Stroking her trunk and attempting to speak soothing words, I stared at the beautiful creature, mother to the younger of the three elephants who was now playing in the water and rolling around in obvious pleasure. Standing barefoot on the large rock on the edge of the stream, I braced myself, my legs shoulder length apart. My fear of slipping abandoned me quickly as I stood, eye to eye, with this giant, gentle beast. Her head turned slightly and I felt the inquisitive gaze of her one eye roam over me as I continued to speak praises of how beautiful she was, how in awe I was of her. Slowly and with obvious intelligence, she turned her head so the gaze of her other eye now met my own. In that moment when our eyes locked, I felt the connection and a soul deep understanding of just how majestic these creatures are; I knew that this was a moment of significance in my life and one I wouldn’t soon forget.
Hunting for The Right Elephant Sanctuary
Elephants. They were the reason we decided to go to Thailand. Sure, we would have ended up there eventually while travelling Southeast Asia, but as Macrae had been to Thailand two years ago, we had thought we would explore different countries first.
It’s true Thailand is cheaper than many other countries and allowed us a prolonged, 2 month visa but while both of those were contributing factors, the main reason we went was to see elephants. Being the first, and pretty much only item, on Carolann’s “bucket list” so far, we decided to make sure it was crossed off. And so, after our week in Beijing we headed to Northern Thailand. It took us almost a month to find an elephant sanctuary to visit. We were determined to find one that treated the elephants humanely and that we felt comfortable supporting.
Carolann had bookmarked an elephant sanctuary several years ago (she’s been dreaming of interacting with elephants for as long as she can remember) called Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary (BLES). Unfortunately, being a well-known sanctuary for rescued and retired elephants, BLES books up fast and did not have any openings until May 2015. So with that unfortunate turn of events, our hunt began. (note: BLES is now booked up for all of 2015)
We heard of the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). Another fairly well-known sanctuary, well-visited by tourists, Elephant Nature Park also takes in rescued and retired elephants. We heard only positive things about the park but something told us to keep looking. ENP is well advertised and fairly popular and we thought we may be able to spread the support to lesser known sanctuaries, if they existed. And so, our search continued.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
Through research and word of mouth we heard of elephant “sanctuaries” and parks but quickly discarded each one as potential places to visit. We either read a review mentioning the poor treatment of the animals or saw that riding the elephants would be part of the program. It wasn’t until the week we had planned to leave for Bangkok that a local known as Uncle in Hang Dong (South of Chiang Mai) handed us some pamphlets that we found what we were looking for.
Still in its infancy, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary opened in the middle of 2014 and currently has four elephants (although there were only 3 when we visited). Browsing the website and their Facebook page, we read information and reviews and decided we would take a chance as it seemed to fit the requirements we had:
- There is no riding of the elephants – despite their large and strong build, elephants do not have the spines to support a rider. Long days of being ridden, either bareback or with a saddle, can cause painful damage to their spines not to mention the additional pain caused by the saddle itself and the wear on their feet from walking all day with improperly supported weight.
- Chains, bull hooks and the like are not used to subdue, coerce or manage the elephants – In Thailand, there is a long-standing tradition of training elephants for the tourism industry. The training method, called the Phajaan or crush, is exactly as it’s English translation would suggest – a method to crush the spirit of the animal. Bullhooks and chains are part of this method and are usually continued to be used while tourists are enjoying their ride through the jungle.
We ended up learning that there was so much more to this sanctuary than we originally believed and were so thankful we happened across it.
