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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 still craved 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.
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.
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.
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! One broke off for a five minute back scratch against a tree. We might have been following a well choreographed itinerary, but the elephants were basically just doing their thing — and I loved it.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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?
Not stupid at all — I think it’s the mud that they love to fling on themselves 🙂
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
Such a cutie, right! Ugh, I loved them all so much.
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 🙂
Oh man, they truly are! My two experiences with them in Thailand have been SO rewarding. Here’s hoping more and more tourism groups adopt these ethical practices!
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!
I hope so as well. I think that change in these areas often comes slowly and we need to always be careful about swooping in and telling other cultures how to change — I prefer a gradual changing of the hearts and minds over a forced move, even if it can go slower than we’d hope.
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 😉
Exactly! I’m really excited to recommend this option to those looking for an ethical alternative to elephant rides in Southern Thailand.
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!
Ha, thank you Dominique, you know how important my legging fashion is to me 😉
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!
They are super pro-active in promoting tourism to Khao Sok — they do great work! Definitely add ’em to your list!
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!!
We shall see, Becky! As you can see from the comments here, they can be a controversial topic and everyone has a different idea of where to draw the line. I dread controversy but I will try to keep challenging myself to write about things that I feel in my heart are good.
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
Indeed! Thailand, sadly, is rife with cringe-worthy animal attractions. I should know — I made a lot of bad decisions about several of them when I was a new, naive traveler. It’s always such a relief to find those that are moving in the right direction.
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
Ha ha, Janine was kind of nervous too if I recall correctly. I was just like, yeah let’s get in there with this coconut husk! I was thinking of how much I love a loofah scrub down — lucky elephants getting one every day!
As I read this I kept saying wow and hell yes so that shows I liked the post
Ha ha, that is indeed a compliment 🙂
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?
I’d go back in a heartbeat!
Very important, Alex. Elephants are gentle giants and they’re cute.
Absolutely! It is such a gift to spend time with them!
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!
Definitely — this would be a great combination of those two highlights!
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.
That sounds amazing Loren. Isn’t it lovely that you can come back to Thailand over and over and still find new things to see and do! I know I still am!
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.
Elephant Nature Park is an amazing place and my time there was one of the highlights of my travels. I didn’t like seeing the bull hooks either, but I am happy to applaud steps in the right direction while Thailand learns to take a gentler approach to their national animal.
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!
Thanks Therie! It’s always super rewarding to hear from travelers who have made a more sustainable choice based on something you’ve written — definitely makes it all worth it!
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.
I definitely used to find it super awkward to hear travelers here in Thailand talk about their elephant riding aspirations — over the years, I’ve found a pretty laid-back way to approach it and suggest alternatives. It’s tricky and the setting isn’t always right, but I remind myself they won’t know what’s up until someone tells them!
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!
Awesome! What was the name of the one in Laos? I’ve been wanting to go back there for years.
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!
Hey Selena! You can find all about my cameras on my obsessions page. I hope you’ll consider checking out one of the non-riding experiences I’ve shared here on Alex in Wanderland… having tried both, I feel that these more ethical experiences are SO much more rewarding for an animal lover! Happy travels.
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!
Hey Christy! Elephant Nature Park is an amazing choice — you will love it. I think this is a great alternative for those in Southern Thailand that is moving in the right direction, but I understand everyone draws their line differently.
Just awesome, Thailand is one fun country and the people are so nice you can not help but have fun. That looks like a great excursion!
It was indeed Robert. Thanks for reading!
Never been glamping, but THIS is going on the list! What an amazing time you’ve had! 🙂
Seriously the most beautiful trip! Thanks for commenting Lisa!
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!
I was also tempted to stay overnight at Elephant Nature Park but was running around on a crazy schedule at the time. Still might convince myself to do it, one day 🙂
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 an option…this article..Sold! ☺
Love it Amy! See you here then 😉
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!
I’ve gotten very into Thailand’s National Parks lately. So many awesome opportunities to celebrate nature!
