For years we have dreamt of meeting the beautiful elephants of Asia, but after hearing many horror stories of bad treatment and awful conditions we were wary of doing more harm than good in seeking out this dream interaction. After much research, speaking to others who had visited many of the sanctuaries and so called “sanctuaries” we felt like we could make the most informed decision and contribute towards the rescue of these beautiful creatures at an amazing Elephant sanctuary Thailand
A changing dream to visit these wonderful animals
As annoyed as I get when I see people riding elephants I can also understand that many people are ignorant to the issues that I will go into more detail about below. But many years ago I remember having a dream of riding an elephant, I knew little of what that really meant but I was young and filled with the romantic idea of this traditional way of getting around South East Asia. However as time went on I learnt and became more aware of the lives and the plight of these beautiful animals and my dreams shifted from riding them to looking after them and visiting a place that would contribute to bettering their lives.
In so many ways this is just another reason why I am glad we waited until we were older to go backpacking and why I believe that your later 20’s is the best time to travel as you are much aware of the world at this age.
The importance in knowing why you shouldn’t ride them
Many people still head over to South East Asia with the dream of riding elephants, when confronted with the idea that this is harmful, unethical and torturous most of these people fail to see how riding such a large creature could cause them pain.
The thing with riding elephants is that their vertebrae is designed in a different way to that of the horse or even the buffalo which is the Asian equivalent in the role they play in this part of the world. An elephant had additional spines coming off the top of their vertebrae meaning that this area is sensitive to weight and much more delicate than this huge animals first appear. Add the heavy metal frame to the mix and many elephants have to endure crippling back pain.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg, most elephants have to endure years of mental and physical torture in order to be broken. Elephants aren’t a domesticated animal and don’t have the connection to humans as that of the horse, it needs to be taken as a baby, ripped away cruelly from its mother and its spirit broken in a process known as Phajaan, or “the crush”. These babies are confined to a cage and learn to obey the humans as their masters in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome type of behaviour. But elephants are also powerful and never forget, often these tortured animals will one day turn on the humans around them and crush them.
Selecting the right place that protects the elephants
So after learning all about why we shouldn’t ride animals we also learnt that many of the so called sanctuaries in Chiang Mai and Thailand as a whole also still abuse their so called rescued animals. It felt like a real challenge to actually find somewhere that where we could interact with these amazing animals without harming them and actually contribute towards them having a better life. Many of the fake sanctuaries still chain their elephants up, still use the cruel hooks used to break them, still make them perform and keep them in the confined setting that cause mental problems for the elephants.
Over the course of our research we came across two companies: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and Elephant Nature Park. Any other we felt uneasy visiting.
These places take animals from the trekking companies that ride elephants and also the logging industry that has decimated both the population of the Asian elephant and their natural environment. They keep them in large and protected areas, keep mothers and babies together and have a real passion for the welfare of these animals rather that just exploiting them for tourism. The money you pay here goes directly towards rescuing more elephants, improving their surroundings, feeding them and one day hopefully reintroducing them into the wild.
Learning about these wonderful animals
The first thing we did when we arrived in camp was to sit down whilst the elephants were wandering up to the feeding area. They introduced us to this small herd, showed us the differences between the Asian and African elephants and educated us as to their plight historically in this area.
Importantly they also told us how to behave around the elephants, how to approach them and how to ensure that they are comfortable and never overwhelmed or afraid. It was important to their handlers, who have a personal relationship to their elephants, that they benefit from these interactions.
Interacting with the elephants: Feeding and bathing
The best part of the day was finally getting to interact with these beautiful creatures. Initially we were a little scared of such huge and powerful animals but the more time we spent with them and the more we got to know their calm and friendly nature the more comfortable we felt. Feeding them palm leaves and bananas really got them excited and allowed us get up and close to them and see how their amazingly dextrous trunks work, fascinating really.
We then moved on to the mud bath where the elephants (and us) would be covered in the stuff! It is great for their skin and for social interaction with each other and to reenforce a positive and playful relationship with humans. What I also loved was that one of the babies who was a bit of a tearaway got a little fed up in there and they recognised this straight away and took him and his mum back up to the feeding area. The handlers have a real connection and understanding of these animals.
The best bit of the day however was washing the elephants down in the river. Elephants love the water and love to be cooled down on a hot day. You should really see and hear the fun they were having in the water, throwing their trunks around in joy and the little ones making as much noise as they could. We all had a huge water fight and the elephants joined in once we were done washing the mud off them. It was such a pleasure to see how happy and content they are here too.
Later on we also got to meet some of the senior members of the herd and fed them softer bananas in a special area reserved just for them and their changing needs. It was sad to think how many years of mistreatment they had endured especially the older ones, but it was so wonderful to see them live out the rest of their years here and also know that these babies would never go through what they did.
How to visit the elephants for yourself
We booked our tour through our hostel and specified which camp we wanted to visit.
They offer several options including volunteering for longer, full day tours and half day.
We chose a half day due to money constraints but were pleasantly surprised by what we got for that and how long our experience lasted.
The trip included pick up and drop off as well as lunch.
Elephant sanctuary Thailand: Price for half day is: 1,700 ( £38.60 / $49.49)
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