Don’t get me started on elephant places in Asia. On second thought, do! I’ve put a lot of time into this.
Some Elephants World residents
I really wanted to have an ethical elephant experience with the kids, so I looked around online quite a bit. As it turns out, there are many sanctuaries, more trekking companies, and even more rides and shows.
Elephant statue at Angkor Wat Elephants are all over Thailand-as part of the royal imagery and on souvenirs, working and performing in shows, and, increasingly rarely, in the wild. They are the national symbol and have a long history entwined with the culture here.
They are also abused and mistreated terribly. After researching briefly, I learned that riding on a howdah- a canopy seat for 2 or more people to ride on an elephant’s back- hurts the animal and can cause permanent damage. I had suspected this in the US and never allowed the kids to ride elephants at carnivals and the like. Even riding bareback on an elephant’s back is bad for the elephant. The best way to ride is on the shoulders, though it is widely agreed that it causes them stress to give rides at all, with the possible exception of their lifelong caregiver known as a mahout (‘ma-HOOT’). So, somewhat disappointingly for the kids, I decided we would not ride elephants. I do think this was explained well when we were at the sanctuary.
I looked into visiting and/or volunteering at several sanctuaries, which cost about $70-$150 per person per day- it costs a lot to feed these creatures, and sanctuaries need to cover mahout and other staff salaries and often turn a profit as well. It is a relatively recent phenomenon for visitors to seek an ethical program as opposed to riding the elephants or watching them perform, and some places are moving towards the former while hopefully phasing out the latter. It is a work in progress.
We went to Elephants World about 100kms west of Bangkok near the town of Kanchanaburi. We took a neat old train to get there, similar to the train we had taken to Ayutthaya.
We stayed a night there and we were picked up the next morning to go to EW. I had signed us up for a 2-day program. I would like to have stayed longer, but the budget was stretched. DH was working and was willing to miss the experience, so it was just the girls and me.
We had a brief orientation then fed the elephants some fruit and vegetables. There are 22 elephants at the sanctuary, most female and most with quite sad stories of being abused and overworked in logging (now illegal but still being done), performing/begging in cities (also now illegal), and/or carrying tourists in howdahs at trekking companies. Even worse, we heard that elephants are sometimes drugged with stimulants to make them work harder logging, or with depressants to help them with the overstimulating city environment. Most elephants at this sanctuary are older but there are three youngsters ages 3,4, and 8.
It was amazing to be so close to them. We could touch their muscular trunks and wrinkled skin.
After their breakfast, they went to the river. We walked with them to the beautiful River Kwai that runs through the property.
Next we made sticky rice for the toothless older elephants. We learned that in the wild, elephants lose their last set of teeth around age 65 and die soon after from malnutrition, being unable to eat enough to sustain themselves. In captivity, they can be fed soft foods and can live to over 100! So the rice was puréed food for the toothless older animals.
Bananas were mixed in with the rice for more nutrition. The guide told us cooked squash are also used in season.
The rice was set to cool until later in the day. The elephants had some time in their ‘spa area’ where there is dust and mud and some rough trees for scratching.
Next we had lunch and afterwards, the elephants had a mud bath. There is a viewing platform so you can have a good look.
Watching the two ‘toddlers’ (the 3 and 4 year old) was so entertaining! They played like puppies, with their adoptive mother Nemochi nearby. We heard that when the babies arrived, there were serious discussions among the older elephants about who would act as mother to them. Nemochi was chosen and she looks like a great mom! I am not sure why they are not with their biological moms. We learned that elephants have strong family units, a similar lifespan to people and they should remain with their mothers until adolescence at around age 12 or 13.
Up on the viewing platform, Truly got mud splashed on her from all the activity!
We harvested cornstalks next on a different part of the property.
After that, we fed the stalks to the elephants. They knew the routine and reached into the truck to grab the stalks themselves! They loved eating but they were always gentle.
Next we finished making the rice. We added vitamins to the mixture as we rolled it into balls.
Then it was time to feed the old ladies!
The middle elephant below isn’t supposed to get the rice balls but she always butts in and tries! She got one from an unsuspecting child this day!
We got to wash the elephants in the river next. So much fun!!
That was the end of the day program, and the beginning of the even more fun for us! We stayed in a beautiful new building near the river and near where the elephants sleep. We had a large room with five beds! There was a terrace where we could watch them.
We walked around the newly-quiet grounds after the day visitors had left. We had dinner, then watched a silent film from 1927 called Chang. It was filmed in northern Thailand and showed indigenous people living and dealing with challenges of living in the jungle- namely tigers and elephants- not always ethically, in fact they kill tigers and mistreat elephants. But it was a different time, so it’s somewhat forgivable I guess. It was an interesting film by directors who would go on to make King Kong a few years later. Afterwards we went back to our room and went to sleep.
We got up early and with binoculars and books, went birdwatching. I’m not much good at this, but I liked seeing the sunrise and hearing the birds. We saw quite a few but I could not identify them. Beautiful! We spent the morning walking around with three elephants, their mahouts, and a guide named Sarah who was just wonderful. We went through jungle mud and different parts of the river. It was my favorite part so far, just walking around with the elephants. I didn’t bring the camera but just enjoyed it all. After lunch, we watched the elephants playing in the mud as we had the day before, which is such a joy. After that, we took a truck ride upstream and floated down the Kwai for almost an hour with life vests on for flotation. This did not involve elephants, by the way. Just beautiful views, a quiet river, and floating peacefully. Bliss! We were with Sarah, a mahout, a young Australian couple and two young women from Germany. Everyone was such nice company and we chatted as we floated along. Not long after that it was 4pm and time for us to go. What a great experience!
Here are some thoughts:
* Definitely stay two days if you can. All the sanctuaries I looked at online offer similar day 2 experiences to what we did, and it was so lovely, as was staying overnight. You could also opt to participate again in the day program, go hiking, get a massage, or just wander the grounds, which could also be fun.
*We learned some fascinating things about elephant psychology. They are one of only eight animals (like humans, dolphins, and primates) who recognize themselves in a mirror. They have been known to stand watch by injured humans until help arrived. They mourn their dead, moving bones at times and visiting these ‘graveyards’. The sanctuary had a moving story about the death of a resident elephant who died at an old age. Somehow the death was communicated to nearby wild elephants, believed to have known the deceased, who came to the river as the elephants and staff commemorated her passing, to witness and mourn their friend.
* These sanctuaries may offend some animal rights folks. You may see chains, ropes, mahouts using bull hooks, and elephants being commanded to do things. This is not a preserve of wild elephants as we experienced in Africa. These places are in different stages of improving the lives of working elephants and their mahouts, and it is not always perfect. Some places are for profit. Some give elephant rides in howdahs for part of the day, even as they educate about this causing harm. EW only recently stopped giving rides (they used to allow shoulder rides while the elephant was in the river) when visitors and volunteers requested it.
*Mahouts have a long and interesting culture going back at least 900 years. They use words in communicating with elephants from an ancient form of the Khmer language. They are sometimes paired with an elephant when they are around the same age, under 10 years old, and remain together for life! They are usually, but not always men. Mahouts have been socially high class through the ages, such as when elephants were used in warfare and when the royal family kept elephants.