Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Do you like waterfalls? Do you like elephants? Then you’d love Kanchanaburi!

This is from a trip we did back in August 2015. Our little mangosteen was newly 2 years old then. We visited the Erawan National Park and the Elephant Nature Park.
Kanchanaburi is where the infamous bridge on the river Kwai is located. That’s the bridge that inspired the (very  historically inaccurate) movie by the same name. The movie is based on the World War II Japanese internment camps in the Kanchanaburi area, about 2.5 hours by car/ 127 km from Bangkok, where  allied prisoners of war were held. Today you can visit the bridge and the now touristy “death railway ” that crosses it. We didn’t visit either, instead, we wanted to spend a day in lush vegetation, feet in the water. We weren’t sure how toddler friendly the Erawan Waterfalls were, so we had been postponing a visit…

When you reach the national park you can leave your car in a big paved parking lot. You then walk towards the entrance and the first small waterfall and pool. We drove from Bangkok that morning so we didn’t get there until mid-morning. The first pool was already crowded, with kids and grownups loudly enjoying the water, aided by floating devices in animal shapes. There was a paved easy trail to get there, and enough space around the natural pool for picnicking and  socializing.

From there you climb up the mountain, through vegetation, to reach the other 6 tiers (or levels) of the waterfall, each being a waterfall and pool. There is a paved trail only between the first and second level, although the path is mostly clear and relatively well maintained. It does get steep and slippery in some places, specially the higher up you go.

We had no problem visiting with a toddler. Little M was already quite heavy but I could still manage to go up the mountain with her on the carrier. She could walk, hand in hand, but she just didn’t want to for most of the way…toddlers… Accessing the pools is tricky because they are surrounded by uneven surfaces of rocks and tree roots. Some sharp, some slippery, and most a little steep. In the upper tiers there is not a lot of space to put your belongings, so it’s better to bring as little as possible. Also, you are not allowed any food past the second tier, and you have to pay a fee for any bottles you take with you (to be refunded when you leave the park). It seems to be a good scheme because the park is very clean despite the number of visitors.

Waterfalls and a pond full of fish in Kanchanaburi
Mother and toddler walking the paths near the waterfalls in Kanchanabury

Mother and child at the edge of the water
The water in the waterfalls and pools is clear and pleasant. Depending on the light the water looks turquoise and wonderfully inviting, from the limestone underneath, or clear/brownish from the normal organic matter and vegetation. With the ever-present Thai heat and the added warmth from the effort of climbing up the mountainside, the water seems particularly refreshing.

There is a little catch however. These waters harbor a healthy population of the somewhat infamous “doctor fish”. Wikipedia tells me they are also known as nibble fish, or  garra rufa. You know, those fish that eat the dead skin off your feet in the spas that have recently become popular all over the world ? Well, we were not aware of this before hand, but they swim in the Erawan falls and pools as well. And believe me they are eager to nibble any skin you expose to them. Our little M freaked out, it was too much for her. I couldn’t get past the feet and legs. It was hilarious to watch the hysterical reactions from people getting in the water, or trying to. They don’t bite, thankfully, it doesn’t hurt, but it just feels so strange! There are so many of them that it can get overwhelming on the senses! I stayed  legs- only in the water, and didn’t  venture further inside the pool, although plenty of people were swimming. There was something incredibly funny about having a school of fish waiting for your flesh to come inside the water, specially since the little ones came close to the shore, but further away bigger fish (say, the size of an adult’s hand, maybe more) stared , waiting patiently, “Come here, human human! Come here!”.

Fish nibble at a foot in the turquoise water
Exciting stuff.

On our second day in Kanchanaburi, we visited the Elephant Nature Park. We had reserved ahead of time a single day visit through their website (mandatory).

Elephant tourism in Thailand is somewhat of a controversial topic in Thailand. The elephant is so iconic to the country and such a major draw for visiting foreigners,  that they are very often exploited and abused for tourism money. You will see in Thailand many many places offering elephant rides and elephant shows where the animals are made to paint and dance, they are dressed in costumes and made to act  in all kinds of un-elephant ways. Some such establishments, like the ones in the most touristy part in Ayutthaya (a major turism spot), claim that they are actually providing a much safer space for elephants and their mahouts (life-long trainers) who have been left without the jobs they traditionally had, and therefore were being driven to begging in the streets of cities and exposed to far more dangerous situations.

