Where not to go
When in Thailand, there’s one thing that’s on the top of many peoples’ lists: bathing with elephants. We were no different. From the moment we arrived we were bombarded with offers. On the way to our hostel the taxi driver tried to sell us tickets by showing us pictures of elephants painting or walking on their back legs. Instant “no”. We were looking for somewhere that didn’t train, chain or mistreat their animals. Not only that, we wanted somewhere that didn’t offer elephant rides, as recent studies have found them to be harmful to their health.
Where to go
Everyone seemed to recommend Elephant Nature Park, a large and well established place that was booked up months in advance. After hours of searching I found Happy Elephant Home, a sanctuary that rescues performing animals. Fairly new, they only had four elephants and a relatively small area. For a whole day of walking, feeding and bathing, from pick up to drop off, we paid 2400 Baht (roughly £46) each. There are cheaper ways to get up close to an elephant, but if you’re looking for a sanctuary that puts the animals first, you’re going to have to pay a bit more. Luckily, the money goes straight to their upkeep.
Our day began when we were picked up by our very enthusiastic guide. The ride took about an hour, out of the city and into jungles and rice paddies. A little nervous and still not sure what to expect, we arrived. There were eight couples in total; the groups are kept small so everyone has the chance to get one-on-one time.
That was where we saw our first elephant. Rescued from overwork, you could still see marks on her back where seats had worn away at her. Yet here she was walking freely about a field. The grandma of the herd, she’d been too tired to join the others on a trip to the river. Although Asian elephants are relatively small, she was still intimidating. It took us a while to relax around her. We were given bunches of bananas that she grabbed from our hands, slobbering slightly. She inspected everyone, waving her trunk in front of our faces. I stroked it to find it rough and covered in stiff hairs.
We were given traditional Mahout clothing to change into (this could be messy work!) and our names were written in Thai on our hands. We were taught Thai words that the elephants should – in theory – respond to. “Di”, pronounced “dee”, means “good”. “Ma” means “come”.
While we waited for the other elephants to return from their morning walk, we were shown how to prepare their food. Our guide took out a Thai jungle knife and chopped wildly at sugar canes. While the adults could eat them whole, the baby couldn’t. We had to strip the bark and chop them into bite-sized chunks. The bananas we had to peel. And we were given a pumpkin that we smashed against a tree stump.
Out of nowhere baby Mina came charging towards us. Only 8 months old, she was a right character. Already too heavy to push, we had to entice her to the other field with food. She and her carer, a young boy, had a true bond. She playfully bowled him over and he fed her from his mouth.
Mina’s mum was there as well, and another, who was blind in one eye. We were shown on which side of her to stand. We fed them sugarcane and scratched them behind the ears. They took any food we offered, even if their mouths were already full, and snapped the sugar canes like it was nothing.
The Mud Hole
We lead them up to a mud hole amidst calls of “ma, ma, ma”. Mina showed off, splashing around, slipping and rolling over untill she was covered trunk to tail. The adults filled their trunks with muddy water and sprayed it over their backs. It wasn’t long untill we were all covered in it. So we got stuck in, rubbing the mud over their bellies and as high up their backs as we could reach.
We washed off as best we could for lunch that was included. There was spicy curry, omelet, vegetables (the same type of pumpkin we’d fed to the elephants earlier) and watermelon. They offered us coffee brewed from beans found in the elephants’ dung. Unfortunately, I don’t drink coffee.
While we ate, the elephants got a head start on the walk down to the river. Although they’re big, they walk slowly and get distracted easily by the fields of banana trees that line the way.
We joined the elephants as they walked along the river. Mina kept running off and had to be reigned in by her mother. Our guide pointed out a few brown things bobbing in the water. She convinced some that they were crocodiles floating with their heads just above the surface, others that they were huge toads. In fact, it was dung. The river ran around the Elephant Nature Park and was a popular spot for bathing.
The elephants knew where they were going and we followed them down to the water’s edge. They and their carers raced in, swimming in the deep water. We were slightly more cautious having just seen the dung, eventually wading in upstream. The water was refreshing and washed off the mud and elephant drool.
Our guide handed out buckets to splash the herd but it was insignificant compared to the amount of water they were splashing around. Everyone got soaked whether they wanted to or not. Mina hid under water with just her trunk poking out. One of the staff took action shots and there was plenty of time for photos.
All tired out, we headed back, the sun quickly drying us. It was a day I’ll never forget with such magestic, family-orientated creatures. I completely understand why it’s such a huge part of the Thai tourist trade. I only hope that the situation continues to improve for the elephants, and that will only happen if we, as tourists, go to sanctuaries like this rather than circuses.