Please read our reviews below:
"It's hard to put into words what an incredible experience I had on the journey organized by Mahouts Elephant foundation. Both spending time with the elephants and having time in the Karen village really made this a trip of a lifetime. I have been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling in my time, but this would rate as the best experience ever. It was the perfect balance of feeling extremely well organized and at the same time, as you want on a true adventure, like anything can happen. Being so close to the elephants and learning so much about them, is life changing. Their size, their intelligence their similarity in certain ways to humans in their emotions, everyone on the trip felt by the end an overwhelming sense of love for these creatures and the want to help them be free in their natural habitat. And watching the Karen people and their unusual closeness and understanding of them was so heart warming. It felt like finally through this project a way had been found to help both man and animal at the same time. I would highly recommend this to anyone looking to have an authentic and exciting adventure in a responsible way."
Our love for travel and elephants took us on our first journey to Thailand in 2014. After researching the internet for an ethical experience, we were deeply saddened to observe the reality of the lives of some elephants working in the tourist industry. Pictures of elephants chained, swaying from side to side with wounds from bull hooks opened our eyes to a dark side of elephant tourism that we didn't know existed. The pictures were heartbreaking and we knew that finding an ethical experience was a must.
Our first trip took us to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai where we saw a little piece of elephant heaven in the heart of Thailand. It was there that we were made aware of Sarah Blaine and her family. We went on to learn that they were creating a wonderful project in the north of Thailand through their charity Mahouts Elephant Foundation. We learned that the charities vision was to support a Karen Hill Tribe in developing a sustainable future that would enable their elephants and their families to return from from the trekking camps of Chiang Mai to the village and the beautiful surrounding forest.
Visiting The project involved travelling to the village of Huay Pakoot which was around a four hour drive from Chiang Mai. We were collected promptly from our hotel before being taken through the most breathtaking countryside and stopping for a delicious lunch en route. Naturally, I was apprehensive about travelling to a remote village in Thailand and camping in the forest but I can honestly say that it was the best experience and I felt completely safe at all times.
Upon arrival we were greeted by Sinchai, the deputy chief of the village, we were shown to our homestay and given some time to settle in. We were completely taken aback by the beauty of the surrounding forest, the scenery was breathtaking and the villagers were so friendly and welcoming. Living in the village is basic but we felt so immersed in culture and tradition that this really didn’t matter. Kindly, our homestay families cooked a lovely dinner for us to share before heading off to bed to get some sleep before a busy day in the forest.
The following day we trekked deep into the forest to set up camp. We were led by a small group of villagers/mahouts who took really good care of us. The Karen Tribe of Huay Pakoot live at one with the forest and utilise everything that the nature provides, they are pretty amazing people!! We were given the option to stay in a tent or a hammock, we chose to stay in a hammock that was completely bug proof and very comfortable! On a morning we would wake to the sound of gibbons, elephant roars and trumpets. It really was a magical experience.
During the day we would walk to find the elephants living free in the forest, we would follow them as they foraged and sprayed water from the cool streams nearby. It was an absolute privilege and delight to see them live in such a natural environment. Mum, Thong Kam is such a beautiful girl and her love for her small herd was so transparent. She was patient, nurturing, respectful and so incredibly intelligent, the beauty of whole experience brought tears of happiness to my eyes! We spent time observing the elephants as they went about the day doing exactly what they wanted to do. Occasionally the elephants would come walking into the camp to visit us, they chose to interact with us which was very special!
During our trip, all of our food was prepared by the villagers and mahouts. I have to say that the food was also amazing! We ate fresh fruits, rice, vegetables and items collected from the forest during the day and there was always plenty of coffee, tea and bottled water to go around. As night fell, we would sit and share stories around the camp fire, we even got to try our hand at basket weaving!
During our stay in Huay Pakoot we learned not only about the elephants but also their bond with their Mahouts. The villagers treat the elephants with respect and describe them as part of their family. They believe that to be a Mahout you have to have a “kind heart” and we witnessed this in each and every one of them. It is the dream of both Mahouts Elephant Foundation and the villagers of Huay Pakoot to see more of their elephants living back in their forest and we would love to see this project thrive. Sarah, Felix, Joe and Natasha are truly dedicated to this project and have both the villagers of Huay Pakoot, the mahouts and the elephants at the heart of their vision. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for the elephants and the village of Huay Pakoot and can not recommend a visit to this project enough!"
Jenny and David
"Walking with Elephants has me amazed. I did a lot of research about ethical elephant experiences in Thailand, and this one was the only one offering a "semi-wild" environment for the elephants. The animals are free to roam their natural forest habitat and forage 100% of their own food. Sharing this habitat with them made for a much more inspiring and intimate experience than a "sanctuary" I had visited close to Chiang Mai. I got to stand back and watch elephants being themselves, expressing behaviors that you'll only see in the wild. I heard rare vocalizations, and watched them climb up steep hills (using their knees!). We followed them as they sought water to bathe themselves. I marveled at their sheer strength as they broke branches to eat and scratched their mighty itches against tree trunks. We got to see herd dynamics in action. Hiking and camping in the forest with real mahouts and eating jungle cuisine (from a bamboo!) was also a huge treat. Walking with Elephants goes way, WAY beyond the mud bath and photo op tours that you'll find in the region, addressing elephant welfare and conservation issues in a really big new way."
I had always wanted to go on an elephant conservation tour but was very aware that a lot of research must be done to make sure that it was actually ethical and not another manufactured tourist experience. After a ton of research and comparison, MEF struck me as the only one that fit the bill. I was mainly drawn by its description of being able to observe the elephants in their most natural habitat, the forest. As such, every trip and every day will be different. We go wherever the elephants go and be treated to seeing them in their most natural and carefree state.
It was amazing getting to know the individual elephants and their personalities; and it was also touching to see how they thrived in their home and were able to forage and roam around whenever and however they like, but also carefully watched over at a distance by their incredible mahouts. It was great meeting Manit and all the other mahouts, you really could see the mutual love and respect between them and the elephants.
Food was another fascinating experience and I was amazed by the mahouts' ability to find and cook a variety of things from the forest. From wild raspberries and mushrooms to crickets and frogs. My favourite was the mushroom soup with cherry tomatoes and some leaves that we had for lunch one day in the forest. The cricket was tasty too! I also thoroughly enjoyed the locally grown, processed and roasted coffee beans from Root - they were amazing and I wish him a lot of success with his coffee business.
Lastly, of course it was wonderful meeting Becca and Mint - they have been so attentive and incredible in taking care of me throughout my trip and sharing so much about the elephants and the Karen people. Dee was also a good and friendly driver and the 4-hour journey to and from Chiang Mai did not feel long at all. Loved his music collection in the car lol.
I hope that this type of community-based tourism will start to gain traction and improve the mahouts' livelihood and in turn, help more elephants in the long run. It was definitely a very unique experience overall. Thank you for everything you do, MEF!