A trip to Thailand is simply incomplete without seeing the Thai elephants. But many tourists mistakenly visit elephant parks or shows where the elephants perform many tricks, like kicking a soccer ball, dancing, or using their trunk to paint. These parks also offer tourists the opportunity to ride an elephant. What the tourists don’t know is that in order to teach the elephants to perform these tricks or to carry people on their backs, the elephants are subjected to abuse, often involving beating with a painful hook.
It is true that long ago in the absence of cars and other technologies, Thai people used elephants for transportation, hauling goods between villages and for manual labour. But in today’s world this is no longer necessary. In fact, an elephant’s back is not physiologically constructed to carry people. So riding elephants actually hurts them.
Unfortunately many tourists are unaware of this and even many self-proclaimed elephant “sanctuaries” still offer elephant riding. This is why on our visit to Thailand we were determined to visit an ethical sanctuary that truly cared for the well-being of the elephants without offering riding services.
We chose to visit The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for an overnight stay. Upon arriving to the sanctuary, we learned that this particular company actually has over six different camps that care for five or six elephants at a time. We arrived to camp number two, which had five elephants.
However, all of the elephants actually belong to the Karen hill tribe. Some of them were rescued and some of them were passed on from generation to generation. The oldest elephant in camp six was 72 years old! The oldest elephant in our camp was around 40 years old, and when she was first rescued, she did not allow people to come very close to her. But over the years, she’s learned that the people were caring for her and meant her no harm. Today she and her fellow elephants are very gentle, friendly and approachable.
Our day started by learning how to feed the elephants, which involves yelling “Bon! Bon!” as a signal that (we think) means “Up! Up!” in Thai. It turns out that elephants have poor hearing and sight, so it’s necessary to yell out this signal so that they can hear you and raise their trunk up above their heads, allowing you access to their mouth. You can then place the treat right into their mouth without being afraid of being bitten. Elephants have only eight teeth that are located quite deep in their mouth, so there is no chance of you getting hurt if you just place the treat on their tongue. But while their hearing and vision are not very strong, the elephants’’ sense of smell is impeccable.
Wearing traditional Karen clothing, our entire group stood in a straight line with pieces of sugar cane in our hands. And then they allowed the five elephants to approach us! As the elephants approached us for the first time, I have to say that I was terrified for a short moment. Imagine huge creatures walking right at you, making you feel like you are going to be run over!
But of course the elephants stopped right before us and extended their eager trunks, already smelling the sugar cane in our hands. It was a bit surreal standing next to these big creatures in the middle of the jungle. We would extend our hands holding the sugar cane and the elephants would use their trunks as suction devices to take the sugar cane from us. We also yelled “Bon! Bon!” and the elephants would raise their trunks so that we could place the sugar cane right into their mouths.
Sugar cane is actually quite hard. It’s like holding a bamboo stick. I was wondering how the elephants were going to eat it. But they just place it in their mouths and crush it with their teeth, making the most hilarious sound!
Apparently the sugar cane was only an appetizer. Each person in our group picked up a branch full of leaves and carried it up to the hill to the shade. We then yelled “Bon! Bon!” to the elephants and they climbed up to us, clearly getting excited by making loud sounds with their trunks. They attacked the pile of leaves with enthusiasm as we stood around watching and listening to our guide, who told us some more information about each elephant.
After watching the elephants for a while, our group had lunch and changed into our swim suits. It was mud spa time! But before that we made medicine balls for the elephants. Apparently elephants chew their food only a couple of times before swallowing. Wild elephants are able to roam around the jungle and find roots and plants that help them with their digestion. But since the elephants at the sanctuary belong to the Karen people, they do not roam free in the jungle and cannot find digestion remedies on their own.
We mixed a lemon (but any acidic fruit will do), with some processed white rice that can be bought at any grocery store with raw, unprocessed rice. We took turns “softening” the raw rice of its sharp edges first by using a large, wooden mortar and pestle. Then we mixed everything together using a bit of water as glue and made medicine balls the size of a tennis ball.
We made our way to a large mud pool and called the elephants to come back down from the hill. Once again we stood in a line and the elephants approached us. While this time I wasn’t afraid at all, the girls standing next to me were a little scared and didn’t place the medicine balls into the elephants’ mouths as they were taught. Some of the balls fell to the ground, but luckily they didn’t smash into pieces and the elephants were able to pick them up with their trunk.
I was quite confident in feeding the elephant that approached me her medicine ball. I yelled “Bon! Bon!” and sure enough the elephant raised her trunk. I then supported her trunk with my left hand and placed the medicine ball into her mouth with my right. Easy peasy!
Once all the medicine balls were consumed, we called the elephants into the mud. I was surprised that only two elephants decided to join us, but boy did they enjoy it! They basically sat in the mud at first and then collapsed on their side, being half-way submerged in the mud. All the people in our group joined in, rubbing mud all over the elephants, which is apparently very good for their skin.
