CHOOSING THE RIGHT SANCTUARY
When the hubby and I decided to take a trip to Thailand, I knew right away that I wanted to visit an elephant sanctuary. Of course just because a place is called a sanctuary, doesn’t necessarily make it true. There are some places that call themselves “sanctuaries,” but still allow riding, make the elephants perform or even keep them chained up. Having visited an elephant “sanctuary” in India only to find several sad elephants chained to pillars in a small enclosure, I knew how important it was to do lots of thorough research before deciding which sanctuary to visit.
Thanks to tourists and animals rights activists, circuses and elephant riding camps have slowly been shutting down all over Thailand. Since tourists no longer wish to pay to see elephants exploited and mistreated, these sorts of businesses are no longer profitable and are forcing a big change. Little by little, elephant sanctuaries have been popping up in their place and rescuing these elephants.
ELEPHANT JUNGLE SANCTUARY
After weeks of reading through various blogs, reviews and websites I finally decided on Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. They have a few tours to choose from: half day, full day or overnight. Since our trip was short, we went with the half day morning visit. This began with a 1.5 hour drive in the back of a truck (songthaew) with 7 other people at 6:30 am. I’m not exactly an early to rise kinda gal, but carpe diem, am I right? The drive was long, but we got to stop for breakfast at a pit stop half way through the drive. While just about everyone ran to the 7-11, the hubby and I followed our noses into a little bakery filled with stuffed croissants, quiches and other pastries fresh out of the oven. Why anyone would choose 7-11 over this place is beyond me, but it was one of the best bakeries I’ve been to in a long time.
Not long after, we found ourselves in the mountains surrounded by lush greenery. We began to see hints of elephant trunks through the trees and I think everyone was starting to get really excited. When we arrived we were greeted and asked to change into a uniform shirt that all the workers wear. The elephants don’t have great eyesight, but they have become familiar the shirts, so by wearing them, it makes them more comfortable, plus it helps keep your clothes a little less dirty.
Before we had any interaction with the elephants, we were given a bit of a history lesson. We learned quite a bit about elephants, their biology, behavior and habitats. This was followed by lots of information on the poor treatment of elephants in Thailand and how over the past 5 years this has started to change. Elephant sanctuaries are a relatively new concept in Thailand and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary has been around for about 4 of those 5 years. Now, there are 20 different sanctuaries in Chiang Mai alone.
I feel it’s very important to note that all these elephants have been domesticated (so to speak) and cannot be returned to the wild. People owned elephants to use for logging, but after logging stopped, they no longer had the money to take care of them. If they set the elephants loose, they would stampede through villages and devour the crops of neighboring farms. As a result, these elephants were often killed. So the sanctuary began buying them from their owners. They also took in surrendered elephants or bought them back from circuses or riding camps where they faced daily abuse.
These sanctuaries have basically become retirement homes where these poor beautiful animals can live out the remainder of their days in peace and happiness, unchained and with plenty of food and space to safely roam.
After our briefing, I noticed a row of elephants, descending from the mountains like mighty titans. I had never been THAT close to such large animals before and I was about to get a whole lot closer! So, after washing our hands it was time to feed the elephants! Huge baskets of bananas were brought out and we were shown the different ways to feed them. Yes, there is more than one way to feed an elephant… three in this case. We had the options tossing bananas into their mouths (from a comfortable distance), handing them to their trunks (if we’re feeling a bit adventurous) or directly placing them in their mouths (like a goddamn king of the jungle). Personally I tried all the methods, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t more then a little frightening placing food in a mouth that large… and wet… and surprisingly gummy.
They were massive and the only thing separating us now was a sort of wooden pen with no actual closed end. All these elephants were female with the exception of a 1.5 year old baby boy who was probably too cute for his own good. He had no problem wrapping his trunk around my arm and drawing my banana filled hands directly to his mouth. According to the care takers, he’s quite the naughty boy =)
Another elephant used be a circus elephant. We became quite close, as her trunk constantly made its way to my face so she could “kiss” me for a banana. It was like being kissed by a wet vacuum cleaner that tasted like bananas and dirt. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve been French’d by an elephant.
Once all the bananas were gone, the elephants moved out of the “pen” and began to wander around the open grounds of the camp. It was time for us to leave the barriers behind as well and properly greet our hosts. At this point, we were allowed to go right up to the elephants and pet them, take pictures and just take in the awesomeness of getting to be in the presence of such amazing animals. There was no pressure or set time table to follow, so everything was pretty laid back. The elephants munched on leaves and sugar cane while we tried not to get stepped on. You never want to stand directly behind an elephant… for more reasons than one.
Once the elephants had finished snacking, we all changed into our swimsuits and headed to a mud pit for a little spa day with the elephants. Since it’s so hot in Thailand, the elephants get several mud baths a day to protect their skin and help keep them nice and cool. Now there was no barrier, hell not even a safety net. The fact of the matter was, we were having a spa day… with elephants. While the older elephants stood around and enjoyed people packing mud on them, the younger elephants rolled around in it like dogs. Imagine being next to an animal that size when it decides to flop sideways into a pool of mud. Legs, trunks, mud flying everywhere!
This part didn’t take long since most of the elephants did the work themselves. When they were done, they were done. Then it was straight to the river for a nice bath.
The elephants seemed to enjoy this part the most, as did the people. Everyone was splashing around and I don’t think there is any way to possibly get closer to an elephant that to be half way on her belly giving her a nice cool scrub down. Apparently, this is where elephants are most comfortable and enjoy interacting with people. Elephants really like to be clean since their skin is so sensitive and people can help clean the harder to reach spots. So it’s a really great bonding experience. I’m not gonna lie, the water was freezing, but in this kind of situation, you don’t really get to ease your way into it. You just have to jump in, dodge the occasional floating ball of poop and make sure you don’t get sat on.
Once the elephants were ready to come out, we hit the showers, changed and got ready for lunch. Lunch is prepared in a small kitchen right on site. As long as we were hungry, the food just kept rolling out and we had certainly worked up an appetite. They served an unlimited supply of potatoes, egg, veggies, rice and pineapples and it was 100% delicious. Half way into lunch, it suddenly started to pour, so we got to watch the elephants frolicking through the rain while we ate. It was nothing short of amazing.
After lunch we got to say goodbye to our new friends and feed them some more bananas one last time. The whole experience was surreal and not one I’ll soon forget. When you visit these sanctuaries, you’re not just a visitor, you’re a volunteer. Feeding, mud spas, bathing and general human integration are all things these elephants need on a daily basis. On top of that, all the proceeds and anything extra you donate goes towards rescuing more elephants, buying food, paying for vet bills and acquiring more land for them to safely roam. I can’t think of a better way to have spent my time.