This days you can hear more often the strong opinion that it is not desirable for elephants to be performing those kinds of shows, even though if you attend one you will be surprised by how popular they are with humans. After all, different countries have different sensibilities towards animal welfare, and what is considered acceptable/ normal varies throughout the world. In Thailand, although still a minority opinion,  some now claim animals should not be ridden by tourists, that they should not be kept in corrals with little space to walk around, and definitely not chained. They say that in order for an elephant to perform such tricks, and be docile to humans, they have to undergo a very harsh breaking process, where they basically become so scared of humans that they obey. They insist that the focus should be on protecting the wild herds that still exist in Thailand, and helping the mahouts transition into other livelihoods. The Elephant Nature Park is trying to provide an alternative to that kind of  elephant tourism in Thailand. They started in Chiang Mai and have become very famous and successful in their rehabilitation programs. The Kanchanaburi branch was just starting when we visited- they were on their second week I believe. Elephants and mahouts from a previous elephant park were adopted by the nature park. They have a big area where they grow some plants to feed the animals, and plenty of untamed areas with overgrown vegetation. They have access to the river, and have also dug water/mud wholes for the pachyderms to splash in. Basically, the new “tourism model” is to allow visitors to experience elephants in a more species appropriate habitat, were they have ample space and are treated better. No ridding in allowed of course, and there are no shows with loud music.
A group of elephants in a mud pool
A group of elephants in a mud pool, and a woman and child under an umbrella in the foreground
Tourists splash water on elephants bathing in the river
You start the visit by meeting the elephants, who are brought where you are by their mahouts. You prepare their snack by pounding tamarind, rice, salt, bananas (and other ingredients I can’t remember), and making elephant sized energy balls. Little M was welcome to participate. You then hand-feed these, with plenty of bananas and some leaves, if I remember correctly, to the eager elephants. A little intimidating! They are big and strong and your toddler seems so small and fragile! Next you walk next to them, or in front, or behind the pachyderms, through the lush vegetation and into a routinized mini trek to the mud pool, to the scratching tree trunks, to the yummy tender-leaved trees, and so on. Basically both the elephants, and their mahouts do their thing, in a somewhat predetermined routine of leisurely baths and splashes, scratching and eating. You, as a visitor get to hang out with them and be amazed by them. You might also be so startled by finding yourself between two huge elephants  in a narrow walking path that you almost jump into the arms of the wide-grinning mahout, who obviously finds you super amusing.

Our Little M not only loved being with the elephants, but was instantly adopted, in a very sweet Thai way, by the ladies working there. They took care of her, carried her and played with her, and improvised basic Thai lessons,  and she loved it!

We were offered lunch, a simple vegetarian vegetable stir fry with rice, and some rest time that didn’t seem necessary. There was not much to do really. Then the elephants were taken to the river, and we were invited to swim and help wash them. The elephants frolicked in the fast current with great joy and no care in the world, or so it seemed. We threw bucket of water on them, and tried our hand in scrubbing their thick skin a little.

Overall it was a magical day for the three of us. We agree with the philosophy behind this park, and feel good about sponsoring them through our visit. I think it’s important however to be a little bit critical in that they claim that you visit the animals and see them be free and live in their natural habitat. They are definitely much better treated and lovingly taken care of, it seems, but it is a stretch to qualify them as free because their day is routinized and they are still under the supervision of their mahouts and the park staff. It is important to note that perhaps they are simply performing a different kind of show for tourists. As a visitor I think it is important to remember these are rescued animals, living much better lives according to “western” animal welfare standards, yet they are not wild, or in their natural habitat.

Here is a link to the park, with information about visiting or volunteering there. You can also find the stories of the elephants and how they came to be adopted by the organization.

Facts about Elephants

Elephants look small in the tall grasses

 Elephants on a path in the forest scratch against a tree 
[All images by thelittlemangosteen.com]

3 thoughts on “Kanchanaburi, Thailand

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