We are excited to announce a new 2 day Kanchanaburi Option. Kanachanaburi is beautiful and for guests with the time, we highly recommend visiting this region to take in more of Thailand’s recent history and beautiful countryside. This particular option combines the historical significance of the area with a more active, philanthropic element with a visit to ElephantsWorld. This nonprofit organization was founded in 2008 and considers itself a “retirement home” for elephants who are too old or have become injured working in the tourism industry. We love this tour option for returning guests who have been to Thailand before, and want to spend time with elephants in a sustainable setting, without needing to return to Chiang Mai. This option is also great for families as there are discounted rates for kids aged 4-11, and children under 3 years are free!
Here’s what you can expect from this two-day tour, which can be combined with any itinerary:
Day 1: Bridge Over The River Kwai
You will be met at your hotel in Bangkok at 7:00am and taken by minivan to Kanchanburi. Enjoy the beautiful views along the way, with your guide available to answer any questions you may have. Your first stop will be the WWII Museum and Donrak POW Cemetery, before continuing on to the infamous bridge over the River Kwai. You can walk across the bridge and take some time to soak up the atmosphere and watch the river go by before taking the original “death railway” train to Krasae station, stopping for lunch at a local restaurant. Later you will board a long-tailed boat and head up river to your hotel with wonderful views of the jungle along the way. After checking in to your floating accommodation, enjoy your dinner before watching a Traditional Mon Dance performance.
Day 2: ElephantsWorld Day Program
After an early breakfast, check out of your hotel and coast down river to meet your driver, who will transfer you ElphantsWorld’s camp, located approximately an hour from the town of Kanchanburi. When you arrive at the camp, you’ll join the other participants for your introduction to the camp and ElephantsWorld’s mission, which is to provide sanctuary for sick, old, disabled, abused and rescued elephants. You will have the opportunity to meet and feed the elephants and meet their mahouts. You will assist with preparing food for the elephants by cleaning fruits and vegetables, and preparing sticky rice for the elderly giants. Afterwards, you and the group will break for lunch. Work off your lunch by planting fruit trees and/or gathering food for the elephants’ afternoon meal before helping the mahouts to feed sticky rice balls to the older elephants. Then it’s to the river for bath time! Enjoy getting wet with these gentle giants as you bathe and scrub them clean. Finally, give them the fruit and vegetables you collected earlier before saying goodbye to your new friends. You will depart the camp at approximately 4pm and head back to Bangkok.
Please note: We recommend bringing a change of clothes as you will get wet in assisting with the elephant’s bath.
Day 1: The Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center, located in rural Sayaboury, Laos, was hands-down one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been. My journey there began when I piled in the Center’s van at the Post Office in Luang Prabang, and met the other travelers who would also be visiting. Coffee and croissant in hand (which are phenomenal in Laos), I sat comfortably and watched for 2-3 hours as the stunning countryside rolled past – steep verdant hillsides with wild jungle interspersed with teak and rubber tree plantations, rugged cliffs, rice terraces snaking up riverbeds, small wooden villages and large brown rivers. When we arrived in Sayaboury, we were greeted by several local villagers who helped us with our bags onto a small ferry, which carried across Nam Tien Lake.
When we arrived, we were met by Lar, our guide for the duration of our stay, and he took us to check into our traditional Laotian stilted bungalows, before we all sat down together for a traditional Laotian lunch. The Center is really a small village – the mahouts, guides, gardeners, farmers, cooks, veterinarians, biologists, cleaning staff and boat drivers all have the option of staying in their own small bungalows at the center, or of living in the town of Sayaboury and commuting by motorbike.
After lunch, Lar led my fellow travelers and I to see Annabelle, the resident biologist at the Elephant Hospital where she explained about caring for elephants, elephant health, and the plight of the Asian Elephant in great detail. There are currently around 400 wild elephants in Laos and around 450 domesticated elephants. However, logging with elephants was recently banned by the Laotian government. While this move was made to protect elephants from the hard labor and potential abuse, many of the mahouts who own the elephants now find themselves in a position where they cannot afford to keep caring for them properly. The elephant hospital at the center is open to any mahout to bring in their elephants, and the center actively works to promote elephant breeding in an effort to protect the aging and dwindling population. We also had the opportunity to visit the Elephant Museum to learn about the history of elephants in Laos, and their symbolic and economic significance.
In the late afternoon, the resident mahouts and elephants came down to the edge of the lake for their evening bath and we were able to simply be present in the moment and soak in the beauty of it all. I was amazed that there were no boundaries or fences – between myself and these very large and beautiful creatures, and was quite surprised when one of them came directly out of the water and walked up to greet me.
