We’re being watched. Waking to the decision of untamed gibbons, I peer out of my hammock right into a clearing bathed in daybreak gentle. The mahouts are stoking the campfire, and on the hillside reverse, 4 elephants – matriarch Thong Kam and three youthful ones – maintain a benign eye on the handful of people quickly sharing their forest dwelling.
Huay Pakoot
That the elephants are having fun with this unspoilt forest 4 hours’ drive east of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a victory for UK charity Mahouts Elephant Basis. Three years in the past, it managed to free three of those elephants from a lifetime of cruelty at a Chiang Mai vacationer attraction and walked them 100km dwelling to their ancestral forests. Letting us drop in on these spectacular beasts is a means of elevating funds to rescue extra elephants from distress and exploitation.
The charity was began a decade in the past when, on a household vacation to Thailand, Brit Sarah Blaine noticed elephants being made to bop, kick footballs, even paint photos to entertain vacationers. There was human distress, too: the animals’ mahouts, doing this for lack of different employment, have been – and customarily nonetheless are – execrably paid and housed by the attraction house owners.

Guests watch the elephants feed within the forest. {Photograph}: Peter Yuen
Decided to do one thing – and smart sufficient to see {that a} GP’s spouse from Worcestershire couldn’t simply wade in and inform folks what to do – she began working with a hill tribe recognized for its love for elephants, the Karen. Younger males from this ethnic minority group turned to work within the vacationer trade after a ban on business logging in 1989 put many mahouts out of labor – and the Thai authorities was pleased for tourism to take up the slack.
The muse raised funds to permit Karen tribesmen to depart their vacationer jobs and are available dwelling with their elephants. And now its Strolling with Elephants undertaking brings them further earnings from guests who come to spend a number of days at a homestay and trek into the forest to observe the elephants of their pure habitat.
The Karen village of Huay Pakoot sprawls up a steep hillside, with canine and chickens working between picket stilted homes. We stick with Vee Lah and her household in a brand new three-room constructing behind their farmhouse with – in a primary for the village – a rest room with a sizzling bathe beneath the home.

A 90-year-old Karen villager at her loom. {Photograph}: Liz Boulter/Guardian
Dinner (soup, spicy greens, a bit pork and many rice) is on the dwelling of village elder Manit who, as a younger man, labored along with his elephant in logging camps. However whereas logging camps have been exhausting, life at a vacationer attraction is far worse, I study, with elephants stored beneath management with metallic hooks and starved to maintain their hormone ranges down.
For the Karen, elephants are a part of the household. So having them and their mahouts away from dwelling leaves a giant gap, and a few younger mahouts ease their loneliness with medication or alcohol.
Subsequent morning, we hike out of the village for about an hour to the place thirtysomething Thong Kam (elephants’ pure lifespan is just like ours) and playful kids Mario and Bai Fern now dwell. Rising from the timber to heat up within the sunshine, they quickly pop over to take a look at the brand new people.

We’re household … the elephants dwell collectively naturally, as a kin group. {Photograph}: Peter Yuen
The elephants now spend 18 hours a day consuming, utilizing their giant brains to pick out a various food regimen of forest vegetation and even mineral dietary supplements. They stroll for miles, bathe within the water gap – and go a bit mad within the wet season, when Mario particularly likes to slip backwards down muddy slopes on his backside. It’s a far cry from life earlier than.
Three years in the past, Thong Kam gave delivery to mischievous “toddler” Sunti, who’s rising up right here in nearly full freedom. Nearly, as a result of these will not be wild elephants – there isn’t sufficient wilderness left in Thailand for that; however life on this forest, with mahouts to keep watch over them and supply further grass within the dry season, is the following neatest thing.
Guests keep for 3 or 4 days, trekking to elephant hangouts and having a go at crafts equivalent to weaving and basket-making. The spotlight is an evening of untamed tenting, in tents or little roofed hammocks slung from timber – heat and cozy when you get used to your mattress swaying with each transfer.

Guests can sleep in hammocks slung from timber; there’s additionally glamping in additional luxurious safari tents. {Photograph}: Peter Yuen
In addition to time with the elephants, I loved the way in which tenting provided a window into the mahouts’ lifestyle: foraging for meals, gossiping across the hearth and utilizing machetes to form bamboo into cups, mats, dishes – even a kettle. The charity now additionally runs the same undertaking in a extra distant village close to the Myanmar border.
Earlier than I go away, Sarah desires me to see what she’s combating towards, so we go to an elephant attraction close to Chiang Mai. A crowd goes wild as they watch the performing elephants, then jostle to snap photos sitting on elephants’ knees or raised excessive on curled trunks. “It’s actually painful for them to sit down like that,” Sarah says. “And look, that one’s head’s bleeding, and the toddler’s biting his trunk: it exhibits he’s distressed.”

Elephants performing for vacationers close to Chiang Mai. {Photograph}: Alamy
The distinction between these dead-eyed animals – all scabs, cuts and broken ft from hours chained up on urine-soaked concrete – and people we’d frolicked with within the forest is heartbreaking.
Seeing African elephants on safari is a once-in-a-lifetime, premium expertise, and rightly so. However in Thailand elephant lives are low-cost: right here, a ticket to observe exploitation and struggling prices little greater than £30 a head.
I go searching on the yelping vacationers (a lot of them westerners) and marvel how they’ll suppose that is OK. They’d in all probability be horrified to see a dancing bear on a European road, a circus with dwell tigers, and even chimps dressed as much as drink PG Ideas. So that are the “dumb animals” right here? I do know what I feel – and all energy to Sarah and her trigger.
• The journey was offered by the Mahouts Elephant Basis, whose four-day Strolling with Elephants journey prices from £240pp full-board, together with transport from Chiang Mai. China Southern Airways flies from Heathrow to Chiang Mai through Guangzhou from £450 return