After an amazing few days in Chiang Mai, we ventured to Phuket in the southern part of Thailand. Phuket is known as a popular tourist destination due to its beautiful beaches. After my time at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chiang Mai, I didn’t know if there was much more to learn. They had done such an amazing job at educating us that I truly felt like I had learned from the best of the best. That being said, on our first morning in Phuket, we headed off to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (EJS) https://elephantjunglesanctuary.com/phuket/ for a morning tour. We arrived at the sanctuary around 8am and were immediately greeted by a host who explained all of the activities that we would be taking part in throughout the morning. The first activity was feeding the elephants. Big bags of bananas and watermelon were ready for the taking. After feeding, we were shown how to make paper from elephant excrement (kind of gross, but super cool). They even let me bring back an envelope for each of my students this year :).
Following our arts and crafts experiment, it was time to get our swimsuits on to bathe the elephants. I recently learned that bathing with elephants can cause them a lot of stress since being around humans while trying to bathe is obviously not natural for them. Due to the stress, ENP has cut all bathing sessions from their visits in an attempt to move toward a more natural environment for their elephants. Hopefully, the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary will eventually move toward this practice as well.
Overall, I enjoyed my time at the sanctuary but after comparing three different locations in various parts of Thailand, the Wildlife Friends Foundation and ENP seemed to be making a prominent effort to limit human interaction with the animals to provide them with a more natural state of existence. While the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Phuket was well on its way to providing an ethical experience for its visitors, it still has a ways to go. Due to it being a relatively new company, they are still trying to grow their popularity, and for this reason, it felt very visitor-centered rather than animal-centered. Its attempts to be an ethical alternative to the many riding camps that still exist are admirable, but I believe that emulating the models of ethical animal interaction that WFFT and ENP have sustained would be valuable for EJS moving forward.
Our second adventure in Chiang Mai was ziplining through the beautiful rainforests. We chose to zipline with a company called Flight of the Gibbon https://www.flightofthegibbon.com/. The company provides exciting ziplining experiences for visitors while also emphasizing conservation efforts. Flight of the Gibbon works with the local community to provide jobs for people in nearby areas while also serving food that is locally grown and harvested. The company also sponsors reforestation projects, gibbon rehab and release programs, and hunter reform projects.
Our second stop had us traveling an hour and a half by plane up to the northern city of Chiang Mai. Immediately, we felt like we had been transported to another world. Although Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most populous cities, it has a much more small town feel with its artisanal markets at every corner surrounded by lush jungles. We spent a total of 4 days in Chiang Mai and had the incredible opportunity to experience two life-changing excursions.
The first excursion (and the one I was most excited to take part in) was my overnight stay at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). The day started at their offices in the center of Chiang Mai proper where they picked me and my friend, Lindsey, up to make the hour drive to the park. On the way, we watched a documentary that detailed when and how we were allowed to interact with the elephants (i.e.: never walking behind the elephants, only touching them on the neck behind their ears, and only touching their trunks during feeding time). The documentary also detailed the founding of ENP by Lek Chailert in the 1990s and her mission to rescue older elephants from the trekking and tourism industries throughout Thailand. The grounds of ENP are nothing short of extraordinary. in a large valley surrounded by dense greenery, elephants are free to roam with their mahouts (caretakers) close by. While mahouts in the tourism and trekking industries use fear and intimidation tactics to control their elephants, ENP has spearheaded a new way of working with elephants focused on using positive reinforcement by rewarding the elephants with their favorite snacks…watermelon and bananas!
When we arrived at the park, we arrived just in time to feed a small group of elephants one of their many daily snacks. From a platform, the elephants would stick their trunks through the metal railing and collect the watermelon and bananas from our hands. If we dropped any of the fruit, we were told not to worry; elephants’ trunks are extremely strong and dexterous. They are easily able to collect fruit that has fallen to the ground.
After feeding time ended, we spent the majority of the afternoon touring the park learning the different stories of the elephants housed on the grounds. While each story was unique, a common thread connected all of them. Either through work in the logging, touring, or trekking industries, all of the elephants had been terribly mistreated by humans for decades. Some had been purposefully blinded by their mahouts for refusing to work while others had broken limbs due to accidents working in the logging industry. Below is one elephant whose foot is permanently disfigured from a log falling and rolling onto it years ago.
Almost all of the elephants at the park are older retired elephants that have been rescued from their previous lives to live the remainder of their days in peace. There is a noticeable absence of baby elephants at the park. The park focuses on rescuing older elephants rather than breeding more elephants. Although we met two younger elephants that had been born at the park, the majority of them are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s–their oldest elephant is over 100 years old! Below are two young elephants we were excited to see on our tour:
After our tour, we were allowed a few hours to play with and walk the many dogs that are also kept at park. The dogs have been rescued from the dog meat industry, puppy mills, and natural disasters throughout Asia. The incredible staff and volunteers are responsible for the dogs’ daily care and wellbeing. Many of the dogs roam freely around the park happily mingling with the elephants.
When the sun set, we ate a delicious vegetarian Thai dinner and headed off to our cabins for the night. Although we struggled to sleep in the heat, hearing the elephants trumpet in our backyards throughout the night made it all worthwhile.
We awoke in the morning to the sight of an elephant playing happily with a tire in our backyard. We dressed quickly and joined the others in our group for breakfast. We received large cloth bags and were instructed to fill those bags with as many bananas and pieces of watermelon as we could carry comfortably for a 20 minute walk. Our guide took us to ENP’s brand new enclosure where they were building a wrap around terrace for visitors to see the elephants interact with each other more clearly. A herd of sweet female elephants joined us for part one of their breakfast.
In the afternoon, our guide taught us how to make banana balls for the older elephants in the park. In the wild, elephants start to lose their teeth and over time are unable to chew their food. When the elephants can no longer chew, they eventually starve. At the park, the caretakers are able to extend the lives of their elephants by decades because they can make banana balls and other soft foods that the older elephants can easily chew and digest. We started by choosing the ripest bananas and squishing them between our fingers into a big basin. We added an assortment of vitamins and grains to the mixture for added nutrition and finally rolled them into balls about the size of our hands. We made about 50 balls and carried them over to where the older elephants reside. We all took turns feeding them. I will remember this incredible experience forever!!
After over 15 hours of
traveling, we arrived in Bangkok late the night of June 17th. We
woke up eagerly on the 18th ready to explore the city. We decided to venture out into the city
riding different tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) to explore. Although in some
ways, Bangkok felt very much like Los Angeles especially in its more commercial
areas, we explored a great amount of Thai history in a few short days.
We spent our second day admiring the beautiful grounds of the Grand Palace. The detail in the art and architecture was astounding and standing in front of the Emerald Buddha was very humbling.
On our third day, we drove about 2.5 hours south of Bangkok to Phetchaburi where we visited our first animal rescue center, the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT). WFFT houses rescued elephants as well as over 600 other animals that have been rescued from the illegal pet trade, animal shows, and other tourist attractions. Many of the animals were smuggled into Thailand as babies, but as they grew bigger (and often times, more aggressive), they became too dangerous for their owners to care for. The animals were subsequently dropped off at WFFT. Although the organization’s hope is to one day return many of these animals to their natural habitats in the wild, the sad reality is that many of the animals have been in domestic environments for too long and have lost their innate abilities to find food and stay safe from their natural predators in the wild. In these circumstances, WFFT builds remarkable enclosures for these animals so that they can live as comfortable a life as possible for the remainder of their lives. Please check out the incredible work this organization is doing https://www.wfft.org/. If you ever find yourself in Bangkok, take the time to travel to this inspiring and educational facility a few hours away. You won’t regret it!