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From the Ground: New Kanchanaburi Tour with Elephants

By Nicole Long & Jay Austin,

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.

Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center

The elephants enjoying their evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

By: Courtney Ridgel

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.

A small local village floating on the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Nam Tien Lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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.

Looking up at the bungalows from the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
One of the traditional bungalows overlooking the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Traditional Laotian dishes – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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.

Annabelle, explaining elephant healthcare – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
My fellow travelers heading to the Elephant museum – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Inside the elephant museum – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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.

Evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Evening bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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.

Lar introduced us to each of the elephants and their mahouts – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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.

One of my fellow travelers feeding the elephants sugarcane. Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Feeding the elephants sugarcane – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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.

Nam Tien Lake is very peaceful, especially in the evenings – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Relaxing at my bungalow -Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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!)

A young elephant and his mahout making their way to the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
My fellow travelers and I headed for the lake to see the morning bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
The elephants enjoying their morning bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
We had the opportunity to simply spend time with the elephants in the calm of the morning after their bath – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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.

My fellow travelers observing the elephants in the valley below from one of the viewing platforms – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
The elephants foraging naturally in the jungle as a herd – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
A mother elephant teaching her juvenile calf about foraging in the jungle – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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.

A mother elephant and her baby – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Baby elephants must practice and learn to use their trunks to drink – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

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.

A mahout quietly observing the lake – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

 You too can visit the elephants in their natural jungle home!  Click this link to see the two day Elephant Conservation Center Discovery Tour, which can be combined with any larger itinerary.


From the Ground: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

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.


Dana’s Mondulkiri Adventure

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

By Dana Di Labio

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.

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

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!)

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

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:

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

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.

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

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.

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

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.

Photo Credit: Dana Di Labio

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.

Tours that support animal welfare in Southeast Asia

During our years of experience in Southeast Asia, Journeys Within has found that environmental protection and animal welfare throughout the region is in its infancy. Many struggling families make ends meet by catching endangered creatures to eat or sell. Others keep animals for labor, show and sport. Indeed, if you look closely at the many temples within the region, you can see evidence of animals such as elephants being used in farming, logging and warfare for hundreds of years, and these sacred animals are considered an integral part of the local culture.

As Journeys Within Tour Consultants and Directors personally inspect every tour and hotel, we have been witnesses to both best- and worst-case scenarios in regards to the treatment of animals. A core pillar of our company philosophy is that we believe that a tour company not only has a responsibility to its guests, but also a responsibility to the communities and environments within the countries in which we live and work. For this reason, we have been very careful to select tour and hotel partners that share this belief. We declined to send our guests to support tiger experiences, such the one at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Temple (known as the Tiger Temple), more than 10 years ago because these tours did not (and still don’t) provide healthy environments for the tigers.

Animal welfare in Southeast Asia has understandably been featured in the media lately and there is a strong public outcry to cease and desist any activities associated with animals. However, it is also important to keep in mind that these are generally not wealthy communities, and without sustainable programs to support and protect animals such as elephants and tigers, these amazing creatures are in danger of being neglected, euthanized or hunted due to lack of funds to care for them.

We recommend a middle path and wanted to share a few animal experiences that are doing amazing work in helping to protect endangered species within Southeast Asia in a safe and sustainable fashion. Journeys Within offers tours specifically tailored for guests who have a strong interest in wildlife and conservation, such as the Cambodia Conservation Tour, where guests can be sure that the animal interactions that they are supporting truly give back to the local animals and people. Here are some of our favorites:

  • The Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri serves as a sanctuary and recuperation center for elephants in need and for retired elephants. The elephants are released back into a natural habitat. Guests can visit and observe the family groups as they forage in the jungle and the elephants choose whether or not to wander up and say hello to visitors.
  • Sam Veasna Center (SVC) provides wildlife viewing trips with exclusive access to Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) sites across Cambodia, where travelers can view a variety of rare birds native to Cambodia. This non-profit strives to provide an alternative sustainable livelihood based on eco-tourism for the local communities in return for no hunting and land use agreements.
  • The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre in Phnom Penh cares for and rehabilitates animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. We highly recommend the Bear Care Tour, run by the non-profit Free the Bears which offers a “behind the scenes” tour of the world’s largest Sun Bear Sanctuary.
  • The Nam Nern Night Safari in Laos is a boat-based tour into the core of the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area. This adventure provides a rare opportunity to view protected wildlife through a program that is designed to support alternative livelihoods for the locals who have grown up hunting and tracking by retraining them as naturalists and guides, and generate community support for conservation of tigers and other wildlife by donating a portion of the funds to the local community for schools.
A Sun Bear at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.
A Sun Bear at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.