Mamma Noi: Elephant Rescuer, Hostel Owner and Mother To All
Upon researching, we learned that the elephant sanctuary is affiliated with a hostel in the heart of Chiang Mai – Baan Khun Hostel. Owned and operated by a small in stature, but big in heart, woman affectionately called Mamma Noi, this hostel is also fairly new and highly rated. We decided that we would stay the night before we went to see the elephants at Baan Khun Hostel and make it easy to hop on the truck for the ride to the sanctuary the following morning. Baan Khun Hostel Was our first experience with hostels in Thailand and this one seemed to be loved by everyone in residence. Free tea and coffee, cookies and bananas, Mamma Noi made sure everyone was happy and was a warm and friendly host. We sat down with her for a while to ask her questions about the elephant sanctuary and her involvement in it.We discovered that the sanctuary was, in part, borne out of Mamma Noi’s lifelong love of elephants.
Elephants have a complicated and often contradictory existence in Thailand. On the one hand they are revered, considered holy creatures that have helped build the country and it’s temples. They are also still used for labour – poked, prodded and broken to the will of their owners at a young age – they are used to transport heavy logs with their trunks and chained in order to control them. For many people we spoke to in Thailand it is considered a trade-off: the elephants are fed and are kept secure where they cannot cause harm to villages or cities and in return, they work. Others feel they are capable of finding food on their own and that it is not the fault of the elephants that their habitat was taken over by humans and that they may cause damage should they wander through.
More recently, the tourist industry has proved to be an additional revenue stream for those who own elephants. Riding an elephant is now “the thing” to do when in Thailand. The excitement and thrill of travelling on such an incredible and large creature seems to mask the obvious signs of maltreatment. It’s much more fun to focus on being atop an elephant, staring at the jungle around you then to take a look at the saddened eyes, the ears full of holes from the spikes of the bullhooks used to break them and later, steer them, or the obvious strain carrying a heavy basket full of people all day causes. It’s also an issue that is only more recently being brought to light and to the attention of travellers.
Through her ownership of the hostel, Mamma Noi heard many horror stories from her guests about the treatment of elephants on various jungle treks and elephant parks around Chiang Mai and she wanted to help create a place where elephants would be treated well and could exist freely, peacefully and happily.
With Help From the Karen Hill Tribe
The sanctuary is located within a Karen Hill Tribe Village north of Chiang Mai. During our visit, we were able to spend a great deal of time with one of the residents of the village, Robert. All smiles and soft-spoken words, Robert is one of the cornerstones of the sanctuary and he, along with his family and the rest of the village, played an essential role in the formation of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Not only was part of the family’s land donated for the elephants to roam, but the people of the village worked together to develop and sustain the sanctuary as it is – they bring people to the sanctuary, guide them through the day, prepare lunch, make handicrafts to sell and of course care, daily, for the elephants.
Through collaboration between Mamma Noi, Baan Khun Hostel and the hill tribe, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary became a reality and although, at the time, they were only able to afford the three rescued elephants (with one baby on the way), they all told us that they hoped to be able to increase their funds in order to take on more elephants in need.
We also learned that in addition to the one day visit with the elephants, overnight stays in the hill tribe were also available and we decided that it would be important to stay, at least one night, in order to get a full picture of what Mamma Noi, Robert and the people of the hill tribe offered and were trying to accomplish.
Stay tuned for more about our amazing two days with the elephants and the people of the Karen hill tribe we were fortunate to be able to stay with.
You Can Do It Too
Places that will allow you to interact up close and personal with animals offer amazing experiences. It can be difficult sometimes to parse out those that contribute to increasing awareness for animal welfare and responsible tourism, and those that are more concerned with the benefits of the tourism industry. We’d like to think that this post and our future posts regarding the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary will help tourists make an informed decision about where they choose to visit with elephants and what type of interaction they choose to participate in.
If you are looking to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, tickets for 1-, 2- and 3-day visits can be purchased at Baan Kuhn Hostel in Chiang Mai – 119/10 Thapae Rd, Chang Klan, Chiang Mai, 50100 tel: 053-273415. More information for visits or volunteering can be found on their site at www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com.
Do you know of another elephant sanctuary (or other animal sanctuary) not mentioned that treats their animals humanely, either in Thailand or elsewhere? Comment below – we’d love to spread the word!