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When you live on a tiny tropical island, it’s going to the mainland that actually feels like a vacation. Which is why it was one of my highlights of 2016, way back at the beginning of it, to finally visit Khao Sok National Park.

Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

After a wine tour around Khao Yai, a weekend in Bangkok, and a getaway in Hua Hin, I’d finally arrived on last stop on my big winter trip around Thailand. After Hua Hin, Ian headed back to Koh Tao, and Janine tapped back in as my travel buddy. We’d only been apart for a few days but we were thrilled to be back on the road together, and excitedly reunited at the Surat Thani train station after an overnight rail journey on my part and an overnight boat ride on hers.

There, we were met by a driver who whisked us away to Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills. Spoiler alert: yup, there were real live elephants involved.

Elephant Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

I’d been itching to visit Khao Sok National Park for years — it’s a popular getaway among Koh Tao expats — and while there is a wide variety of accommodation there for all budgets, I’d always been drawn to Elephant Hills, arguably the most unique and luxurious option in the area.

Here, deep in the Thai mainland, luxury doesn’t mean a soul-less corporate chain hotel. Nope, it means a lovingly crafted safari tent perched alongside a lush river. Elephant Hills consists of two tented camps: Elephant Camp in the Khao Sok jungle, and Rainforest Camp floating on Cheow Lan Lake.

We were on the Jungle Lake Safari package, a three-day-and-two-night-tour with one night at each camp.

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Our tent, one of thirty-five that make up Elephant Camp, was stunning. Attention was paid to every detail, and we felt like we were on a true adventure safari. While the luxury tent concept is obviously wildly popular in Africa and catching on in other parts of the world as well — I’ve glamped in places as far flung as Peru and as local as Upstate New York — it’s fairly unique to Southeast Asia. In fact, Elephant Hills was the very first luxury tented camp in Thailand!

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Bathroom at Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Bathroom at Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Luxury Tented Camp at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephant Hills is more than just a place to lay your head at night. All visits there are part of comprehensive tour packages that include accommodation, all meals, activities, a tour guide, and most impressively, transfers to and from several of Southern Thailand’s most popular hot spots. The location combined with the convenient transfers make it the perfect stopover when hopping between Thailand’s two coasts.

While we had a busy itinerary of activities ahead, we were grateful that before lunch we had some down-time to lose it over the amazingess of our tent, gossip by the pool, and get excited about the days ahead.

Outdoor Shower at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Pool at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Pool at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Pool at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

At noon, we were summoned for a beautiful buffet lunch. Over several of our favorite Thai dishes, we chatted with both our tour guide and the other travelers who had made their way to Elephant Hills.

After lunch, it was time for our first adventure: a jungle river canoe trip down the Sok River. 

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

We were pumped to paddle our own canoes, but quickly adjusted to relaxation mode when we realized local river guides would be doing the heavy lifting. The water levels were very low — one of the guides told me they were just days away to switching to a further away rafting location — and so it was a very chill float.

That left all our energy to focus on the stunning scenery of limestone karsts in the background, and to be on the lookout for wildlife in the foreground. We didn’t spot much aside from some frogs and snakes, but I couldn’t get enough of the natural beauty of the area.

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

River Rafting at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

After, we’d make our way to the Elephant Hill’s namesake draw — it’s elephants! Canoeing was lovely, but let’s be real — we were all there for the pachyderms.

As we giddily piled into the decommissioned military vehicles that whisked us around Khao Sok, Janine and I could barely contain our elephant-induced excitement.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephants certainly aren’t hard to find in Thailand, but unfortunately ethical animal encounters are.

