I have to admit, one of my favorite things about Thailand is all of the animals! There are street dogs, cats, chickens, butterflies, hermit crabs, lizards, birds, fish, frogs, pigs, and of course elephants! If you love these enormous pachyderms as I do, there are many opportunities to interact with them here in Thailand. Be sure that you are visiting an elephant sanctuary and not a tourist trap. The main way to tell the difference is that at a sanctuary the elephants are not chained up and there is no riding on top. Any local should be able to recommend a place where the elephants are treated ethically and well taken care of.
My first experience came in Phuket at the Kalim Elephant Sanctuary. I had just arrived in Thailand 2 days earlier and was still struggling with culture shock, jet lag, and an overall sense of unreality... Had I really left my life in the US to travel to the other side of the world and why? I needed to feel grounding and connection to something and thought “what better way to achieve this than with some elephant therapy!” I booked through my hotel in Patong at the Andamantra Resort and Spa and was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at the Sanctuary to find I was the only visitor for the day. I met my "baby" elephant named Michael in the jungle on a short trek. He was a 3-year-old elephant born at the sanctuary and weighed about 1.5 tons. The gestation for elephants is approximately 22 months and generally, the mom only gives birth to one elephant at a time.
I think I was a bit shyer than Michael at our first meeting. I was not used to the humidity and mosquitos and other creatures in the jungle yet so was feeling pretty overwhelmed. We trekked around a bit as the guide provided general information about elephants, and I watched as Michael inhaled a lot of coconuts and palm tree leaves. The last part of the visit was bath time, where I expected to brush the elephant a bit in the water. Nope! I was in a makeshift large pool with Michael for almost 40 minutes, swimming and playing as we rolled around together. It was pure joy and a deep sense of connection with this enormous chunk of love. I got to meet Michael's mom and feed her a coconut before the end of the visit. I left smiling, having experienced the first of many adventures in Thailand.
My other close extended encounter with an elephant was not as intimate, but equally as entertaining. I had been in Koh Phangan for almost a week visiting beautiful beaches and temples. I had met a friend there who suggested I visit the elephant sanctuary on the island. I rode my motorbike to Tawan Elephant Trekking in the middle of the jungle and was again pleased to find I was the only visitor there at the time. For about $15 US dollars I could shower, pet, and feed an elephant. I was fully clothed and suddenly was whisked away to the shower area that had 2 huge towers of water. Within moments, I was completely drenched! The elephant this time was a completely grown female and I had no idea how much water adults can hold and spray from their trunks. I was laughing so hard that I was crying as I brushed her with a scrub brush and we both got a proper shower!
Next came the feeding and I was handed a basket full of bananas. I held them out one at a time unpeeled and she grabbed them from my hand with her trunk and inhaled them in one bite. I also fed some directly into her gigantic mouth which was a bit nerve-wracking, but not frightening. Dessert came in the form of a full coconut which she grabbed with her trunk from my hand and crushed with her foot to open. I knew these animals were strong, but the sheer power of a single elephant foot was just awe-inspiring.
If you ever get the opportunity, please go visit these magnificent creatures! They are intelligent, gentle, and oh so playful. Just remember to make sure you visit a sanctuary where the elephants are well cared for. You won't regret it and your heart will be full. I can't wait for my next elephant interaction here in Thailand... maybe in Chiang Mai???