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.
Wow, I never knew that about the Bronx Zoo… I went there a few times in college but I can’t remember if they had any elephants there or not. I’ll have to look into it!
This looks so amazing! I wish I’d known about it when I visited Khao Sok, but all the more reason to revisit!
Always happy to provide reasons to return to Thailand 😉
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.
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.
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!
Hey Sarah, I think everyone has to draw their own line on this one and I respect that yours is a little further over than mine. Elephant Nature Park is an amazing place. For so many reasons, I don’t believe it’s a model that can or will be replicated in wide scale across Thailand — though of course I’d love to be proved wrong. In the meantime, I’m trying to give kudos to a place that I think is making huge steps in the right direction.
I can assure you that a two night trip is not enough to compromise my morals, as you seem to insinuate.
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.
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.
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!
Hey Eleanor, thank you! You and I definitely seem to see eye to eye on this. I think it’s important to applaud small steps in the right direction, especially in a place like Thailand where tradition is hard to break.
Fantastic post! I would not have thought of KHAO SOK as a great destination but your photos are the proof. Thanks for sharing this amazing post.
Thank you for reading, Beno!
Wow, I feel like I could live vicariously just through your photos. Loved this post!
Thanks so much Cez! Glad you enjoyed it!
Love this!!! I definitely need to go there, when I have been to Thailand backpacking before I made sure to go to an ethically friendly Elephant sanctuary and they do such good work!
Kudos Alex! Hopefully by spreading these painful facts about the elephant entertainment industry, we can inspire more travelers to do a bit of research as well!
Hi Alex, thanks for posting about this, looks beautiful! Have you heard about BLES – Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary? I wanted to go there, but they book up months in advance and didn’t have availability when I was in Thailand. I did do an overnight at Elephant Nature Park and loved it (and was very surprised at how nice the accommodations were!). I would love to see you visit BLES and hear more about it 🙂
Hey Noel! I have heard of Boon Lott’s in passing but I have not been there myself or done any research on it. I will take a look! Thank you!
Elephants are so beautiful, and I’m really glad that you inform your readers about the horrible process of breaking their soul, a.k.a Phajaan.
I’ve been to the Elephant nature park in Chiang Mai, but I’m glad to see other places where the elephants are being treated well. When we visited the Elephant Nature Park, we could hear Elephants from nearby camps screaming in pain, it was so heart-breaking.
Let’s hope that the enlightenment continues and that more tourists become aware of animal cruelty. Not just with Elephants, but for all animals! 🙂
Cheers to that! I love seeing bloggers write about these topics… it’s only through the spread of information that the desire for elephant riding will dry up!
WOW! That seems like a lovely experience! We’re aiming to visit Thailand for the fist time this August. Is it advisable for first-timers?
Absolutely! It’s definitely perfect for connected destinations on the East and West coast — if you’re going to Phuket and Koh Samui, pop a few days here inbetween and you’ll get your transportation totally taken care of!
I was really worried ahead of reading this post that there would be elephant-riding involved, but I’m glad to be proven wrong! I even love what you said about your own experience riding an elephant and coming to the realization of how wrong it is. I’m not crazy about seeing those guys on the elephants still, but I know every change has to start somewhere, and it does seem like this place is on the right path. Hopefully they can step up their game more. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that you eventually get to see a wild elephant in its natural environment. I was lucky enough to see several during a safari in South Africa, and the experience truly cannot compare.
I hope that for myself someday too, Marni! I would absolutely go back and camp at Khao Yai again in an attempt to see them here in Thailand, though chances are certainly lower than in South Africa.
Seems like a perfect place for family vacations… The pictures are amazing and the Elephants are adorable.
Definitely great for families… I think kids would lose it over getting to meet those elephants!
I always worry that elephants are being treated fairly and ethically in places like these. As far as I can tell the Elephant Camp is one of the good ones.
Indeed. I think Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is absolutely the gold standard, but if you aren’t going up that far north this is an awesome alternative!