When travelling with my monkies, I always try to look out for ways to give back to the local community - in whatever small ways that we can. Because not only does it provides educational opportunities for the kids, we are able to help certain communities in a non-commercial manner.
And during our holiday in Phuket, we found one such group - Siam Safari. At first glance, Siam Safari seems to be the usual tour operator hawking elephant trekking as its main selling point.
But after some research and being on one its tours, I know now that not only is it committed to conducting its elephant trekking ethically, it channels its funds towards elephant conservation and provides jobs to the local tribe there.
In fact, Siam Safari is the only Elephant camp which has been certified by the Royal Thai Government in Phuket and Southern Thailand, which guarantees that that its elephants are well taken care of, in good health and the camp run under sustainable environmental management. It has also been recently recognized as the best elephant camp in Thailand by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports by receiving the 'Excellent Elephant Camp' standard with the highest score of all the elephant camps evaluated in Thailand.
So with that peace of mind, we embarked on our half-day 4-in-1 Safari (with Lunch) Tour. We were picked up bright and early from our hotel and transported to the Elephant camp on top of a mountain at Chalong Highlands. The great thing about the tour was elephant trekking was not the sole highlight - it gave us the chance to learn more about Thai culture and rural life in the villages. And first up, the importance of coconuts to the Thai people.
The monkies saw for the first time, how a coconut was de-husked and then cracked opened with a spear. The coconut 'meat' was then grated out of the coconut and squeezed to make coconut milk.
They even got to take a few sips of coconut water from a freshly de-husked coconut and while Ale didn't quite enjoy it, both Ash and Ayd would have finished the entire portion had I not stopped them in time.
Considering that the main food staple of the Thai people is rice, it was apt that our next station featured on how rice was processed.
We were escorted to a hut where a huge contraption that looked like a see saw with a leg-driven mortar and pestle. This was the machine that was used to separate the husk from the rice in the olden days and as Ayd will tell you, it was hard work!
Just imagine a person pumping the pestle for a good 30 minutes, before using a pan to separate the husked rice from the naked rice.
And after witnessing how tough it was to de-husk rice, the monkies declared they would never let a grain of rice go to waste from now on. It's amazing what a live presentation can do.
We were herded into a sheltered area next, where a coffee break awaited.
I know Thai coffee and tea is always sweeter than what we are generally used to but for some reason, I love it. Especially if it comes accompanied with some coconut pancakes as well.
And while we were sipping our drinks and chomping on pancakes, we were treated to the sight of a water buffalo ploughing rice back in the good old days.
It was like a trip to days gone by, and it definitely captivated the monkies as it was their first time seeing something as primitive as this.
Okay, so they were actually captivated by the fact that they were able to ride on a wooden cart pulled by a buffalo. Yes, me included.
A Thai curry cooking demonstration was next and while there was not much cooking done due to time constraints, we were shown the actual ingredients that go into Thai curry paste.
And what was a cooking demonstration without sampling? The boys bravely walloped a small portion of curry (with rice) while the wifey and I had second helpings. Okay okay, so I had three helpings.
As we trekked deeper into the forest, I noticed a huge area was planted with rubber trees, which was the premise of our next stop. We were given a demonstration in how rubber tree tapping is done. Did you know the best time to harvest the rubber sap is from 2am onwards? And the rubber tappers have to do it quickly before the sun rises because it will be too hot by then and the sap dries up. Definitely tough work so the next time you complain about your work, spare a thought for these rubber tappers.
The interesting bit for the kids was when they got to see first-hand how the rubber sap flowed out when the tree bark was cut. Plus the process that it undergoes in order to be made into the material we know as rubber.
We then moved on the baby elephants where we were given a glimpse on how they are trained. The baby elephants are not suitable to participate in the trekking for obvious reasons so in the meantime, they start their learning journey by obeying commands. Commands like picking up objects with their trunks, kicking a ball, painting pictures and even playing the harmonica!
And the paintings that the baby elephants churn out show after show are also available for purchase from the shop. A percentage from every painting will go directly to elephant conservation work. So the young elephants are actually doing their bit for other elephants too!
Of course, a photo opportunity with the 2 adorable baby elephants wouldn't hurt too.
And for 100 baht, the monkies got to feed them a basket of fruits.
Then, it was time for the main highlight of the tour.
Before our elephant trekking commenced proper, we were given a short briefing on how to mount and dismount from an elephant, and the rules to observe while riding on one.
And then we were off!
The mahouts, name given to the men who ride elephants, are all from the Karan tribe and they all live in the Safari area itself, working at the rubber plantation and looking after the elephants every single day. The Karen are regarded as the best handlers of elephants due to their relaxed temperament and their culture includes hundreds of years of experience working with and training elephants. In fact, the mahouts and their respective elephants are paired from a young age and it will often stay that way until the elephant or mahout retires.
The elephant trekking lasted for about 30 minutes as we trekked through the back paths of the grounds. Considering how huge and heavy the elephant was, coupled with the misconception that elephants are clumsy creatures, I was surprised by how graceful its gait was and the ride was not quite like a roller-coaster one that the wifey had originally feared.
The high point of the trek was when we arrived at a spot for an unobstructed view of Chalong Bay.
And all too soon, our elephant trek came to an end... much to the disappointment of the monkies. But we definitely learnt a lot about the elephants from our mahouts during the duration of the trek.
And of course, parting is such sweet sorrow.
At least the monkies got to feed their elephants another basket of fruits before bidding them farewell.
Then it was time to trek some more - this time by foot - to fill our own tummies.
Our tour ended with a delicious Thai buffet lunch, which would not win any food awards but decent nonetheless.
At least the view from the restaurant was superb.
The monkies then squealed in delight as they got the chance to hop onto a tractor as it brought us back to the tour bus carpark.
I guess it is safe to say the monkies thoroughly enjoyed the three hour safari tour at Siam Safari, with the highlight obviously being the elephant trek. But I believe for the boys especially, they have taken away much more than the element of fun. Coming from a modern city like Singapore, it was their first time witnessing demonstrations of coconut processing, rice farming and rubber tapping up close and I think it formed a rather deep impression on them.
Ale even drew a picture of her favourite moment of the Siam Safari tour!
As for Siam Safari, I love how it is making a conscious effort in making a difference to help elephant conservation in Thailand. They ensure that all of its elephants are regularly checked and monitored by elephant veterinarians, and also help the local community sustain by offering job opportunities at the camp.
If you are worried about the ethical aspect when it comes to visiting attractions that deal with animals, Siam Safari seems like a great way to find some balance between supporting tourism, the ethical treatment of animals and learning about a different culture.
Siam Safari's 4-in-1 Safari (with Lunch) Tour
Adult: THB2,300 | Child (4-11): THB1,500 | FREE for 3 years and below