Becoming a mahout: Elephant Hills Part I

This is what you call a once in a lifetime experience.

Located two hours away from Phuket airport lies Elephant Hills, an all-inclusive experience set in the wonderful Khao Sok National Park. As soon as I found out about this place I knew I had to go, and booked our whole trip around a two-night stay in this beautiful spot of southern Thailand.

Packages range from one to three night stays in their rainforest and floating lake camps, and includes all meals, transfers and activities.

The camp

We arrive at the Elephant Camp first, a beautiful site with 35 luxury tents built among the rainforest. Stone paths lead you from the entrance to your room, where you’ll find a comfortable double bed and en suite bathroom.

elephant hills tent 19

elephant hills tent

From the furniture to even the light switches, everything here is elephant-themed, which nicely compliments the special elephant experience that comes with your stay.

The elephant experience

After lunch we drive 20 mins away for our first activity, a hands-on experience with the endangered Asian elephant.

This encounter is unlike others in Thailand as there are no chains, no rides and no performances involved. Lots of tourists come to south-east Asia wanting to interact with elephants, but what many people don’t know are the cruel methods that are used to train these intelligent animals, and the terrible conditions that they’re sometimes kept in. Heavy seats are strapped to their backs for hours on end, with far too much weight for them to endure and little breaks throughout the day. Tricks are taught by beating them until they comply, and they’re then forced to perform monotonous routines day after day, all for our ‘entertainment’.

You don’t have to be an animal welfare advocate to know that this isn’t right, but things won’t improve if there’s still demand for these cabaret shows and treks. If you’re interested in interacting with elephants (or booking any type of animal experience when traveling), make sure to do your research first.

elephant hill sanctuary

Rescued from the logging industry after it was banned in 1989, there are 11 female elephants who call this sanctuary home. They’re cared for by mahouts who dedicate their lives to looking after these gentle giants, walking, feeding and exercising them daily. They even sleep nearby so they can check on them if they stir in the night.

The mahouts lead three elephants into a mud pond nearby, and we watch as they happily dig their heads into the bank, roll onto their sides and splash dirty water onto their backs.

elephant hills sanctuary

elephant hills mud bath

elephant hills mud bath

We get even closer to them next, as we’re tasked with washing the dirt off them. With a water hose in one hand and dried coconut skin in the other, we take turns to scrub the mud off their rough surface while they munch on some fruit. Be careful not to stand too close to their backs though, because you’ll get whipped by their swinging tail like I did!

elephant washing

elephant washing

After a good scrub it’s now time for some food. In front of us are a selection of bananas, pineapples, sugar canes and grass bundles, which we have to chop into smaller chunks before feeding the hungry herd. This is just a small snack for them, as each elephant can eat about 200kg a day!

They stand patiently on the other side of the shelter, and stretch out their trunks eagerly awaiting the fruit. Make sure you keep your treats close by though, or they’ll get pinched when your back’s turned! As they take each piece from your hand, you can stroke their trunks too if you feel confident enough.

With empty baskets, it’s time to say goodbye to the elephants and their mahouts, and we leave the sanctuary with memories that’ll last a lifetime.

A river cruise

Surrounding the sanctuary is the Sok River, a shallow stream which we take a relaxing canoe trip down next. Each boat is rowed by a paddle man who also helps you to spot wildlife along the way, meaning all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

sok river

We stop to see some frogs hidden away in the side of the bank, and were lucky enough to catch sight of some long-tailed macaques too!

monkey at sok river

Time to relax

Returning to camp late afternoon, we have some free time now to relax, grab a beer at the bar, or take a dip in the pool with the stunning view of the rainforest behind us.

There are more activities to keep you entertained in the evening too, with a schedule that changes throughout the week. During our stay there was a nature documentary shown, followed by a traditional dance performance by local school children, as well as a Thai cooking class before dinner at 8pm, all of which I missed after accidentally falling asleep on the hammocks outside of our tent!

Dinner is served buffet-style in the dining area, with mostly Thai dishes on offer such as noodles, massaman curry, fried vegetables, and fresh fruit for dessert.

Tired and well-fed, we retreat to our tent and fall asleep to the sound of the rainforest, excited to transfer to the floating camp in the morning…


Need to know

  • Two-night jungle lake safari from 18,475 THB per adult (approx. £370)
  • Transfers are included from main beach areas in Phuket (distance and times can be found here)
  • Find out more about how to interact ethically with elephants in Thailand

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