A lot of people have things they love. One of mine is animals. Lee and I are a little animal mad. We have been going to zoos for years but as we’ve got older they seem crueller and crueller so now that we are travelling we are taking the opportunity to give back and visit some places that are helping animals.
One of these places was Elephant Hills in Thailand. I remember researching elephant experiences in Thailand and was extremely upset with the results. Most let you ride the elephants which isn’t something that should happen. Elephants have to be controlled when members of the public ride them and this normally requires bull hooks and violence. I don’t know if you’ve ever actually seen a bull hook but it’s not a pleasant piece of equipment. They also have to keep the elephants quite subdued to stop attacks as when you aren’t riding them they are chained up all day, so the elephants are normally on a restrictive diet that isn’t very good for them. Anyone I spoke to that had rode elephants wasn’t happy with the experience and felt they’d put money towards a bad organisation.
I was torn. There was no way we would go to a place that treated their animals badly but the selfish part of me really wanted to see them. That’s when I stumbled upon Elephant Hills.
Elephant Hills is an organisation that was established after the Thai government decreed that elephants couldn’t be used for labour anymore. This sounds like a good thing but unfortunately they didn’t make a law to say that these logging companies and building companies that were using elephants couldn’t kill them once they didn’t need . The government’s good intentions were turned on their head as Thailand witnessed many elephants being killed for no good reason. Luckily organisations like Elephant hills stepped in and gave as many young elephants as possible homes.
The difference between this company compared to most companies that deal with elephants is that you can’t ride them. In fact the only people that ride the elephants are the allocated rider that the elephant bonds with at birth. This rider is named a mahout and is bonded with their elephant for life. They communicate through a special language that they have established over many years and it was a joy to see unchained elephants run happily to their mahout for attention.The atmosphere here was so far from a zoo that it was a joy to be there.
The Elephant Hills experience is amazingly a lot more than just the elephants. We were picked up from Surat Thani airport and driven the 5 hours (Epppp) to Elephant Hills. During the long drive we did question our decision but as soon as you got close to the national park we were blown away. Everyone in the small mini bus was glued to their windows. The towering mountains around us had grey clouds floating at their peaks. Giant palm trees were everywhere and you felt you were really part of the jungle.
When we arrived at the site we were presented with a fizzy apple drink and given our free shirts and keys. The staff were noticeably kind and extremely knowledgeable. Many have been working there for a number of years and have a background in zoology.
We were a little bit worried about the out door camping but we shouldn’t have been. Our tent was nicer than most hotels we’ve stayed in. This luxury tent (or glamping as my younger sister informed me) had an indoor bathroom with running water and shower as well as plug points, lights and a kettle. There were many details and extras in the room such as fresh flowers on our arrival and elephant candle keepsakes to welcome us.
The elephant park is a drive away from the tents and is a huge open area with a vast amount of space. The elephants towered around us, intrigued and excited to see the new arrivals. We were given a packed lunch and a safety lesson before we went to prepare the elephants lunch.
Each person cut up the food they would be giving to the animals including sugar canes, bananas, courgettes and melons. The man in charge was attentive and excitable. It was easy to see he loved his job. He came around and told us a little about each elephant and it was easy to distinguish each one since their personalities shone through. The younger ones were fantastic to feed since they were so fussy. Give them something didn’t like and it would be thrown away. If you ran our of their favourite they weren’t above stealing it from another persons basket. The older ones would sigh (did you know elephants sigh!?) and eat the healthier left over’s or hold their trunk out until the younger ones gave them the tasty treats.
One of the best parts of the day was meeting Haha, a small extremely excited baby elephant with a mop of ginger hair. His mother was chained by the foot (only when outsiders came for the hour of the day). This is because guests were near her baby. I was a bit skeptical when I saw the chain but she didn’t seem to mind at all. In fact she seemed to be enjoying a bit of peace and quiet and kept shooing the baby towards the guide. It was such a different experience to a zoo to see this excited baby run towards our guide and almost dance to get his attention just so he’d play with him. Haha loved investigating the new visitors. I got a little hug of his trunk.
After introductions and the elephant’s lunch they were allowed to go for a swim. Just watching these huge beasts roll around in the mud, spraying each other and relaxing was incredible. Be warned that the younger elephants will try their best to spray you.
We washed them with coconut husks and cold water. It was a bizarre feeling to be almost having a conversation with an elephant. I’d be scrubbing her leg until she would lift the other one or use her trunk to show me where to clean. Looking in the eyes of an animal like that close up was something I’d waited to do my whole life. It was an experience I will never forget. By the end of the day it was safe to say that I was willing to move to that part of the jungle forever.
We (very begrudgingly) said our goodbyes to the elephants and headed to camp. The rest of the night was filled with local school children dancing traditional dances (each local school is paid grants by the camp and takes turns coming to visit), an all you can eat buffet of Thai curries and pad thai and a cooking lesson where we learned the Thai secrets of a panang curry. We met some lovely people and stayed up till the wee hours listening to the jungle around us and talking about the day. The bar is open late but most people were so tired they headed to bed (there was only 4 of us left at 10pm). Considering you are in the middle of the jungle it’s surprisingly affordable. Our evening was interrupted by a few creatures such as a snake that had to be removed (even though it was harmless) and the largest toad I’ve ever seen. It was fantastic.
The next day was our jungle trek and cruise down the river. We were allocated a guide who became Lee’s hero. If there was ever a more manly man I’d be surprised. This guy would put Bear Grylls to shame. He carried a machete on his back and could steer our boat like it was second nature to him. As we sailed down the river the jungle surrounded us. He told us about his history and the creatures he’s seen. He swooped us around at one point to show us a large lake lizard as well as a snake up in the tree that no one else spotted. Once we reached our destination we trekked through the trees and exotic plants. It was muddier that anywhere I’ve ever been and it felt as though we were kids again, exploring the world around us. We saw how locals tapped the trees for rubber as well as found a spider that was only discovered to exist five years ago.
Once we reached our destination the heavens opened and we saw the incredible way the rain forest absorbs the weather. We could hear the rain above but only a spattering made its way through the canopy. In our little rest spot our guide used his machete skills to open a coconut and unpacked his backpack to reveal all the ingredients to cook us lunch. He made a fire and cooked the best curry I’ve ever tasted. All of which was served in coconut shells and banana leaves, you can see now why he was Lee’s hero. He did try to convince us that we were eating monkey meat. No one was convinced (apart from Lee who exclaimed ‘really?’ even though he will deny it)
We headed back for another night and fell straight to sleep before our heads hit the pillow. Most guests were gone before we woke on the third day since we were only part of the 2 day package. Unfortunately the cost of this place is expensive but when you consider it includes travel, food, excursion and a luxury tent it is definitely worth it. We regretted not paying extra and staying longer.
It was muddier than any place I’ve ever been, rainier than even Wales and in the middle of no where but somehow easily the best few days I’ve ever had.
If you want to experience the jungle, elephants and Thailand then this is the place to go.