Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand
Some places really have an impact on you, really effect you, for me this was one of those places, somewhere very special, an experience which will stay with me forever. My fiancee and I went through just about the whole range of emotions at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, an incredible place with amazing people doing great work helping these beautiful rescued animals go on to live a happy life.
So I’ve seen the pictures of people in Thailand on elephant treks, posing with elephants and baby elephants with their legs in chains, I’ve seen pictures of people cuddling tigers, stroking them, like they are pets…This is not for me. I knew that there would be negative stories behind these practices and the more I looked into it the more I knew that there was no way I could do it. I had seen a video which I have shared on Facebook and Twitter showing how elephants are broken and trained so that they will work either in the tourism trade or in the past with logging companies and it made me really angry…I’m sure if more people knew about the barbaric way these intelligent creatures are treated and trained they wouldn’t support the tourism trade involving these animals, watching them perform in shows etc. I wanted to enjoy wildlife whilst in Thailand, have experiences with animals, but I was going to be really careful when choosing where to go and what to do.
We were shown another video on our arrival at the sanctuary showing the training practises employed, hooks put through holes pierced in the ears of the elephants to control them, beaten, drugged, blinded, it is pretty much pain used to train the animals so they do as they are told out of fear. It was a really hard video to watch and I have to admit at times I could feel myself welling up inside. It was especially difficult as just before being shown the video I overheard a conversation with one of the members of staff who was describing something which had just happened. A young girl in our tour group suffered with a condition where every now and again her legs would give way and she would stumble or fall, she also had some learning difficulties. The staff had taken her on her own with her family to visit one of the elephants first and as the elephant was walking away the girls legs gave way and she fell, everyone had rushed to help her…including the elephant…the elephant had turned away from her mahout (keeper), away from the food, and turned back towards the girl to make sure she was OK. The staff member described how it had been a really emotional moment for everyone there and they had all basically turned into blubbering messes…I retold the story to my fiancee who I then realised was having to blink back tears. These animals are incredible and to put them through this treatment, put a seat on their back and force them to carry a huge weight for 8 hours a day…it’s just not cool at all.
At the sanctuary they rescue elephants from logging or trekking companies which are sick, tired or old and provide them with a real 5 star retirement home…a place where they can act as elephants again, a place where they can wander the 26 hectare forest, bathe, be happy, be naughty…be elephants! It turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire time in Southeast Asia.
At the time of our visit the sanctuary had five elephants and the staff told us their stories and by the end of our visit I felt like we had got to know them all a bit! All with their own personalities and differences, it was brilliant! There was Madee, Kannika, Dok Gaew, Gaew Ta, and a recently rescued elephant who wasn’t ready for interaction with the others or with humans just yet. Gaew Ta was the first elephant we set our sights on, she was enjoying being fed bananas and rice cakes by her mahout whilst we were having our introductory talk. We couldn’t go to close to her as she is blind and gets nervous when people get too close and also around the other elephants. We were told how she was in her mid 50’s and had spent a long time working in the logging industry and then giving rides to tourists. On being rescued her body was covered in cigarette burns and she had an open wound still, but these had been treated and she now seems content enjoying a relaxing time wandering the forest of the sanctuary.
Our first real interaction with one of the elephants was with Dok Gaew AKA Grandma! She is in her late 60’s and again she had worked for years in the logging industry and then sold into tourism before she just could not carry on anymore. On being rescued she had to be treated at the location before they could move her as she was so weak. Now she is awesome! We got to feed her with plenty of rice balls, bananas and watermelon, and after winning her over with the food we were able to pet her and spend time really close to her, it’s an incredible thing making eye contact with an elephant feeding her and rubbing her trunk. I’ve got to admit I was pretty nervous standing next to such a large powerful animal at first but soon lost that feeling and just lost myself in the moment! She kept wandering forwards towards me and I was told that the colour of my shirt was reminding her of watermelons! She’s one of the coolest grandma’s I’ve ever met.
Next up we met Kannika and Madee….this pair were inseparable…thick as thieves! Kannika was in her mid 30’s…and she was the boss! The youngest, strongest, and most naughty! It was so brilliant being around her whilst she had fun in the forest. Her best friend Madee was always by her side they had a real strong bond having been rescued together, the first two elephants at the sanctuary. A scar was pointed out to us on Madee’s shoulder and we were horrified to be told that when she was rescued she had an open wound there and they realised that she had actually been shot! After what these elephants have been through…at the hands of people…it is incredible that they would learn to trust any person again.
As we walked through the forest spending time with the elephants we saw bamboo and trees lying trampled on the ground at random places, one of the guides saw us looking “Ah yeah, sometimes Kannika is naughty and likes to push over the trees”.
We walked with Kannika and Madee through the forest to a bathing spot, it was a hot day, and you could see they couldn’t wait to get down the embankment into the water. They were joined again by Grandma and all three were loving it, making little trumpet squeaks, throwing water over themselves sinking down into the water…you could tell, this was bliss for them!
Gaew Ta was chilling out on her own nearby as well, it was great to watch the elephants so closely, just enjoying themselves, doing what they wanted to do.
There was a shelter where we could get out of the sun and continue watching the elephants, Grandma decided that she wanted to come and join in with the conversation!
After a while the elephants made there way out of the pond and off away through the forest and we made our way back towards the observation platform for lunch.
Something else which really impacted on us here was how much the staff really care about what they are doing, they want you to enjoy your experience, they want it to be educational, they want to spread the word about what these animals go through and help you to understand how intelligent they are. They were really cool, friendly, funny people… they are heroes…
We ate lunch (which was really good!) with a view of Madee, Kannika and Grandma chilling out in the water. It was a privilege to have spent over 3 hours in the company of these beautiful ladies, and huge huge HUGE highlight of our time in Southeast Asia.
We took a morning trip where you arrive at the reception centre at 9:00 and return by around 13:30. They have just started afternoon visits as well. It costs 3000 Baht around £70, kids under 12 are half price and under 2’s are free. It is really good value and having spent the money you can be safe in the knowledge that the money is being used to directly help elephants. You can book tickets directly through their website here.
The elephant sanctuary is growing, it has been open for less than a year, they will be rescuing more and more elephants as they have room for many more. The sanctuary’s Facebook page is also really cool…they give updates on how their latest arrivals are settling in and what mischief Kannika has been up to, I love these updates popping up on my feed! You can find the facebook page here.
So if you’re planning a trip to Thailand and want to have an experience with these breathtaking animals, take the ethical option, you will not be disappointed, it really was a special experience for us, rewarding, something which will stay with me forever.
Our hotel in Phuket
We stayed at Movenpick Resort Bangtao Beach whilst in Phuket, it was a real treat! Set directly on a beautiful beach with the most amazing sunsets with brilliant helpful friendly staff, I can’t recommend it highly enough. You can check it out through Booking.com or read the reviews and also book through TripAdvisor. You can also book directly though their website here.