I’ll never forget the first time I saw an Elephant in real life.
Phuket, two years ago. Patrick and I were on our way to a temple in a tuktuk when we passed a baby elephant, a little taller than me, tied by a chain to a post in the ground.
I’ll never forget the sadness that I was overcome with, drenched by.
I remembered all the photos I’d seen of well-meaning relatives riding them when I was a kid, every scene in Water for Elephants when Rosie said more with her soulful stares than a human ever could, and I was shaken.
I’d always wanted to ‘meet’ an elephant, to learn more about them, but not like this. Never like this.
Since then, people have become more and more aware about the tricky bits posed by animal tourism. It can be an absolute grey area, but in Thailand things seem to be looking up; logging (the traditional, commercial use of elephants by Thai people) was banned some time ago and is mostly enforced, and tourists seem to be getting more and more educated on what a happy elephant does and is- see you later, painting for hours on end and getting prodded by pointy sticks.
The new evolution of these beautiful creatures existence in Thailand is a smattering of Elephant Sanctuaries- one of which I was beyond lucky to visit on this trip.
Honestly, going into it I was still a little nervous, and well and truly read up on what to look out for.
After spending a full day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, however, I’m absolutely blissed out and would 11/10 recommend!
My first glimpse!
I was picked up from my hotel at around eight-thirty, and after filling up a troopy with excited folk we set off to around an hour and a half north of Chiang Mai. We stopped on the way for some market tucker and a toilet stop, and arrived at the Sanctuary (after some veeery bumpy dirt roads!) at ten-ish. A couple of people in my group had similar reservations as me, and we chatted about how extensively we’d done our research before picking the spot.
I can’t tell you what it was like seeing a group of elephants for the first time. They were meandering across a valley following the team of staff members (who had arms full of food for them), and they looked so free.
I wish that the calf in 2015 was the last mistreated elephant that I’d seen, but even on the ride up we’d passed farms and attractions with chained elephants on the roadside. These, in comparison, looked chilled out and happy happy.
Before we were let anywhere near them we were given a long list of instructions- we changed into traditional northern thai shirts so that the elephants would be more comfortable with us, we washed all sunscreen, insect repellent etc. off of our hands and arms so that we wouldn’t frazzle them and we were told more times than I can count to give them ride of way- that this was their home, and that if we were in their space and they wanted us out they wouldn’t hesitate to walk away from our selfie / food offering / hug / whatever, walk over us if they felt that that was the quickest and easiest way.
All kitted out in our traditional shirts, heading to the first spot.
And so we were off. Our first interaction (we saw seven elephants at a time, in different parts of the sanctuary, so that they (read: we) were a bit more chilled out and so they could just have a short visit- one a day- and rest) was actually a little bit terrifying- they knew that bananas were coming- ‘bon bon’, we called as we reached to their mouths- and they were ready as heck.
Have you ever had an elephant’s trunk wrapped around your arm and been pretty certain they were gonna gobble it up?
Well, I met Nong-Mai-Noii first, a seventeen year old who was reaching for bananas faster than I could break them from the bunch- I ended up in surrendering the last six to her at once, at which point she promptly ditched me and went to look for someone else with food. What happened to best friends forever, Nong Mai Noii??
After my unceremonious dumping I wandered over to a large, slow girl who seemed a bit more my pace. Mae-Boon-Sri, the Karen-Village man who spends his days with her told me, is fifty-seven years old (!!), and has had a really tough life. She worked as a logger way back when, and went through a series of elephant shows and riding camps before she joined the sanctuary. She has had a number of babies, only two of whom have survived. One of these works at a riding camp currently, and the other, born in the sanctuary, is happy and healthy. It was hard to imagine looking at the beautiful great lady before me that she’d been through so much, and I felt so grateful that she was here, munching on a banana, blinking slowly through long lashes and not in a hurry to do very much at all.
Calm and gently Mae-Bon-Sri.
