The idyllic setting of the River Kwai Jungle Rafts.
The idyllic setting of the River Kwai Jungle Rafts.

I'm hanging out for a trunk call

IT'S not every day you wake up to see adult elephants bathing beside your hammock.

The exception, of course, is if you are staying on the River Kwai Jungle Rafts in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Then you will.

With a penchant for all things pachyderm, I have set myself up on the back veranda of my floating hotel room - camera flailing around my neck, arms hanging over the bamboo railing and legs dangling over the side of the deck.

I have been told to be ready from 7am for the daily spectacle I do not want to miss.

They are late.

But soon I hear someone further up the river bank yell, "There they are!".

First one, then another.

I am instantly mesmerised by every slow step, every swing of the trunk, every flick of an ear.

Like obedient overgrown puppies, the elephants listen and react to their mahout's every command.

Willingly, slowly and gracefully, they plod down the slight incline from their tropical jungle village only metres away, over the soft sand to the welcome cool of the fast-flowing river at low tide.

I wonder how such a mammoth creature can appear so gentle.

At one point, they both immerse their massive bodies completely, with the mahouts crouching on their backs like they are walking on water.

As the elephants continue their playful "submarine dive" with built-in snorkel, the mahouts scrub their backs clean.

Once bath-time is over, the elephants stand and drip-dry on their well-worn track atop the beach, right in front of my room.

While their masters enjoy "smoko", the elephants munch away at their own snacks.

I laugh out loud as one demonstrates the dexterity of its trunk, scratching its underbelly itch using a stick.

Soon after, they leave and I start to pack up. But then I am greeted with a third elephant meandering down the track.

This time, the mahout spots me and gives an enthusiastic wave before the whole routine transpires once again - right in front of me.

The elephants are working animals for the Mon people - a Burmese ethnic group credited with the spread of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar and Thailand.

They built their village here, only 18km from the Myanmar border, when the resort was established in 1976.

The Mon people now number about 13 families comprising 70-80 people and the resort owner has built them a pagoda and temple.

Their elephants do heavy lifting and chores humans are unable to do, and as they are vital to village life, they are treated well, with no use of bullhooks for discipline.

I am lucky enough to come face to face with my big-eared celebrities outside their "high-rise home" later that morning on a walking tour of the Mon village, accessed by a short, wobbly gangway linking the raft complex to the river bank.

In this idyllic spot with the backdrop of monstrous and misty karst mountains of the Num Won Range in Sai Yok National Park, the Mons live simply and self-sufficiently.

Many work long hours and take on several roles in the resort - from cooks, waiters, bar staff and cleaners, to masseurs and dancers in the traditional shows put on for guests at night by gaslight.

Others operate stalls in front of their homes, selling items such as fabrics, handmade garments and carved wood puppets and masks.

Their children attend the village kindergarten and primary school.

That night, as the river gently sways my hammock, with the light from the Tilley lantern throwing my shadow onto the dried grass roof and high tide gently lapping below in a soothing lullaby, my thoughts again turn to the elephants.

Do they, like me, bask in the quiet of the river at night - broken only here and there by the laughter of guests in the relaxed atmosphere they have come here for?

Do they, like me, enjoy seeing every creature bathed in a flattering golden glow from the lanterns that light the entire resort?

Do they, like me, enjoy the river symphony - the creaking of the rafts at night, and the rooster crowing amid the other birdsong in the morning?

I think they would, because they, like me, enjoy the simple pleasures of life no matter where we roam.


Who to tour with

Absolutely Fantastic Holidays. Visit

Where to stay

The River Kwai Jungle Rafts. The original floating hotel on River Kwai in Kanchanaburi was established in 1976 with a tropical rainforest, mountain backdrop, historical river, and village life.

No electricity is used: lanterns create a magical atmosphere at night.

The accommodation tariff includes a hearty set-dinner banquet and breakfast. The unpretentious rooms have queen or single beds, Thai toilet, shower and sink, nightstand and mosquito net.

One of the most popular activities here is free: floating down the fast-flowing river in a lifejacket from one end of the resort to another.


For a more upmarket river experience, try The Float House River Kwai Resort.


Hintok River Camp at Hellfire Pass is a luxury safari-tented camp on an historic piece of land on the River Kwai.

The resort boasts a natural spring pool and glorious views over the river from the restaurant.



>> To read more travel stories


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