The tide is turning on the idea of tourists riding elephants. On my first trip to Southeast Asia in 2009, I cluelessly rode an elephant at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and found it fairly underwhelming — there was very little interaction with the animal to enjoy. In 2013, I visited Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where I learned about the cruel domestication system known as the phajaan which all elephants destined for riding must endure. Days of claustrophobic confinement and brutal beatings break the spirit of the elephant and the fear of pain it learns allows it to be ridden by tourists and perform tricks for the rest of its life. I knew then I’d never to ride an elephant again.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand
Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

I wasn’t alone. In 2014, Intrepid Tours announced they were no longer offering elephant rides on their tour itineraries. In 2016, a man was killed by a captive elephant on Koh Samui, and across the border at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, an elephant dropped dead of a heart attack after fifteen years of carrying tourists day in and day out (my heart broke wondering if I’d been among them.) Pressure from those incidents, among others, prompted Tripadvisor and their partner Viator to cease ticket sales for all elephant riding experiences. The same year, I attempted to find the elusive elephant in the wild by journeying to Khao Yai National Park, home of the largest remaining wild elephant population in Asia. While my mission wasn’t technically successful, it was an unforgettable adventure. But yet I stillcraved another elephant encounter.

And then I learned of Elephant Hills. Once upon a time they too offered elephant rides, as was standard for Southeast Asian tour companies. Yet in 2010, they made the drastic decision to cease riding entirely in their continuous efforts to create an experience as enjoyable for the elephants as it is for the guests. And what they designed is an interaction that is far more rewarding and respectful than simply sitting on an elephant’s back.

Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand
Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

We started with the way to any elephant’s heart — food. As hungry trunks poked around wooden pavilion  we were gathered in, we chopped up fruit, sugarcane, bamboo and other pachyderm favorites. Then, with the blessing of their mahouts, or trainers, we had the thrill of feeding them.

My favorite part? Aside from seeing and feeling the power and dexterity of those gorgeous trunks, it was seeing how each elephant really had their own preference when it came to snack time! My girl was a big fan of pineapple — I knew we were going to get along great.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand
Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Next, we gathered round and watched while the elephants played in the mud. This actually may have been one of my favorite parts of the day — just kicking back and watching the elephants do their thing the way they would in the wild.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Finally, it was bath time, and we scrubbed our muddy buddies down with coconut husks and hoses and squealed with joy as they used their trunks to rinse off their backs (just wait until you see the video!) One broke off for a five minute back scratch against a tree. We might have been following a well-coreographed itinerary, but the elephants were basically just doing their thing — and I loved it.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand
Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Finally, we gathered around to learn a little bit about the special relationship between mahout and elephant. All of the residents of Elephant Hills were rescued from either illegal logging operations (an industry banned in 1989 in Thailand) or cruel sectors of the “entertainment” industry. Rather than separate the elephants from the mahouts they know and trust, Elephant Hills offered these men and their families the opportunity to move to Khao Sok to continue working with their beloved animal companions.

While all the mahouts must adhere to certain standards set by the company, Elephant Hills also wanted to provide these men with some autonomy, which means that many of them still chose to ride the elephants at their necks and some use so-called “bull hooks” to steer the elephants. Purists may sneer at that choice and I have to admit that I didn’t love to see the hooks in use. But considering the alternatives, I’d say these are still some of the luckiest elephants in Southeast Asia.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

There are currently around just 3,000 wild elephants left in Thailand, with another 3,500 or so in captivity. Sadly, there just isn’t enough wilderness left in Thailand to provide home for those captive creatures, even if the country woke up tomorrow and decided to return them there. The outlawing of logging in 1989 effectively created a crisis of elephant unemployment, and tourism swooped in to provide for the enormous food bills these animals rack up. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of wrong turns on that road.

But we can course correct. Now that I myself have had my eyes opened, I plan to pass it on by participating in ethical elephant encounters and promoting them here on Alex in Wanderland. Elephant Hills has won awards for animal welfare and for conservation, and I applaud them for their continuous efforts to try to provide better lives for the elephants in their care — during my visit, I was shown plans for expanding the elephant’s private sleeping area, a project that guests won’t even get a peek at, but will make on crew of elephants pretty pleased.

While I’ve been a big proponent of Elephant Nature Park over the years, I am thrilled to also now have a positive elephant experience to recommend in Southern Thailand, for those who may not be making it all the way north to Chiang Mai.

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand
Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Feeding, washing, and interacting with Asia’s largest land animal? Yeah, I’d say that’s going to be a highlight of almost anyone’s year. Doing it with one of my favorite humans? Even better!

