Anyone visiting Thailand is likely familiar with the significance of elephants in Thai history and culture. What many people don’t realize, however, is the complexity of Thai elephants’ history of abuse.
More recently, pressure has been mounting to dismount the elephants. With the resulting decrease in riding camps has come an increase in “sanctuaries”, where in many cases volunteers pay to spend a day “helping” the elephants - this consists mainly of feeding them, walking them and bathing them with mud. The latter two activities are particularly intimate and not really appropriate for wild animals. Research shows that elephants rehabilitated successfully and released into the wild choose to move further from humans over time. Also, the endless bathing activities with new groups of noisy strangers can prove stressful to these intelligent and highly social (amongst themselves) creatures. Moreover, many so-called sanctuaries, it has been found, still use questionable “training” methods in order to ingratiate themselves with human visitors, most of whom remain woefully misinformed when it comes to elephant rescue.
It’s tough, therefore, for those traveling to Thailand and who want to spend time with these majestic creatures in a humane way, to know where to begin. And many tourists, it seems, do little to no research before embarking on their elephant adventure.
We selected from online an outfit that seemed to have very little to no physical interaction with the elephants, one that focused, rather, on education and delicious vegetarian food. The program offered much observation and learning about the elephants; we even feed them a few times, and since we had booked a full-day experience, we were treated to an extended buffet lunch followed by a cozy nap in our own private “treehouse” overlooking a little lake.
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary takes a largely “observation-only” approach, though we were permitted and encouraged to feed the elephants twice during our visit.
After meandering around part of the property observing the elephants and their mahouds at some distance, we came back to the main building for a tasty vegetarian buffet, followed by some free time lounging about in the treehouse.
After lunch, it was time to go for a hike in the jungle to pick some bamboo and banana leaves for one of the older elephants, who was not yet spending much time outside her large stockade, on account of her anxiety and hostility towards other elephants and people.
Then the three of us headed out to the jungle with our two guides to collect browse.
After hiking back with our treasures, we unpacked for the recipent’s mahoud to sort and feed the elephant. Then we moved back to the main building to prepare the afternoon “snack” for the elephants (a large basket of bananas, melon and other fruit that would be fed to them by the next group of tourists).
We also made “rice balls”, which consisted of rice, squash, bananas and some sort of nutritional supplement, mashed together and formed into balls, which we were later able to feed two of the elephants with no teeth!
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Spending a day at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in Paklok brought with it many treasured memories, and not once did I feel like I needed to be in the water with them bathing together to get a full appreciation of these magnificent creatures!