Everyone knows that elephant tourism in places like Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and even Bali means these gentle giants have suffered for the pleasure of humans, so how on earth was I able to get a close-up experience with them, knowing they were not “performing”?
Volunteering was a great place to start, but, which out of the plethora of sanctuaries would I choose when I was visiting Thailand?
Elephant Valley Thailand was the one for me!
Before choosing an elephant sanctuary, I spent weeks researching the best one. I read travel blogs, listened to word of mouth recommendations then when in Chiang Mai, I picked up countless leaflets all promising a close up experience with elephants. Some “sanctuaries” included riding and they all included washing and bathing with them, but this didn’t feel right. I must have read literally hundreds of reviews on Trip Advisor and for every single sanctuary that was brought to my attention, there was always one or two reviews which mentioned how the elephants were treated by the mahout’s when they thought no one was looking. Some reviews expressed sadness with regard to the elephants bathing in the mud; guests had said it was obvious they didn’t want to go into the mud but were required to as per the schedule. A sanctuary that included bathing and washing the elephants wasn’t one that I wanted to visit. I felt this meant the elephants weren’t as free as I would like them to be; if they wanted to splash around in the mud, I wanted to know it was because they wanted to and not because a group of tourist were waiting to participate in their “daily ritual”.
Then I found Elephant Valley Thailand. Based near Chiang Rai, their elephant encounter promises to “let elephants be elephants” and to “teach elephants to be elephants again” after years of submissively doing as they were told. Elephant Valley Project has been successfully operating in Cambodia for 10 years and have now brought their “no riding, no bathing no washing” approach to Thailand.
I am sure, by now, you have read some sort of literature explaining how bad elephant riding is and, you may also realise it’s not just riding the elephants that is a problem, but the suffering they have to go through to become “submissive” to enable tourists to ride them. The process is called Phajaan which uses daily torture to break the elephant’s strong spirit, but, in truth, I don’t wish to write any more about this process as it distresses me and I find it quite disgusting. However it is very important that you know what is involved in the Phajaan process to better understand the plight of an elephant in any tourist industry. If you do not know what is involved and wish to know what I am referring to, please take a moment to read either PETA’s post or discover what Elephant Voices have to say.
To this day, the elephant riding statistics are still scary; in 2016, over 30 million tourists visited Thailand and around 27% rode elephants. As there are around 2,000 elephants in the Thailand tourist industry, this means approximately 10 people ride each elephant every single day.
Elephant Valley Thailand offer a number of options, half day visits, full day visits, overnight experiences and volunteering programs. We knew we wanted more than just a fleeting visit so opted for the Overnight package.
At 8.30am we were picked up by our diver arriving at the camp by 9am where we were given a quick Health and Safety briefing. We were told that the elephants are allowed to roam free but are being re-educated to become elephants again, this meant a certain amount of personal space had to be applied. We were instructed to stay 25 metres away from the elephants, unless we were in one of the purpose-built “elephant castles” and if the elephant chose to come close to us then so be it.
Talk time was over, it was now time to find the elephants! It didn’t take long, after a few minutes of walking we found Maddy and Lou munching on some long grass. We stood watching them for around 20 minutes until they had their fill and wandered to another part out of site. We learnt that Maddy had stepped on a landmine back in Myanmar (then Burma) around 22 years ago but the wound in her right foot was left untreated. When she came to EVT (Elephant Valley Thailand), she was admitted to hospital for two months where she received treatment, but she appeared to still favour standing on her left foot. The staff were unsure if she was still feeling pain or if she was instinctively standing on her left foot because she had been used to pain in the right for so long.
The “elephant castle” is next to the pond and was our safety zone, a place we were able to sit and watch. Claire and Jay slowly walked into the pond, ears flapping all the time which is their sign of contentment and happiness, then we listened as they trumpeted with glee and submerged themselves completely under the water.
We were led to the washing area and sat down in another “elephant castle”. Maddy and Lou walked in first and we sat watching as the mahouts hosed them with water. This is where the elephants’ mischievous side shone through and we watched with joy as Maddy picked up the hose and began to drink from it. After Maddy and Lou had finished playing, they were walked away to allow Claire and Jay to come to the washing area. The process was repeated and it was Claire’s turn to be cheeky this time, lifting up the hose and playing with it.
As the light of day was starting to fade, we showered and enjoyed our dinner with a couple of cold cans of beer. As darkness arrived, the noises of the jungle became our entertainment and we could hear crickets and watched fireflies. Then it started to rain … ahhhhh, the refreshing noise of rain in the jungle – you can’t beat it.
We retired to our big, clean, comfortable room and slept soundly listening to the familiar chorus of jungle crickets.
If you are looking for a true elephant encounter, I implore you to visit Elephant Valley Thailand. The work they are doing here is solely for the elephants to be themselves with no other agenda. Thailand needs more sanctuaries like this, and elephants need to be elephants.
To book a visit with Elephant Valley Thailand, click here.
If you would like to follow the elephants' activity, like their Facebook page and watch the wonderful videos they regularly post!
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