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Ethical Elephant Encounter at Elephant Hills, Khao Sok, Thailand

Back at Elephant Camp, we retreated to our tents to get ready for the evening entertainment. While we spent most of the night gossiping over a glass of wine, we did peek in and enjoy some of the numerous official offerings including nature documentaries, a cute traditional Thai dance performance by kids from the local school, and a Thai cooking demonstration (they post the menus online in case you had too much wine — er, have a bad memory.)

After another lovely meal we eagerly retired to our tent where we fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle and the memories of the elephants we’d met that day.

Stay tuned for our journey onward to Rainforest Camp! How important is it for you to find ethical animal encounters when you travel?

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I was a guest of Elephant Hills in order to write this review. As always, you receive my honest opinions and thorough recommendations regardless of who is footing the bill.
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Elephant Hills: An Ethical Elephant Experience in Thailand

Elephant Hills: An Ethical Elephant Experience in Thailand

Elephant Hills: An Ethical Elephant Experience in Thailand

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35 Comments...
  • Cate
    February 14 2017

    Oh my gosh this is my dream trip!! Other than lions and otters, elephants are my favorite animals. I love and appreciate how much ethical travel is important to you. This may sound stupid, but why are the elephants orange?
    Cate recently posted..Thoughts: Travel in the Age of Trump

    • Alex
      February 15 2017

      Not stupid at all — I think it’s the mud that they love to fling on themselves 🙂

  • Kate Storm
    February 14 2017

    Okay, this whole place looks amazing, but I have to admit that I’m mostly obsessed that giant baby who is scratching himself on a tree while eating. Be still, my heart. <3 <3
    Kate Storm recently posted..We Married Young & Are Still Traveling the World

    • Alex
      February 15 2017

      Such a cutie, right! Ugh, I loved them all so much.

  • stephanie
    February 14 2017

    I have been to Thailand twice but never got as south as Surathani I hope to visit Khao Sok National Park someday, because it looks nice.
    And arent elephants one of the most amazing animals?
    Love being around them 🙂
    x
    stephanie recently posted..Spotlight on: Songkran 2015 in Chiang Mai (Thai Newyear)

  • Janice
    February 14 2017

    Hi Alex, what an amazing experience. Can’t wait for part two!
    I can remember going on an elephant ride in Koh Sok back in 2007 and looking in the elephants eyes – I was reduced to tears. I felt that I could sense its experience of being trapped. As we climbed the mountain I became aware of how delicately and carefully an elephant travels on its journey. I also watched intently to see how the elephants were being treated, looking out for signs of ill treatment. This way is much better. It was interesting to hear your thoughts and feelings on the Mahouts and good to know that the company is working with them to provide a living for their families and to offer a safe place for the elephants to be. Hopefully as time goes on – they too will change their attitude to the way they interact with the elephants!

  • Krystle Olsen
    February 14 2017

    I really wanted to see elephants while we were in Thailand but we just didn’t have enough time to fit in a side trip up to Chiang Mai. If only I had known about Khao Sok… I guess it’s a good excuse to plan another trip 😉
    Krystle Olsen recently posted..Chasin’ Lavafalls with Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours

  • Dominique
    February 14 2017

    I love how well your peacock pants match nature when you’re in the wild 🙂

    I really enjoy reading these kind of posts because they are very good in raising awareness about ethical dealings with animals on travels! Elephants are such beautiful animals and they should be as free as possible to roam around without being too much of a tourist attraction!
    Dominique recently posted..Chamonix – A Village at the Foot of Mont-Blanc

  • Caroline Eubanks
    February 14 2017

    I met one of the folks with Elephant Hills at a tourism event a while back and am certainly adding them to a must-see for a trip back to Thailand!
    Caroline Eubanks recently posted..Behind the Curtain: February 2017

  • becky hutner
    February 14 2017

    THIS IS SO UP MY STREET. So glad to hear you’ll be covering more ethical animal experiences on AIW. I want to do them all!!

