For anyone travelling in South East Asia, Thailand is famed for its vast array of elephant tours and sanctuaries, both positively and negatively. The most desired activity in the North (followed closely by cooking classes and Muay Thai boxing) is a day with elephants, and we were sucked straight into this idea. However, we did our research beforehand and opted for a day in an elephant sanctuary.
Although this seems like the most exciting and tale-worthy experience with elephants, it’s actually incredibly cruel, and elephants are often rescued from places which offer riding. In order to tame an elephant enough to make it safe for tourists to ride them, they are essentially beaten from a young age, torn from their mothers and starved so they become submissive, which is an utterly horrendous technique. Furthermore, the fact that such animal cruelty occurs for tourists makes it even more despicable; travellers have paid for animals to live miserable lives, for the sake of ‘entertainment’. Thankfully, there is a vast array of sanctuaries that have rescued elephants from this, and now use tourist money to ensure they live happy lives.
WHY GO TO ELEPHANT SANCTUARIES?
Whilst you don’t get to experience riding an elephant, you get to live with the knowledge that you are not funding animal cruelty. Moreover, the day itself is full of other, more fulfilling activities that help you care for such a precious animal, rather than endanger it. Our day was filled with bathing and feeding the elephants, and learning to make special ‘medicine’ for them, as well as hundreds of photo opportunities!
We were taken to an elephant sanctuary very early in the morning, with a guide that had swallowed one too many pages from the urban dictionary and kept coming out with phrases such as “let’s hit the town!” We changed into (hideous) overalls, and headed out to meet out elephants, who had all been rescued from either a circus or a riding centre – and one had even escaped into a village, before being rescued!
Our biggest task was feeding the elephants, which happened three or four times during our day. Elephants eat around 200kg of food per day each, so it’s a huge task! We fed them bananas to get to know them, and they grabbed bushels of them with their trunks, throwing them into their mouths in fast, repetitive motions. It was like watching a conveyor belt of food go into their mouths – these animals are greedy! We also ventured into a green patch and chopped plenty of tall grass, which they once again consumed at astonishing speed!
After feeding, our next task was bathing them. The saying “happy as a fish in water” could easily swap out the fish for an elephant; the second they went into the lake, they submerged themselves with delight and practically went snorkelling! Our happy elephants rolled around as though they weighed nothing (despite weighing almost 3 tonnes!), and we had to make sure one of their playful kicks didn’t break a rib! We were all given a brush and bucket and waded in happily after them, keeping them wet and washing as best we could! Who knew elephants loved water? NOTE: We thought we were standing on a soft riverbed, but it turns out to be sunken elephant poo – they release around 70kg of poop a day! Ew!
Finally, we learned how to make elephant ‘medicine’, after a long day of playing with them. We were taken to a shaded area with a huge mortar and pestle, and we took it in turns to crush out ingredients such as salt and ginger into paste. This apparently aided their digestion which, given the sheer quantity of food, seemed like a good idea! Plus, they really seemed to like it!
When it was eventually time to head back to our hostel, we had to say goodbye to our elephants. Naturally, the best way to do this was with some more bananas – which, we found out were donated from the local village when they were past human edibility. It was particularly touching because the elephants held your hand with their trunks in farewell, and one even brought us a flower! True love? We think so!
In all seriousness, we think a day with elephants is a must-do, but be careful what you sign up for! These creatures are innocent and loveable, and don’t deserve to be tortured for tourist demands, so opt for a sanctuary day instead of riding! You’ll have the best day, guaranteed!