into the van as it was time for the activity everyone was most excited about: spending some quality time with the elephants. The park is home to 12 elephants that have been rescued from the logging industry. Here they roam freely, they’re treated kindly, and guests are not allowed to ride them.
When we arrived, two of the elephants were taking a bath in their mud pool, splashing around and melting our hearts. Afterwards, we got to scrub them clean with coconut fibers, while the elephants ate their weight in sugar cane. I was a bit scared at first, they are huge! But as I stepped closer I felt more at ease. Cleaning her was super fun. We first splashed her with buckets of water, then we scrubbed, then we splashed again. It was way better than being on a chair on her back without actually getting to interact with her. I talked to her a bit, looking into one of her big eyes, and it was perfect.
Once they were nice and clean, it was time for lunch- theirs not ours. We learned how to prepare a basket full of elephant delicacies: we chopped pineapple, bananas, sugar cane, grass, corn, and a vitamin consisting of a tamarind ball covered in rice, and sea salt, then wrapped in banana leaf.
Time to feed these beautiful giants!
This was my favorite part of the whole elephant experience. I had fits of laughter trying to feed them. I quickly realized that, just like babies, they prefer the sweet stuff. When I tried to feed our elephant grass, she took it with her trunk and proceeded to spit it right out, then hold up her trunk again asking for something else- ideally pineapple or banana.
Her mahout was also laughing at us, especially at me, when the elephant’s trunk got really close to my face and I got a little (ok, a lot) scared.
All too soon it was time to leave, and we said goodbye to these gentle and magestic creatures.
But there were still activities to look forward to. Before the sunset, I got cozy on my hammock and read a few chapters, cuz you know that those are exactly the kind of moments I love.
Before dinner, there was a papaya salad cooking demo that we got to eat afterwards. The salad ended up being super spicy, hence really good. After dinner we went back to our tent to take a shower, read some more, and get excited about the floating camp the next day-which turned out to be the highlight of the trip.
Stay tuned for our Elephant Hills part II post: Rainforest Floating Camp.
What do you think of the elephant tourism in Thailand? What about places like Elephant Hills? Would you visit someday? Talk to me on the comment section below.