  • Kate - Travel for Difference
    February 14 2017

    This is amazing! It’s so important to encourage ethical animal and human connections. There are so many tourist attractions that are completely unethical and nothing more than exploitation. It’s incredible to find one that’s doing something good X
    Kate – Travel for Difference recently posted..15 INSPIRING SONGS THAT ENCOURAGE A BETTER WORLD

  • Jenn and Ed Coleman
    February 14 2017

    We just visited Elephant Hills in December (sorry for not getting back with you in Kho Tao) and we are putting the final touches on our story. You did a terrific job and it brought back great memories. I think we had the dirtiest elephant of the bunch to wash. What really amazed me is how timid we were with these guys. You get up close and wash them with a coconut husk but we were afraid to push to hard. Funny thing was he probably was thinking to himself – come on guys scratch harder – lol. Thanks for another fantastic article
    Jenn and Ed Coleman recently posted..Couple at Sunset Cliffs

  • Joanne the crazy woman
    February 14 2017

    As I read this I kept saying wow and hell yes so that shows I liked the post
    Joanne the crazy woman recently posted..History of Australian Aboriginals/Shelters

  • Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate
    February 15 2017

    ELEPHANT CAMP? THAT’S A THING? WHERE DO I SIGN UP?!

    Also, that looks like the sweetest little spot for a hotel ever. Take me here when I come visit?
    Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate recently posted..Falling for Nordic Skiing in Washington’s Methow Valley

  • Agness of eTramping
    February 15 2017

    Very important, Alex. Elephants are gentle giants and they’re cute.

  • ian
    February 15 2017

    I visited Elephant Nature Park and Khao Sok NP last year and both were highlights of my travels around SE Asia. I’d definitely like to see more of Koh Sok so this sounds like a perfect choice for a return trip – and the accommodation definitely looks a step up from the floating bungalow I stayed in on Cheow Lan Lake!
    ian recently posted..30 PLATES OF ASIAN FOOD TO DIE FOR

  • Loren Young
    February 15 2017

    I have been all over Thailand many times, and before I read this article I had already booked a 5 day all inclusive resort at Koh sok. I am staying at Koh sok paradise resort in a tree house ( with AC of course) this April as part of my multi-week vacation to Thailand that I take every year. I am looking forward to the national park, and I also am doing the jungle discovery package that even includes a night on a floating raft house. Your article makes me wish I was leaving tomorrow.

  • Neil | Joyfuljourneying
    February 15 2017

    Thanks for sharing your positive experience at elephant hills. One of the highlights of our trip to Chiang Mai was our trip to the Elephant Nature Park. It was a very moving experience! I’m still cringing from reading in your post that some of the mahuts still use those hooks. After having looked a full grown elephant in the eye, doing anything that hurts these beautiful noble creatures hurts my heart.
    Neil | Joyfuljourneying recently posted..Eating in Mexico’s Beach Towns in Riviera Maya and Riviera Nayarit

  • Therie
    February 16 2017

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Alex! Great to see many travelers supporting responsible wildlife encounters, this is such an eye-opening read about the conditions of elephants in captivity and even in the wild. Elephants are so adorable!

  • Megan | Red Around The World
    February 16 2017

    This looks so cool! And that’s awesome to know so many companies stopped offering tours with elephant rides! I heard a girl in a store telling someone her mom was going to Thailand to ride elephants and it took everything in me to not go tell her how horrible it was. Instead I angrily whispered it to my mom. That’s definitely something more people need to be aware of.
    Megan | Red Around The World recently posted..Hiking to Hidden Falls

  • Laura Bronner
    February 16 2017

    oh man, elephants are so magical! I visited a conservation center in Laos and it was so cool to learn all about them. This glamping setup looks seriously plush though!
    Laura Bronner recently posted..How One Blogger Earns Over $100,000 a Month While Traveling in an RV

  • selena
    February 16 2017

    This is Amazing! I love elephants so much, i’ve rode an elephant twice and balled my eyes out (happy tears) BOTH times! lol Your pictures are absolutely stunning too! can I ask what type of camera you used?

    Cant wait to see what other adventures you go on!

    -Selena
    selena recently posted..Kick-Start Monday Leg and Booty workout with meal plan!

