The Elephant Sanctuary. A Definite Must Do!
One thing that you can’t miss when in Thailand, is obviously a visit to one of the many elephant sanctuaries that exist. Unless, of course, you suffer from pachydermophobia, in which case this extremely popular activity is probably best avoided. In all other cases, meeting these majestic animals up close, is simply an elephan-tas-tic experience (ok, cheesy pun, I know) you just have to treat yourself to.
Personally, I LOVE LOVE LOVE these animals. To me, they evoke wisdom, serenity and kindness. Yes, I know that an enraged elephant will be anything but serene or kind, but like all other animals, if you treat them right, they will treat you right. And about that, precisely. Here’s the difficult part: there are SO incredibly many places to visit elephants, that to figure out which one to choose and separate the bad seeds from the good, is an elephantesque job (sorry, I did it again). So here’s a bit of advice on how to decide on a sanctuary to visit.
Which sanctuary should I choose?
Firstly, be sure to choose a proper sanctuary and not anything that says farm or otherwise indicates a place that isn’t entirely dedicated to elephant care. I have come across some tour agents or parks that offer elephant activities in addition to other stuff, and my guess is that most times these will be questionable in terms of the animal welfare.
Second, if you go for a sanctuary it mostly shouldn’t be an issue, but make sure that their description states “no riding” in clear. Riding is the traditional tourist activity that is probably great fun for the Joe and Jane being carried around, but much less fun for the elephants, whose backs are actually not built to carry a people load and who often live under continuous stress, because of the unnatural activity being imposed on them. Additionally, the animals will be treated poorly, to keep them in a state of compliance, much like circus animals who suffer from the same issues.
So far, so good. The array of choice will still be unreal. My advice is to read carefully through the leaflets you pick up at your guesthouse or the information given on the sanctuary’s website. Then ask around, listen to other peoples’ experience and consult review sites like TripAdvisor etc. Most places offer similar packages that will include feeding the elephants, taking a walk with them and/or bathe them. There will be slight variations in the time allocated to each activity and a few places don’t offer any real kind of interaction with the animals other than feeding. Then there is of course the location of the sanctuary and what’s included in terms of food or other. You can also go for a tour that combines meeting the elephants with other activities such as river rafting, visiting a local hill tribe or hiking to a waterfall. Decide on what is important to you: is it the setting? the time spent with the elephants? the quality of the included lunch? the size of the sanctuary? Then make your choice from there.
For me, it was walking with the elephants through the forest/jungle. One of the kids was very drawn to the rafting and because their Dad was visiting us this week as well, and also really wanted to get as much from his week as possible, we decided on a combined day trip that included white water rafting, sanctuary visit and waterfall bathing. It was amazing.
Toto’s Elephant Sanctuary.
We selected a place called Toto’s Elephant Sanctuary and chose a combined full day 3-activity tour. The reason for our choice, was the perceived value for money (1700THB/adult, 1000THB/child u. 12) as well as an outstanding review record on TripAdvisor. Moreover, the sanctuary states that their elephants are rescue animals from circuses or the timber industry for instance.
We were picked up from our guesthouse at 8.30 am by our guide, Jimmy, and the driver (whose name I didn’t catch). After picking up a few more guests, we drove north for about an hour an a half. The ride was by air-conditioned minivan, so very agreeable, and we were a small group of only 12 people in total. The seats were a bit uncomfortable, as the back of the seat was extremely straight, like in a 90° angle, lol. But of the entire trip, this was the only less than perfect point.
Row, row, row your boat – wildly down the stream 😀
First stop was the river rafting. After getting equipped with helmets and life jackets and being instructed in how to manoeuver the raft, time to get on board! Our small family shared a raft with the guide, I think because we had small children along, he wanted to make sure we would manage. The start was rough, waves and splashing water from the get go, but we got a good hang of the technique (which really is just paddling like crazy when the rapids are coming) and following the captain’s lead when you need to stop and let the raft flow freely. A couple of times our raft turned around, and for some odd reason, the kids were freezing in the beginning. They quickly warmed up though and had an amazing time going down the rapids. We were all soaked at the arrival point, but Jimmy had dry sanctuary ‘uniforms’ (traditional outfits) for everyone, awesome.
Next up, the sanctuary. After a quick drive, we arrived just in time for lunch, which was being prepared while we got to feed bananas to the elephants. So much fun. This sanctuary has four elephants, three adults and a baby. Too cute. The kids were approaching them VERY timidly to begin with, but had a fantastic time sticking bananas onto the trunk of the elephants, which would then toss them in their mouths in a split second 😀
After a delicious lunch (included in the price) of Pad Thai and fresh fruit, it was time to go on the walking tour. Words can honestly not describe the sensation of walking RIGHT next to a huge elephant, like you were walking your dog and not a 1-ton animal. But when they are treated right, elephants are gentle giants and though it was impressive, not once did it feel or appear unsafe or scary. The walk took about 40 minutes or so, I didn’t look at the time, too occupied admiring the elephants and observing the kids’ reactions. They LOVED the walk. Both smaller kids had a bamboo stick and looked so terribly cute in their ‘villager outfit’ – but I digress down the oohing and aahing mother route, sorry.
The surroundings too were beautiful, with a couple of really nice views along the way. The route took us through several streams, so be sure to bring flip-flops or sandals along. The kids were offered piggy back rides from the guide and mahouts to pass the waters, so kind. Our guide, Jimmy, was both friendly and humoristic and did a great job of creating a chilled and super pleasant atmosphere. Back from the walk, we were offered to participate in bathing the elephants. We didn’t do that, as non of us really felt like getting in the muddy water, but I was observing the activity, and was glad to see that it was done in (what seemed at least) a respectful way (ie. no one was climbing on the elephants and no large group of overexcited people jumping and being noisy around them). We were also explained that because it is a small sanctuary and their location allows it, the elephants aren’t chained at night, but roam free.
Mok Fa Waterfall.
Last item on the program, the waterfall bathing. After a short ride and a 5-min walk up a small river, we arrived at a beautiful waterfall with a small, natural pool. Everyone jumped in to bathe, except yours truly and one other woman apparently as cold sensitive as me, lol. The kids had a blast, obviously, and good thing their Dad was visiting at this time, because otherwise I would have had to jump in with them, brrrr!
The only thing I had a few concerns about before the tour, was whether it might feel too packed or crammed, with three activities in one day. It didn’t at all. On the contrary, the rafting was a good amount of time for a first time and we had plenty of time with the elephants. The waterfall too, was given enough space in the program, to appreciate it properly. So, like I said in the beginning, there are one million sanctuaries to choose from out there, and many of them will be fine, some not. This one is definitely recommendable imo, for the value of money, the quality of the activities offered, the customer service and the ethical profile.