Giving Mae-Boon-Sri a squeeze I made my way over to the baby elephant on the block- Peter. ‘Funny name!’ our guide said, and all the locals seemed to agree, but funny name or not he was an absolute cutie and he knew it. He was the only calf in this section of the sanctuary and he was loving the attention (and extra bananas!) he was getting from everyone in the group. He was another quick eater, but standing only a little bit taller than me made him less of a trample-risk in my mind, so I stuck around and got to know him. He was born in the sanctuary two years ago, and had known nothing but lots of food and strolls around the valley in his time. You could kind of tell- he had a lack of weariness that some of the elephants wore on their brow, a curiosity and a spark that was contagious.
There were four more elephants in this area but I only met the three- it seemed like everyone who was there was there to really learn and get an in-depth experience, by which I was very humbled, especially considering the treatment by tourists I’d seen elsewhere.
The next spot we went to was the Tranquil Valley- here we hung out with the elephants, instead of feeding them. It was very chilled out, and we all stood around while our guide told us a heap of information about the care that the sanctuary provides (from medical to physical to mental) and watched the elephants sway their ears to keep cool in the morning sun.
Our third stop was in meeting the babies- a great sign, since I’d read that happy elephants have young, and there was no shortage! We didn’t get close to them as the sanctuary tries to give them a pretty normal life, we just watched them hang out with their mamas and splash each other in the stream.
Mamas and babies blocking the path.
Baby elephants have undergone some of the most awful treatment in northern thailand- I’m not going to go into it but the term is phajaan if you’d like to learn more- so we were all thankful that our interaction wasn’t forced on these guys- that they just got to be babies, in a protected environment.
When it was time for lunch, the elephants were kiiind of in the way. We’d trekked over muddy terrain (goodbye, shoe!) and now there was a massive roadblock to the path we were going to take. I held my breath- was their going to be shouting by the staff, or worse, those pointy sticks I’d read about people using online? Nope. We took the scenic route, had lunch a little late, and were happy as can be.
After a lot of thai food for lunch, we all sat around as the midday heat passed over us. The shelters were super cute, might I add. After napping and chatting and absolutely grilling the guide, in my case, we made nutrient balls for the elephants we were going to meet next.
Actually, I should probably mention the grilling. I wasn’t trying to go hard on the guy at all, he seemed really nice, but I didn’t want to go spreading the word about this place to find out or realise later that I’d misunderstood or been misinformed in any way! I asked him:
when the camp started (2014),
where they got the elephants from, as I’d heard of illegal buying from poachers being a thing in that part of the world (they bought them from nearby villages where they were used for entertainment, and in turn quite a few of those elephants had babies when they were healthy and content),
how they received treatment if they were ill (a vet came from the closest large town, and they were transported to an animal hospital in the same town if necessary),
how much exercise they got (some every day but most of the time they just ate),
and what he personally liked about the job (‘the elephants have a happy life, so I have a happy life. This is life’.)
It all checked out and I was pretty confident that the language barrier wasn’t too much of a hassle, it seemed like he wasn’t used to getting all of these questions thrown at him when he was trying to have a kip but all things considered, handled it well. Good stuff.
The nutrient balls were the next bit- a mishmash of rice, banana and some stinky bark that is apparently really good for elephant teeth and digestion!
Making nutrient-balls for the elephants!
We mixed them up in a group, changed into our bathers and set off for the final part of the day- a massive mud bath!!
If the elephants loved the nutrient balls then they were nuts about the spa. I can’t blame them, the day was hot and the air was unseasonably dry, and the chance to go boonta in a massive lake full of cool, wet mud was pretty hard to miss. We all got stuck in, covering them with mud and screaming as they threw it back as us, on each other and on themselves before they lay down and wiggled around, making sure they were coated.
Splashing together in the mud.
The mud also protects them from insect bites, we were told. Handy, because by this point we were all covered head-to-toe and an extra bonus could only be a good thing!
After the spa we followed them to a running river close by and all helped them rinse off with bowls of water. When we were all mud-free, we waved goodbye and walked back up to the deck where we’d learned and eaten, put on our clothes and watched them enjoy some more food and chuck dirt all over the places we’d just scrubbed clean (like a dog does!).
It was a soul-enriching, heart-warming day and I could not be more glad that I went along. I was so knackered on the ride home that I slept through almost two hours of Chiang Mai peak hour traffic, and before I dozed off that night I looked back on the twelve hours before with a big smile for sure.