I’m going to be honest with you from the start, the thought of seeing elephants in Thailand made me uneasy. It’s not because I’m scared of these beautiful, majestic animals, but because I was scared of what I might find when I visited them. I was scared of visiting a fake sanctuary and unknowingly and accidentally helping to fund it with my money. Sadly, I fear this is an easier trap to fall into than many people realise. With so many so-called ‘sanctuaries’ it’s far harder to find one that truly cares for them than I thought it would be. Fortunately, after a lot of googling and rummaging through leaflets, I found Elephant Valley Thailand in Chiang Rai and knew it was the right one for me.
A little about Elephant Valley Thailand
After looking through so many sanctuaries, what appealed to me most about Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) was their simple ethos; to let elephants be elephants in a stress-free natural habitat. EVT is modelled off of their first elephant sanctuary in Cambodia and their long-term goal is to be able to release these elephants back into the wild. In order to do this, these elephants that have been rescued need to have human contact and dependence removed so they are able to survive on their own, which in turn means no riding (fairly common amongst sanctuaries in Thailand nowadays) but also no bathing with the elephants.
Whilst part of me felt it would be amazing to have the chance to get close to these beautiful creatures, a big chunk of me was aware of how unnatural that is. In addition, EVT doesn’t permit bathing as it causes stress to the elephants as they are not familiar with you, they are also huge animals so it’s really not that safe being in the water with them, and it would also mean you’re most probably swimming in their excrement which comes with a whole load of other potential issues!
At the moment, they have 6 elephants (5 females and 1 male) living on their 40-acre piece of land. Each elephant has been rescued from a number of backgrounds such as the tourism trade or logging and they are being taught to be elephants again after years of being ordered what to do by people. As well as focusing on rehabilitating the elephants, they also focus on educating their mahouts (keepers) to be with the elephants in a positive way rather than a controlling way. No matter what the elephant’s past may have been, the relationship between the elephants and their mahout is strong and EVT is taking a holistic approach to change the relationship between elephant and people.
So what can you do there?
EVT offers 4 types of program, each allowing you to learn about and enjoy seeing the elephants. They run half day and full day programmes, as well as a full day volunteer program where you get stuck in with life working on the sanctuary for the day. They have also recently opened their guest house allowing you to stay in the sanctuary which sounds amazing! I opted for the half day tour in the morning (the also run an afternoon session) which was perfect for me. It’s a great way to experience the elephants and learn about them when you’re short on time during your stay in Chiang Rai.
What’s the half-day program like?
I was picked up from my hostel at around 8.30am where we took the short drive out to the sanctuary. When we got there we were greeted by Jack, the co-founder of both Elephant Valley Thailand and the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia who then introduced us to our awesome guide. After a short introduction and information about the ground rules, we were off out to find the elephants. The rules were simple, we had to be sure to stay as a group and keep a distance of 15 meters between us and the elephants to ensure their contact was minimal, keep quiet and stay as a group with the guide.
Finding the elephants
It didn’t take long before we saw our first elephants. Right across from the lunch area we had been sitting in we saw 3 elephants enjoying their time amongst the trees, stripping the bark to eat. We stood there watching as they ate and our guide introduced them to us. The oldest one is called Mo Dee which means -good Mother’ as she looks after the younger elephants Lou and Ka Moon. We probably stood there for about 15 minutes before they walked on and we followed the path outside the fence to carry on watching at a distance.
After a while, they had all walked off so our guide led us inside the grounds to search for them again. We caught up with our little herd of 3 chilling out and eating more by one of the ponds. They have to eat around 200 kilos of food per day and spend about 20 hours each day doing so, which sounds great to me! Once again we just stood across the pond from them and was able to watch what they were doing. It was fascinating seeing how the interacted with one another and it was sweet watching the younger elephants follow Mo Dee around. They stayed here for quite some time eating and walking precariously along the edge of the lake, so we stayed there too.
