When you think about a trip to Thailand, I think it’s pretty common that most of us who have never been there see visions of beautiful beaches, night markets, and getting to spend one on one time with tigers and elephants. Sounds like heaven right?
For years the Tiger “Sanctuary” had been on my bucket list, but as I got older and grew more aware of the practices in these type of sanctuaries and I realized that visiting there would probably bring me more sadness than joy.
Think about it, these tigers live in cages, don’t have massive fields to run free and live how they would in the wild and don’t have any way to take out their energy. It is not actually possible for these creatures to love human interaction so much that they just forget all of their natural instincts and allow hundreds of people to pet them all day for their entire lives. Tigers in “sanctuaries” are sedated, and that isn’t something I can support. So when we started to plan our trip to Thailand, I had to give up my dream of cuddling a tiger with paws as big as my face.
I want my money to be spent in a place that can bring my heart joy. Since elephants are known for a strong bond with humans naturally and have a history of positive relationships with tribes as far back as time goes, we started to research spending time with elephants.
WHERE TO GO
Originally we had planned to visit Elephant Nature Park, we had felt like we had done a good job with researching and vetting this place. They didn’t allow elephant riding, and seemed to promote a positive and healthy lifestyle for the elephants. Once we arrived in Chang Mai and met up with some friends, we were given a bit more insight about this location from a friend who was working there at the time. The park is good, but uses a lot of “marketing words” on the website, he suggested that we go to Elephant Jungle Paradise Park. He said he really loved how the elephants were treated here and that this would be a much more local experience. We did our research and obliged. Their elephants had been rescued from camps and tourist attractions where they had to do strenuous tricks, so if I we’re going to be pampering any elephants, I would want it to be these ones.
We rode up in the back of a pickup truck, and when we arrived the locals greeted us with traditional clothing that the Karen Tribe would have worn. We put these over our clothing, went over the plan for the day and headed on our way to meet the elephants. We literally walked about 2 minutes up a hill and there they were just hanging out. Not chained or roped up, just waiting for us to bring them some treats. They we’re all very sweet beings, especially the baby. I was kind of obsessed with her, but can you blame me?
We gave this group a lot of love, sugar cane, and bananas. Everything seemed positive until the large male with the very large tusks seemed to give one of their keepers a little push. Nothing that seemed too dramatic, just a little headbutt with the side of his head (not with his tusks). This action didn’t scare me, and no one else seemed to notice. BUT what I did notice was the keeper pull something out of his pocket and put it in the elephant’s mouth, then he closed the elephants mouth to make sure he swallowed whatever it was. I think I may have been the only person notice this happen. That is when I became slightly uncomfortable. I tried to brush it off and accept that we we’re already there and that this was a once in a lifetime experience and to soak in all of their big majestic beauty.
After we spent an hour with that group we left them and walked a bit further to another group of elephants where we also fed them and loved on them for a good while. Nothing questionable seemed to happen over here at all.
We were then lead down to the waterfall where the locals had prepared lunch for us. I was fortunate enough to have a friend who knew the workers and they presented me with a vegetarian meal that was also gluten free. It pays to travel and make friends everywhere you go! You never know when you will be able to help each other out, especially in a foreign country when you have dietary needs!
Next up, we helped prepare their medicine by combining forest fruits, bark, and herbs and forming them into balls.
After lunch we changed into our bikinis and headed over to give some of the elephants a mud bath. Now, this was an EXPERIENCE! These big beauties climbed into the mud and we followed. Then we attempted to cover them the best we could in mud, mud was flying EVERYWHERE! After their rub down, we all went over to the waterfall to wash off (including the elephants). Then buckets of water were flying everywhere hahaha. Seriously so much fun!
FINISHING THE DAY
After bath time we gave them their medicine balls, which they seem to really love. Next the locals provided us with a snack and then for the rest of the afternoon we sat around hanging out with the elephants. The elephants roamed freely, even had their trunks trying to dig around in people's bags.
IN CONCLUSION, WOULD I DO THIS AGAIN?
I still feel very uneasy about the action I saw at the beginning of the day where one of the keepers put something into one of the elephants mouths and made sure he swallowed it. I'm just going to trust my gut on this one, it didn't seem right. Did I mention that we didn't see that elephant again after that?
As much as I would like to think these groups of people that pay to see the elephants are just joining them on their daily activities, it is not the truth. These elephants are still working elephants. This This is still a tourist attraction. Yes, no riding is allowed and the elephants are not asked to do any tricks, but they are still 100% working elephants. It cannot be easy on their emotions to visit with groups multiple times a day and repeat the same activities over and over.
They seem to have a somewhat pleasant life, but we don’t see what goes on behind the scenes, we will never know for sure how they are treated at any tourist attraction.
If you still want to have this experience, by all means go, but do your research diligently!
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