Before we dive into our review of the elephant sanctuary in Phuket, let’s discuss the moral question of whether we should have been there in the first place. Many, ourselves included, find cruelty to animals abhorrent and would never knowingly support any operation that was cruel to their animals. We read several reviews of this Sanctuary before committing to a visit, and the overwhelming consensus seemed to be that they were indeed a genuine sanctuary for elephants, treated them well, and didn’t make the animals do anything they wouldn’t do naturally. There is no riding of the elephants here for example, and the activities revolve around feeding and bathing the elephants, something which they seemed to enjoy.
Now caring for elephants doesn’t come cheap, and I can understand why they need the tourism dollar to maintain their operation, and continue to ‘rescue’ more elephants from owners who can no longer look after them, or no longer have a working use for the elephant. This Sanctuary is a partner of the one in Chiang Mai and has only been operating for a relatively short period of time. After our visit, we have left with a clear conscience convinced that the staff here have a genuine affection for the elephants and that our money has gone towards securing a happier future for these elephants than they might otherwise have had.
The visits are twice a day, morning and afternoon. We didn’t fancy a very early morning start so booked in for the afternoon visit, and were picked up on time from our hotel in Patong Beach. The Sanctuary is about an hour’s ride from Patong Beach, so when we saw the transport provided was a Ute with seats on the back we were a little apprehensive. We needn’t have worried, it wasn’t the most comfortable trip, but it went by quickly as we chatted with three young ladies who were touring Thailand.
Upon arriving everyone congregates in the undercover area for a brief but informative talk on the Sanctuary and elephants in general. We then move onto the first task, cutting up fruit for the elephants. Bananas and pineapple were on the menu today, and once chopped, we carried the large baskets of fruit out to the area where the elephants were waiting to be fed. We split into smaller groups to feed the elephants to ensure everyone had a turn and all elephants had equal attention. It was quite a sensation to hand feed an elephant and feel the soft, squishy inside of its mouth. All perfectly safe as an elephant’s teeth are further down, at the back of the mouth (yes I was listening to the earlier talk).
Inevitably the baby elephants were the stars of the show, extremely cute, and one who was particularly mischievous had been named ‘Bieber’ by the staff, because “he is a very naughty boy”.
The highlight of the day followed once everyone had changed into bathing suits, or similar clothing, and headed to the mud bath. There was a large man made area filled with muddy water waiting for the elephants. The handlers got the elephants to lay down (the water is only about half a metre deep), and everyone had an opportunity to reach down, grab a dollop of mud and rub it into the elephants. A truly unique experience, and one that I am sure I will remember for a very long time. I did contemplate not participating in the mud bath and washing of the elephants as I wasn’t sure if my limited vision would cause an unsafe situation. I didn’t want to be in the way of a swinging trunk that I didn’t see coming, or tread on an elephant’s leg in the water, or a number of other things going through my mind. Thankfully I listened to the adventurer in me, and Corinne’s insistence that I give it a go.
I am sure anyone who works in health and safety would have a convulsion at the thought of these multi tonne animals rolling around just inches away from tourists, but the handlers seemed to know what they were doing and there was only one incident that had me a little scared. I was near the bank of the enclosure, about one metre away from an elephant who was laying down enjoying a mud rub, and for some reason he looked up at me and decided he wanted to have a closer look at me. He stood up, despite his handler’s instructions to lay down, and moved towards me. I fumbled backwards up the embankment to relative safety and the whole episode was over in seconds. I don’t know what I had done to upset the elephant or cause his interest in me, but thankfully I was able to get out before he reached me. I say ‘he’, it could have been a female. Anyway I’m still here, and as I have already said, it is an experience I am very happy to have had.
After about twenty minutes in the mud bath we moved the elephants to an adjacent pool of cleaner water to wash them down, before finally giving them a ‘proper’ shower in a custom built shower zone, where everyone could grab a scrubbing brush and give them a final clean. I have to say that I didn’t sense that any of the elephants were doing anything they didn’t enjoy.
There is also a staff member constantly taking photographs of the whole experience, and at the end of the day they upload the photographs onto their Facebook page where you can download the one’s you want free of charge. We downloaded several nice ones of us, photographs we couldn’t possibly have taken ourselves as the only cameras allowed near the water were waterproof GoPros or similar.
There are showers provided for you to clean up, although they are not private, so you really need to shower in your bathing clothes. You can then get changed into drier clothes in the toilet block. Not ideal, but this experience is not about luxury or feeling comfortable.
Suitably cleaned and feeling fresh we returned to the undercover area for a very nice meal which is all included within the price. The food was surprisingly good, with a sweet and sour vegetable dish, a meat curry, spring rolls, rice and fresh fruit. After eating, a final quick chat about the day before receiving some gifts to take away. We were given a traditional multi coloured top, which had the Sanctuary name and logo, and a small bag made of similar material. A very nice way to end what had been a very enjoyable experience.
They drop you back at your hotel of course, and we thought that the cost had been well worth it. We had paid 2500 baht per person which equates to around $100 AUD. If you decide to book this same trip please check with your agent that you are going to the Sanctuary as there are a number of other trips which involve trekking and riding the elephants. After learning about how riding an elephant affects its spine, that is something we won’t be doing.
Have you had an elephant experience whilst travelling? We would love to hear about it in the comments below.