Seeing them just be elephants
Once they had moved on again, our guide took us in search of some of the other elephants in the herd. What we found left me in complete awe. We came across Thong Inn (their only male elephant) and his girlfriend elephant playing in one of the ponds. We carefully walked past them at a distance to a hut on a platform to watch them. The female was clearly bossing Thong Inn around, climbing on his back and pushing him underwater but they looked like they were so relaxed and enjoying the water on a hot day. Their trunks would just pop up every now and then for air and then they would carry on playing. They were left completely alone and were able to stay in as long as they liked and get out when they wanted. It was beautiful to see and I felt so lucky to have done so.
Thong Inn has a couple of mahouts looking after him as he can be a little trickier to handle than the female and he had a chain around his leg which our guide explained was both a way to slow him down without actually constraining him and also a way to help train him to be tolerant of the herd EVT are trying to create. At first, I was a little taken aback from seeing the chain as it was exactly what I hope to avoid, but I soon learnt it was part of the process of rehabilitating them slowly as they will have spent much of their lives probably chained. It certainly wasn’t used in a negative or controlling way.
Whilst we as guests are not allowed to bathe with the elephants, they do get washed twice a day by their mahouts and it was awesome to watch! The elephants come in a couple at a time with their mahouts and get a wash down with a hose and a good scrub if they want it. They also loved grabbing the hose and putting in in their mouths for a refreshing drink and one tried to climb into the water barrels! The mahouts instructed the elephants to stay still while they finished washing them before they walked off towards the fence for feeding time.
Feeding the elephants
After spending the morning watching these incredible animals relaxing and eating, it was time for us to get a little closer. The 5 female elephants were all standing in a line and we had the chance to feed them a tasty snack of bananas. I picked up my 5 bananas, one for each elephant, and went along the line in order of their hierarchy to feed them a banana each. I’ve fed elephants before at zoos but this was definitely the closest I’ve been to seeing elephants in the wild. After seeing some really badly treated elephants around Thailand, it was a privilege to see these guys living a much happier life and without sounding cheesy, you really can tell in their eyes that they are happy. The feeding only lasted for about 10 minutes or so and once they could see it was all gone, they were off again to explore. No being forced to stay and entertain us, no being fed a load of sugary rubbish and no being forced to pose with us.
Our few hours watching the elephants slipped past so quickly and just before our morning wrapped up completely, we tucked into a feast of traditional North Thai dishes for lunch. There was more than enough food for us all to tuck into and a really good selection. They also more than happy to cater for any dietary requirements too and will ask at time of booking.
Big plans for the future…
Elephant Valley Thailand is constantly looking to grow and improve their sanctuary to help elephants in the best way they can. I was speaking to Jack on our way back to our hostel and he was explaining how they are in the process of creating a larger sanctuary within Chiang Mai which they will use as the next stage for the elephant’s rehabilitation. They want to use their current sanctuary as essentially a ‘primary’ school for the elephants and then when they are ready to progress, will move to the new bigger sanctuary where they will hopefully be a step closer to becoming completely free and ready to be released. They want to create herds of elephants who will take care of one another too.
As well as the steps being taken to help the elephants succeed in their rehabilitation, they are also doing work to educate people about wild elephants as they can often be seen as a nuisance and subsequently harmed. They want to provide the information about how to live with elephants when they are in the wild harmoniously.
So, why should you choose Elephant Valley Thailand?
Believe me, I know there are so many sanctuaries out there and I’m sure there are some doing amazing work, but I truly believe that EVT is the one to go to. They work to 5 freedoms- freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, injury or disease, distress and freedom to express normal behaviours and I could really see this during my visit. It was a relief to know that the elephants weren’t forced to perform for us at all and were free to walk off whenever they wanted.
I didn’t at all feel like I’d missed out by not being able to swim with the elephants. In fact, I was relieved to not have and instead to have spent time learning about these animals and the work being done to hopefully release them. After all, that is where they are meant to be. I really hope to be able to see them in the wild one day thanks to the work being done here! I feel that Elephant Valley Thailand is the best ethical sanctuary for you if you’re looking for a sanctuary that not only rescues elephants but also helps to teach them how to be elephants again in the hope of being released.
To find out more about Elephant Valley Thailand and to book your visit, head to their website here.
A huge thank you to Elephant Valley Thailand – it was a pleasure working with you and a pleasure seeing your amazing elephants. As always, all opinions are my own and true to my personal experience.