Hanging out with elephants for a day

January 7, 2018

Elephants in Thailand

To put it simply, elephants are a big deal here in Thailand. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. While, as a foreigner, it’s difficult for me to clearly understand the relationship that Thai people have with elephants, I’ll do my best here to explain what I do get.

The elephant is the national animal of Thailand. It’s used a lot for marketing and branding purposes, from one of the most consumed beers in Thailand (called “Chang”, which means elephant), to hotels, to massage parlors, to all kinds of tourist souvenirs. People say that the outline of the map of Thailand even looks like an elephant’s head, including the trunk. In Buddhism, elephants are sacred. They have, nonetheless, been used in wars and for work, especially in the logging industry. That has now become illegal and Thai elephants are an endangered species. They are still being used in shows for tourists and for riding, but there is now a strong movement against that. Especially in the north of Thailand, a lot of enterprises have emerged which try to make money with elephants, while still treating them humanely and ethically. This means typically that elephants are kept in a confined but comfortable environment, where they can move around freely and create their own family units, they are cared for (fed, washed, entertained), and in exchange they are nice to visiting tourists.

Our visit to an elephant care center

We also visited such an elephant care center for a day. There were 3 adult elephants there, and a 3-year-old baby elephant. At least its caretakers still called it a baby, although it was already about my height and weighed a ton. The elephants had been bought from their previous owners, some farmers. They had spent their entire lives in the company of people and they were the gentlest animals ever.

As a visiting tourist, you get the chance to feed the elephants, get a hug from the baby (with the trunk), or a kiss with the trunk on the cheek (I passed on that one). You also go with the elephants for a walk in the forest and, if you want, you can bathe with them in the river and help wash them – again, I passed on the bathing, after seeing one of the elephants poop in the water right after going in. But most people in our group went in and splashed and brushed the elephants. Then you get to feed the elephants again and afterwards you sadly have to say good-bye to them and leave the elephant farm. All in all, we got to spend about 4-5 hours with the elephants, and could pet them anytime and take all the photos we wanted.

I loved interacting with the elephants directly like that, with no barriers, and getting to experience a part of their lives. The mahouts seemed to really care for the elephants and we saw no sign of abuse or anything detrimental to the elephants while we were there.

So no “highs and lows” section for this post – the whole day was one BIG HIGH for me, possibly the best day I’ve spent in Thailand so far :D Here are some photos and videos of the whole experience:

The elephants having lunch – or just a mid-day snack? They eat almost all the time anyway:

Going for a walk in the forest with the elephants:

Coming out of the river after their bath:

The baby was so lovely! They all were actually :)

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