After their bath, we were introduced to each of the elephants and their mahouts, and listened to their life stories – all of the adult elephants had worked hard in careers like logging before arriving at the center. We learned that elephants are traditionally paired with a single mahout for life, and as such, would almost be considered a member of the family. Being a traditional mahout is a dying profession and their skills and wisdom are traditionally passed down orally father to son, with years of training. Mahout children are traditionally raised among elephants. As Laos modernizes and there are fewer and fewer men (never women) choosing to pursue this path in life, many domestic elephants are not being as well-treated.
Clambering up a tall feeding platform, we had the opportunity to feed the elephants sugar cane as a treat. As evening advanced, the mahouts led the elephants back into the jungle for the night, and we settled down for another home-cooked Laotian meal and chatted amongst ourselves. Jozef, the Center’s Sales & Marketing Manager, ate with us and answered our many questions.
There are kayaks available for guests who would like to paddle out on the lake, but I enjoyed meandering about the center and taking in the stunning views, before settling into my hammock with a book on the porch of my bungalow.
Day 2: After breakfast the next morning, we headed into the jungle, hiking up and down the steep and muddy trail to reach a different area of the lake where the elephants bathe in the morning. They splashed themselves with the water, so that it would seep into the creases in their skin and keep them cool through the hottest part of the day as they forage in the jungle. After the elephants felt satisfied, they meandered out of the water to interact with us. (I kept forgetting to duck out of the way of the flapping ears!)
Some of the elephants head to ‘Enrichment’ where they solve puzzles and are rewarded with treats to keep their minds sharp and inquisitive, as elephants can grow unhappy and depressed when bored. The rest were led to ‘Socialization’ – a large paddock of natural jungle where the elephants are allowed to roam freely and forage as a herd. We hiked up the hill to watch from above from a series of observation platforms, and Annabelle joined us to explain the various elephant behaviors we observed. She also explained the importance of elephants to the Laotian ecosystem – elephants are naturally quite destructive, clearing paths through the forest which allows for new growth, and they have inefficient digestive systems, so as they forage and travel, their feces replants the seeds of many native plants.
With reluctance that we eventually headed back to the water’s edge, but were rewarded when we had the chance to watch the mothers with young babies come for a bath. The little ones splashed and played in the mud before their mothers and their mahouts led them back into the forest. We settled down for a delicious Laotian picnic lunch, before the ferry carried us back around the peninsula to the Center where we checked out of our bungalows (some travelers stay longer…), bid Lar farewell, and rode the ferry back to the road for the scenic drive back to Luang Prabang.
Spending time with elephants in their natural habitat, watching them interact and nurture their babies is an incredible experience all by itself, but learning about their importance in the local ecosystem, and their tenuous hold on long-term survival as a species, was eye-opening. Equally meaningful to me, was getting to learn about the vast knowledge the mahouts have and to witness their unique bond with these beautiful beasts. Elephants are sacred creatures in Laos and I can certainly see why. Visiting the Elephant Conservation Center felt like getting to star in my own Discovery Channel adventure, and my time in Sayaboury will always hold a special place in my heart.
Koh Rong is one of the more popular Cambodian islands off the coast of Sihanoukville, but as with most popular island locations in Southeast Asia, they can be easily overrun by tourists for simply this reason. Koh Rong Sanloem, on the other hand, is only in the early stages of tourism and offers a quieter, more relaxed version of the traditional beach holiday. The island is dotted with resorts which you can only move between by boat as there are no proper roads on the island. The sand is white, the waters are clear and here you have the opportunity to join in the early stages of actually growing a coral reef!
The most populated village on Koh Rong Sanloem is M’Pai Bei Village and although the accommodations on offer are still quite basic, there is a decent array of Western and Cambodian restaurants, all within easy walking distance of one another. A visit to M’Pai Bei is not complete without spending some time with the team at Save Cambodian Marine Life, a not-for-profit organization which is dedicated to cleaning and maintaining the waters of M’Pai Bei Bay.
The scuba diving in M’Pai Bei is not world class by any means, but a visit to this area of the world allows you to dive for a wonderful purpose, assisting Australian couple Chris & Dianne Martyn in maintaining and growing their coral nursery. This kind of delicate work calls for more accomplished divers (PADI advanced level or higher) who have solid buoyancy control so as not to damage anything in the nursery, but if you are already an Open Water certified diver you can participate in an Advanced Open Water Course through this organization.
If you are not a certified scuba diver, never fear, you can still assist in the great work these people do. A number of snorkel reef cleans and beach cleans are scheduled every week as part of the PADI Dive Against Debris program, calling for volunteers to assist the team in keeping the waters around the village clean and free from harmful debris such as fishing nets and plastic.
If you are looking to spend some time on the beach in Cambodia, this is a wonderful way to support a community based project whilst enjoying the tropical waters!
