Let's take a trip back to the past. The national animal of Thailand, elephants have been a crucial part of the Thai society for centuries, and there's no doubt that they have a deep impact on the country's culture. Back in the 1940s, during the time of wars, elephants had an important role in manual labour. Since then, they've become a royal iconography, and are also actively involved in the tourism industry. Elephants weren't loved and cared for as they are in present time. For thousands of years, elephants in Thailand were imprisoned and taught to lift heavy logs and transport it through forests. After the wars concluded, elephants moved on to be a part of the entertainment industry where they performed tricks for audiences and the tourism industry where they carried travellers from place to place. It was only until 2010 that laws were passed to protect elephants and make these acts illegal.
Elephants are usually spotted in the tropical forests of northern an western Thailand. So keep an eye for them if you trek in these areas. Some of these areas are Mae Hong Son, the border near Burma, and Chumphon. In its early days, Thailand was 90% forested. The illegal agriculture and logging had a grave impact on the forest cover, which then dropped down to an all-time low of 31.6%. This has resulted in the death of many Thai elephants and pushed them to the endangered species list.
Elephants are protected in Thailand under The Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act of 1992. The sanctuaries have done a remarkable job at preserving elephants under this law. The Department of National Parks announced in 2017 that the number of wild elephants was rising by 8-9%.
Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand offers a stay package wherein you get to live among elephants and take care of them. The package generally includes accommodation at a well-maintained cottage including meals and non-alcoholic drinks. You get the best of the services one gets in a hotel, in addition to spending lots and lots of time with elephants. You need to reserve a room before the Sanctuary doesn't take on the spot bookings. So pack your tropical t-shirts and shorts and be prepared to spend some quality time with elephants.
Cost: THB 6000
Location: Outside the village Baan Tuel, Thailand
The Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehab centre in North Thailand where you can be friends with elephants, bathe and feed them and nourish them with love. They provide different types of packages, mainly a day tour and overnight tour (with accommodation). You can also get your swimming trunk along to bathe with baby elephants.
Cost: Day tour: THB 2500 and Night tour: THB 5800
Location: 60km away from Chiang Mai
The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) provides aids to several kinds of animals, including elephants. Choose from the various tours they offer you could either plan a day trip or stay a week long at their facility to volunteer and shower love at elephants. Whichever package you choose, there will be lots of new learning along with walking, showering and interacting with elephants.
Cost: THB 1,600 THB for day tour and THB 16,500 for a week-long stay.
Location: 2.5-hour drive from Bangkok
Ran-Tong Elephant Sanctuary is dedicated to the protection and conservation of abused Asian Elephants in Thailand. Additionally, they aim to educate the public about the long history of elephants within Thai culture. They provide various packages such as the Full Day and Half-Day Program wherein apart from feeding the elephants one gets to give them a mud spa or a Thai herbal massage. The various plans include the half day-morning plan, half day-evening plan, half day-morning paired with whitewater rafting, half day-morning paired with ATV. The ideal program is the overnight stay at the centre (2 Day/1 Night) where visitors get a chance to spend the day with the elephants engaging in various activities and learns to cook a traditional Thai dinner at night. Upon request, one can also enrol in one of their new programs dedicated only to baby elephants where one gets a chance to not only learn about their life but also prepare medicines for them.
Cost: Full Day: THB 2,500; half day-morning program: THB 1,800; half day-evening: THB 1,800; half day-morning plan paired with whitewater rafting: THB 3,000; half day-morning plan paired with ATV: THB 3,600; Overnight stay at the centre (2 Day/1 Night): THB 5,500
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Elephant Hills is Thailand's first luxury jungle camping or glamping space that combines the idea of glamorous camping in national parks with the rugged Thai tropical forest environment. It is an entirely chain-free camp - one of the few in Southeast Asia - along with jungle tents offering natural encounters. They offer two to four-day soft adventure tours in and around the Khao Sok National Park. The packages are fully inclusive of accommodation, full board, activities as per chosen itinerary, a fully trained, TAT-licensed English speaking Thai tour as well as joint transfers to and from Elephant Hills. The packages include Rainforest Nature Safari, Jungle Safari, and Jungle Lake Safari.
Cost: Rainforest Nature Safari: THB 24,535; Jungle Safari: THB 13, 210 (2 Days/ 1 Night) and THB 19,500 (3 Days/ 2 Nights); Jungle Lake Safari: THB 22,410
Location: Khao Sok National Park, Southern Thailand
Feeding elephants bananas is as "appealing" as it can get. Nothing is more joyful then feeding these giant four-legged animals fruits, and bananas are cheap and found in abundance in Thailand. Elephants eat bananas with the peel on. You can split it in two to make it last longer. Pro tip: Stand sturdily while feeding them as their sturdy trunks can knock you over.
Walking with elephants is like walking with your pet dog, the only difference is that you will have to look upwards instead of downwards, given the vast size difference the two animals have. Elephants love to frolick in waters. Join them for fun. Play with them and click pictures to take back memories with your giant friend.
Many people have riding elephants on their bucket list. Its about time people remove it, instead of ticking it. Reason? This is because elephants have been abused and tortured for ages and forced into pulling carts controlled by humans. Given their size, it may seem elephants have strong back, but that's not true. Riding them can result in long-term body harm to the elephants. Domestic elephant numbers have gone down severely. There were more than 100,000 domestic elephants back in the 1900s compared to some 3000 in present time.
Elephants are incredibly intelligent creatures and if you are passionate about protecting the world's largest land mammal then volunteering at an Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand might be right for you.
Most sanctuaries are home to retired elephants who are no longer capable of surviving the wild and require human support for daily care and nourishment.
One must consider the following aspects before choosing the organisation where they want to volunteer. Firstly, it must be an ethical sanctuary that allows elephants to live as they please.
Stay away from phoney sanctuaries that use elephants for performances or promote elephant rides. Secondly, an ethical elephant sanctuary will ensure volunteers train with mahouts, or elephant keepers, to make sure that they interact safely with the elephants. Moreover, having travel insurance when working with animals is always a smart move.
Thirdly, volunteering does not mean that one will always be spending all their time with elephants. It involves manual labour such as cleaning enclosures, preparing food, assisting with construction projects around the site, etc. Some excellent grassroots volunteer projects where you can contribute your time to work with elephants in Thailand are Kindred Spirits Elephant Sanctuary, Burn and Emily's Elephant Sanctuary, The Surin Project, Mahouts Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park.
If done correctly, volunteering with these incredible creatures is an enriching experience.
Apart from Volunteer Programs, all sanctuaries allow for donation or sponsorship wherein the money helps provide for food, medical care and shelter. Elephants are herbivores and spend about 18-20 hours a day eating. A single elephant can eat up to 250 pounds of food a day. Just providing enough nourishment for elephants is an expensive undertaking.
The donation helps the organisation to keep their elephants out of riding camps and circuses while providing them with a good lifestyle. Moreover, once you contribute money, some organisations provide you with a certificate acknowledging your contribution. Donations are a great way to lend support for projects undertaken to protect the Asian Elephants.
Some sanctuaries allow individuals to adopt one or more elephants passively. While adoption is another form of donation where you cover the expenses of the adoptee there exist other benefits such as an adoption certificate which includes a photo and a bio detailing the story of your adoptee, access to the Sanctuary's newsletters and special events.
Some elephant sanctuaries in Thailand provide the additional benefit of a free visit to the camp every holiday upon adoption. By adopting one becomes a partner in the sanctuary's efforts to give the gift of home, herd, rest, refuge and individualised care for life to the elephant.