  • Christy
    February 16 2017

    I very nearly booked a trip to elephant hills, until I read about them still using bull hooks and some other worrying trip advisor reviews. I’m going to stick to my morals and head north to Chiang Mai instead!
    Christy recently posted..Spectra 2017

  • Lisa // Fjords & Beaches
    February 17 2017

    Never been glamping, but THIS is going on the list! What an amazing time you’ve had! 🙂
    Lisa // Fjords & Beaches recently posted..5 Things Not to Miss in New Caledonia

  • That resort looks pretty sweet! Elephant Nature Park was definitely a highlight of my year, but I did not stay overnight as the rustic volunteer lodging is not my style. Glamping? This I could do!
    Leigh | Campfires & Concierges recently posted..Product Review: Ruffwear Palisades Pack

  • Amy
    February 17 2017

    Thailand has never really been on my list of must see places. Over the years of reading your wonderful words it has started to become and option…this article..Sold! ☺

  • Adam
    February 19 2017

    I’ll have to make Khao Sok a priority next time I’m in Thailand … that place looks amazing. Elephants are amazing creatures as well!

  • daniele kohn
    February 19 2017

    What a dream!

    I grew up visiting the elephants at the Bronx Zoo- until one died, and they felt the pack was too small for the social well being of the animals. They are very very special creatures. What an incredible experience.

  • Ashley
    February 19 2017

    This looks so amazing! I wish I’d known about it when I visited Khao Sok, but all the more reason to revisit!
    Ashley recently posted..When Your Life Has an Expiry Date

  • Sarah
    February 20 2017

    Your trip looks beautiful but I’m afraid your elephant encounter was not ethical at all. The men in the photos are holding bull hooks which are used to painfully stab the elephants in order to keep them in line. You are sending the wrong message to your readers to support a place like that.

    • Alex
      February 20 2017

      Hi Sarah, did you read the post and my explanation of the bull hooks? I’m not trying to be rude and you are entitled to your opinion either way, but from your comment I can’t quite tell if you read that portion of the post or not, so you might be interested in the background I gave.

      • Sarah
        February 21 2017

        Yes, I did read the post and do not think what you wrote is a justification of the treatment. In addition to the bullhook, they are pulling the elephant’s ears which are highly sensitive. This is a constant reminder to them who is in charge, similar to how a slave would be treated. There is no excuse to tolerate any abuse of these beautiful animals. Especially just for the selfish desire to interact with them for our own pleasure.

        That said, I have visited Elephant Nature Park and that is the only organization I have seen that is worthy of visiting. It is most definitely worth the trip to Chiang Mai.

        Tourists have to take a stand against this treatment and refuse to support those that don’t do what is 100% best for the elephant. They are not all from the logging industry. They are still being hunted and their families murdered just so that the locals can thrive off of the tourism. I understand that you think this organization is better than others but it isn’t as good as it should be. If you care enough to want to see elephants in the wild then you should care enough not to promote a place like this. Regardless of what they compensate you with!

  • Kimberley
    February 21 2017

    I have to agree with Sarah. It’s a great step forward that they no longer allow tourists to ride elephants – however the fact that mahouts are still riding them using hooks is still not acceptable.

    Have you heard of the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai? The owner Lek is doing some great work to encourage mahouts to cease using hooks and chains.

    • Alex
      February 21 2017

      Hey Kimberly, did you read through the post? Not trying to be snarky, but I wrote pretty extensively about Elephant Nature Park within it (and yes, have visited myself), so I can’t be sure — it’s really hard to respond to comments where I’m not sure if the actual post has been read.

  • Eleanor
    February 21 2017

    Thanks for this -whenever I see anything about Thailand and elephants, I automatically think the worst, so it is good to see that you went to a kinder park and was honest about your first experience. I of course agree that the use of bull hooks is something that we would very much want to abolish, but I feel keeping the elephants with their trainers is actually a good approach (if there is a good relationship between the pair) for both the livelihood of the rider and in helping to facilitate the elephant feeling safe in their new environment. The canoe trip, resort and whole experience looks incredible!
    Eleanor recently posted..Review | Nutrition and Wellbeing Course

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