For those who are seeking more established, resort style accommodations, Saracen Bay located 20 minutes away by boat offers beachfront villas on a 4km stretch of sensational white sand that can be experienced for less than half the cost of other beach resorts in Southeast Asia. Koh Rong Sanloem is one of those places you need to see before the rest of the world discovers it! (Ask National Geographic who just featured our hotel partner Lazy Beach and Koh Rong Samloem Island among the 21 Best Beaches in the World!)
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai was founded in July 2014 is a joint initiative between Chiang Mai locals and Karen hill tribe mahouts who were concerned about the welfare and conservation of elephants in Thailand. The sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project designed to raise awareness and educate people about a proper elephant care and the plight of the Asian Elephant. The Sanctuary is comprised of 5 spacious locations (Mountain Village, Tranquil Valley, Paddy Field, Hilltop Paradise and Waterfall Grove Sanctuaries) and 30 formerly mistreated elephants. A visit to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an affordable alternative to visiting the more long-standing elephant conservation projects in Chiang Mai such as Patara Elephant Farm and Elephant Nature Park, which are also frequently fully booked. This is a great alternative for families too, as children under the age of 3 are permitted entry for free, whereas they would be charged by the other organizations.
Here’s what you can expect from a day at the Elephant Sanctuary:
Chiang Mai: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary’s Full Day Visit
You will be picked up from your hotel between 8:00-8:30am in the morning, and travel with fellow tour participants around 1.5 hours from Chiang Mai to the Karen village and Sanctuary. Breathe clear mountain air as you drive through the beautiful agricultural countryside of Northern Thailand, and get a glimpse of local life outside of the city. When you arrive at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary around 10:30am, an English-speaking guide will walk with you through the adjacent Karen village, and teach you a little about elephants and the local way of life. Get changed into traditional Karen clothing, listen as your guide tells you more about the Sanctuary, grab some bananas and sugar cane for feeding, and you will be ready to meet the elephants. In small groups, you will meet and interact with each of the friendly elephants personally. Learn about elephant behavior, and discover the unique and interesting history of each elephant as you touch, play, feed, and photograph them. Once you have met and spent time with each of the elephants, you can retire to a relaxing platform overlooking a picturesque river and jungle. There, you will enjoy a delicious lunch of traditional Thai food and fresh fruit, before being re-united with your elephant friends. At this point during the day, you will walk alongside the elephants to a nearby river and join them for a bath in the refreshing water. Here, you will have the opportunity to bathe and brush the elephants while they enjoy wading through the water. Next, it will be time for a therapeutic mud spa. Feel free to get muddy as you cover the elephants in a protective layer of mud. Have fun playing with them and watch as they joyfully frolic in the mud spa. When it’s time to say goodbye to the elephants, you can take some final photos with them to preserve this precious memory, then head upstream and wash off your remaining mud, or relax with a swim in the fresh, clean water. Finally, you will change clothes and take a scenic walk back through the Karen village. You will then part ways with your local guide, and return to Chiang Mai, experiencing the drive through picturesque rural scenery in the pleasant glow of the afternoon sun. Return to your hotel between 5:00-5:30pm.
Please note: Today you will get wet when you help with the elephants’ bath. Please bring appropriate clothing for this, as well as a towel and change of clothes. We recommend you also bring a hat, sunscreen, walking shoes, bathing suit and towel.
Note: As always, we take pride in our standards for philanthropic travel and animal treatment when recommending any experiences to our guests touring in Southeast Asia. We only recommend experiences that we feel are beneficial to both the local people and animals. We hope that the increased attendance to genuine conservation programs will help encourage others to lift their standards.
Pchum Ben falls in September each year, and most Khmer people spend the holiday visiting the temples (wats or pagodas) to honor their ancestors, make offerings, and receive blessings from the monks. We took the opportunity to head to Mondulkiri, a province in North Eastern Cambodia that was a full 10 hour bus ride from our home in Siem Reap. So kindles, ipods and books at the ready, we set off in our 11-seater minibus, ready to face our holiday. Aside from one of us forgetting her shoes (a serious problem when embarking on embarking on a jungle trek!), the journey north to the small town of Sen Monorom was largely uneventful. Although it was dark and quiet, it felt safe and we could see the edges of mountains, jungles and forests.
A staff member from Tree Lodge met us and drove us to the hotel in the back of a pick-up truck to the wooden lodge. We were introduced to the couple who run the lodge – Mr. Tree and his wife, who spoke English well, but allowed us to practice our questionable Khmer. After stuffing ourselves with some fried rice and noodles, Mr. Tree led us to our small wooden bungalow – a ‘family room’, which had 3 double beds squashed in together. It felt rustic and cozy; we each had our own mosquito net and a shared hot shower – all for only $15 for the night! (The Lodge also had a supply of leftover shoes we could borrow, which luckily meant no jungle trekking in Birkenstocks!)
