Kalaw is an old colonial hill station, situated in the western Shan State. It has a laid back vibe, a refreshing, cooler climate and scenic views. As we climbed higher in the minibus to reach Kalaw, the scenery grew more spectacular and terrifying (the drivers here have no mercy). Many of Kalaw’s original colonial buildings remain, and it is also known as Myanmar’s trekking mecca. We had one full day to soak it up before we completed the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek ourselves. Top of the agenda was a visit to the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp.

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Founded in 2011 by a family with a history of working with elephants in the Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE), the focus of the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp is on providing care for elephants that are no longer fit to work. The family recognised that Myanmar elephants working in timber camps were in a precarious situation as logging has slowed down in recent years, due to a variety of factors. Myanmar has the second largest number of elephants in the world (India being the first) with only 4,000-5,000 left in the wild. In 2012, the family adopted several disabled elephants from the MTE and a five-year-old male was added later that year. The income provided by visitors allows the elephants to enjoy their full retirement and receive the veterinary care they require.

We were greeted at 9am at the camp in Magwe Village, before being briefed on the history behind the sanctuary and some tips on how we were expected to behave around the elephants. After a thorough run through of housekeeping, the group of roughly 30 was split into smaller units. The four of us were in one group together with a personal guide who walked us down the sanctuary to two large straw huts housing 5 beautiful elephants, ready to be fed. Four of the elephants were old retired females in their 40s – 60s.  The fifth was a young male, now 8 years old.

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The elephants at the camp eat 150kg of food a day, and the visitors are responsible for making sure all of them meet this target by hand feeding tonnes of chopped pumpkin, banana tree and wheat balls (a sweet treat supplement). The food was handed to us by the bucketful and we got stuck in immediately, offering slices both directly into the elephant’s mouths and to their tactile trunks. They were incredibly gentle and the experience left us in awe.

It was quickly made apparent that the elephants had their own unique personalities that we got to know as the day progressed. It was easy to react sensitively to their body language when you find yourself so close to these powerful, dinosaur-like beasts. The elephants were so gentle when accepting food yet there was no ignoring their underlying strength. They had steel grips on their trunks when negotiating the slices of vegetable from our hands. We were told to talk to them as we approached, and reward them with food every time we touched their leathery skin. It was clear that these animals were enjoying their twilight years in one of the best retirement homes around, many wearing battle scars and branding as a reminder of their logging days.

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We followed the elephants down to the nearby river where they are bathed at least once a day. As elephants don’t have sweat glands, they must cool off in the water in order to regulate their body temperatures. We were given the privilege of helping to scrub down Moetomai. She took her time easing herself into the cool water, completely calm and unaware of her pure magnificence and the impression she left on us.

It’s clear that the elephants are really well looked after and the whole experience is an extremely ethical way in which tourists can be involved in their care. Green Hill Valley relies on Ba, the on site vet, to provide medical care for the retired elephants and we were guided over to his ‘office’ to chat and ask questions. Over 30 years ago, Ba has worked with the Myanmar Timber Enterprise Elephant Department and has a wealth of experience with both wild and domesticated elephants.

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At the end of the visit, we observed how the elephant poo is recycled and made into paper after drying out in the sun. We also planted a teak sapling to help with reforestation, so the whole side of the hill is covered in saplings. The idea is to not only encourage forest recovery, but also to educate the local community about the importance of reforestation and the risks posed by this issue. The camp itself sits on beautiful Shan State countryside and most of the day felt like walking in the Garden of Eden. It was a really magical day spent in a dreamy bubble of paradise that emphasised to us the fragility as well as the power of these beautiful creatures.