Our guides had a great sense of humour too and started throwing mud at us, while yelling “Elephant! Elephant!” It’s as if we were the elephants that needed a mud rub. In the end, we were all covered in mud, but I didn’t mind. The mud was a good sunscreen since the day was getting really hot and the sun was shining down at us hard.
After the mud spa, we took the elephants to a nearby waterfall to wash off. All five elephants came into the waterfall and splashed around. We were all given little buckets to fill with water and throw at the elephants. Apparently they love it! This was also the opportunity for all the people in our group to wash the mud off of ourselves, and the guides didn’t hesitate pouring water all over us, pretending we were the elephants again.
How do I describe what it’s like to bathe with the elephants? I don’t even think I have the words. It was just unbelievable that we were enjoying the waterfall while five gigantic creatures were doing the same thing. And everyone including the elephants was so happy!
The elephants have to eat 300 kilograms of food every day, so they are always hungry. After bathing in the waterfall and drying off, it was time to feed them again. They devoured the sugar cane with enthusiasm.
This was the point where those people that signed up for just a day program were driven back to Chiang Mai. But Rami and I were driven to camp five to spend the night in the jungle.
Camp five had six elephants that were spending their time eating leaves in a barn. We spent the evening watching them and sneaking some bananas to them. The elephants love bananas! And they can smell them from afar. I had bananas hidden out of sight behind my back and one of the elephants was already fishing for them with her trunk.
After having a simple and basic dinner, we headed to our hut to sleep. There were a total of nine people in our hut and six more people slept in another hut down the hill. The sleeping situation was very basic with a thin mattress on the floor, a small pillow, a blanket and a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling above the mattress. But somehow we didn’t mind.
The light in our hut attracted a lot of bugs and the English people in our hut went crazy over them. They couldn’t stop talking about the gigantic moths or spiders that were sitting on top of their mosquito nets. But while I was uncomfortable with the bugs, I wasn’t afraid of them lying under my mosquito net.
Outside of our hut, it was pitch dark. We had to use the flashlights on our cell phones in order to go to the bathroom. The sky was full of stars and the bugs made funny cricket-like sounds in the darkness. There were also a few dogs in the camp that we were convinced were there to protect us. At night, one of them started barking, which woke all of us up. I was worried that there was somebody outside that came to do us harm since our guide actually didn’t sleep with us in our camp, but left to sleep in his own village. But after barking for a good half an hour, the dog stopped, and another dog pushed her way into our hut and spent the rest of the night lying with us on the floor.
The morning was the coolest memory for me. Waking up in the jungle, overlooking the river was a peaceful experience. What’s more is that the elephants don’t sleep in their barn because otherwise they would eat everything around them. So they are taken somewhere else nearby to spend the night. I woke up and came out of my hut, which was situated on a hill. All of a sudden I heard elephant sounds and saw the elephants climbing up the hill. In less than a minute, three large elephants passed just a few steps away from me on their way to the barn. It was so surreal having these gigantic creatures pass by me in the morning!
Two or three new groups of people arrived to the camp, and our morning mirrored the prior day with feeding the elephants, watching them get dirty in the small mud pool and then taking the elephants down to the river to bathe and splash around. This time Rami and I didn’t take part in the mud spa, but Rami went down to the river to swim with the elephants while I took some pictures.
Our small group of people that slept overnight in the jungle ended up spending the rest of the afternoon hiking through the jungle to camp six. The jungle was full of lush vegetation, rivers and springs, and small villages here and there belonging to the Karen people. In one of those villages we saw pigs lying in the shade, while chickens and roosters ran around them. Cats were wandering everywhere and there always seemed to be a dog running alongside us.
Camp six was unique in that it was the only camp to have two male elephants, characterized by having trunks. Apparently most elephants are born female and it’s very rare to have a male elephant. But camp six was also unique because it was the home to a baby elephant that was only 29 days old! The baby elephant was so young that she didn’t even know how to eat solid food like bananas or leaves. We saw her drink milk from the mama elephant. It was really adorable!
Unlike the adult elephants that tend to stand in one place and feed or at least move fairly slowly, the baby elephant was running around underneath the other elephants without any purpose. It was really hard to catch her standing still in one place and to take a good picture because she was always moving. When I managed to get close to her, she pushed against me with her trunk as if she wanted to be comforted. But in less than a minute, she was running in a different direction.
After spending some more time with the elephants, we were driven back to Chiang Mai. Returning to a bustling city after the serene jungle life was also a bit unbelievable.
Did we just spend the night in pitch darkness, sleeping under mosquito nets in the middle of the jungle? Did we just spend two whole days playing with the elephants, hugging their thick trunks and touching the prickly hairs on their heads? It all seemed like a dream!