The next morning, bright and early, we headed off with Mr. Tree, and a group of around 20 others. We got into the truck again and drove around 30 minutes to just outside the jungle, where Mr Tree dropped us all off and instructed us to follow the path until we reach the ‘Jungle Lodge’. He drove the car down the hill and into the jungle. A walk of 20 minutes or so brought us up and down a few muddy hills (it was the rainy season after all), to a small wooden hut with canvas sides overlooking the forests and misty rivers. Mr. Tree met us at the hut and introduced The Mondulkiri Project:
In October 2013 the Mondulkiri Project signed an agreement with Bunong indigenous elders from the Putang Village and the Orang Village. They agreed to end logging in a large area of the beautiful Mondulkiri forest near Sen Monorom, in order protect this beautiful forest and the plentiful wildlife here. As the population of Cambodia grows, the demand for rice also grows, so more and more of the forest is being destroyed to make room for small rice farms. The Elephant Sanctuary experiences and jungle trekking is designed to help to bring income to the Bunang indigenous people while protecting the native habitat of Asian elephants and other endangered species. As part of this agreement, The Mondulkiri Project started an elephant sanctuary with 7 retired elephants who are free to wander through the forest. All of these elephants have been rescued from other provinces, where they were treated unfairly. In the future, Mr. Tree explains, he hopes to start a natural breeding program to help with the long term survival of elephants in Cambodia. Currently the elephants are all female, so the project is trying to raise money to buy a male in order to breed.
After the briefing, we started off into the jungle to meet the elephants. We fed them bananas and learned that there is a trick to doing so – you should hold out 1 banana towards the end of their trunk, while hiding the others behind your back – otherwise the elephants steal the whole bunch! The elephants seemed very at ease around us, and Mr. Tree emphasized that we should let the elephants lead the interaction. After our banana supply had been depleted, we walked back through the rain in our nifty multi colored rain ponchos, across a rickety old bridge. Just as we were crossing, one of the elephants named Princess came bounding through the river and decided to give herself a mud shower. She led the way for us and we followed her into a clearing, where we were joined by several other elephants. We played with them, fed them some more, and marveled at how peaceful they seemed. We headed back to the hut, clad with mud and rain, and sat down for a delicious lunch of rice, vegetables and fish soup. A celebratory beer or two was also a necessity! After a little relaxing, we headed back off into the jungle and down to a river, where we were told we would be able to bathe the elephants. Some of us scrubbed the elephants with long brushes, whilst the others fed them bananas.
When we returned to the hut for the evening, and were introduced to our guide for the next day – Leung. He and several local Khmer women cooked up a delicious feast for our dinner. We ate on the wooden floor, by candlelight, and spent the evening chatting with Leung. He is from one of the tribal villages, on the other side of the jungle, and he leads the guided treks for the Mondulkiri Project. He told us that we would finish our trek in his village and he explained about his religion – a form of Buddhism that entails ritual animal sacrifice. We played cards, drank bamboo rice wine, and retreated to our hammocks for the night.
After breakfast the next morning, we headed off on our 18 kilometer trek. Luckily, the weather managed to stay dry for the whole day, as we hiked over tough terrain, steep hills and had some very slippy moments. Eventually we decided to just succumb to the mud and stop trying to stay clean and dry! We stopped at 3 waterfalls along the way, and at the first we jumped off the top of the waterfall into the cold water and hung from the tree branches. The second waterfall was enormous and soaked us in spray, and at the third waterfall, we trekked behind it into a cave where we sat to eat our lunch of rice and vegetables. As we continued on, Leung pointed out different kinds of plants, flowers, frogs, insects, and various mushroom breeds.
Finally, around 8 hours after we took off, we arrived in Leung’s village, exhausted and muddy, but beaming with pride. (Leung told us he does this trek 4 times per week!) He introduced us to his family (he has 8 brothers and sisters, which is quite common among the 43 families who live in this village), and his family have several pigs and lots of piglets, chickens, cows and buffalo. There were some young children playing football just down the path, everybody stopped to say hello to us and offered us rice wine. Leung told us that they all rear animals and share the meat among the families. He said that whilst he has his immediate family (who all live in a small wooden house, with an old retro caravan attached!), he feels as though the whole village is his family, as they have all grown up together.
When it came time to say goodbye to Leung and the village, it seemed strange after such a meaningful and intense 24 hours getting to know him. While we all trickled back to our office jobs and city life, Leung would stay on the edge of the jungle in his hill tribe village, perfectly content to guide more jungle trekkers. Although we loved the elephants, and the trekking and the camping experience was so much fun, I would recommend this trip simply for the experience of meeting Leung, an uncomplicated 21 year old guy, with so much love for the jungle and keen to share his devotion to his beautiful home and people.