When I was a lot younger, I would look at photos of people riding elephants and say "When I'm older, I'm going to do that!"
I've always loved animals, (the thousands of animal pictures I post might be a slight giveaway!) and let's face it - elephants are pretty cool. To most eyes, it looks like it would be fine to clamber onto the back of the giant creatures - they seem big enough that they might not even notice the weight of one or two people on their backs...
Now that we know more about the effects of riding elephants, not to mention the abuse that they suffer from the trainers, it's safe to say that I want nothing to do with elephant rides whatsoever - unfortunately plenty of people are still miseducated, and each day, lots of people do still climb aboard the beautiful giants - sadly more than enough people to keep the elephant ride business in Thailand going strong.
Upon arrival in Bangkok, I overheard a conversation in one of the hostels about a company called Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. The backpackers who had been talking about EJS, said that you could spend a day with the wonderful creatures, there was no riding of the elephants, and that all the animals were treated really well. Feeling a little skeptical, I decided to investigate further, and after several hours of reading articles, blog posts and Tripadvisor reviews surrounding the subject, and more importantly Elephant Jungle Sanctuary itself, I'd actually taken the decision to visit the sanctuary myself, and had booked and paid the deposit for a full day's visit.
The day came around fast, and I was excited but also strangely nervous to be up close to the big grey giants. Liam, who I met at Loy Krathong Festival had booked a day at the Sanctuary too, so I actually ended up moving my date forward so we could go together (and take on the role of each others personal photographer for the day!) I was picked up from the hostel bright and early, and bundled into the back of a truck with the other people that were booked onto the trip. As soon as the next people we picked up got into the truck, I clocked that their accents were from Bristol, and we of course got talking. We did the whole 'Facebook mutual friends swap' thing, and it turns out we knew quite a few of the same people. When you travel, you're forever being reminded how small a world we live in!
A volunteer was needed to move into the front seat of the truck, so we could fit everybody in. As I was the only solo traveler, I decided to volunteer. At first it was slightly awkward as the driver couldn't speak more than a few words of English, and there was a bit of an uncomfortable silence, until he said 'music?' To which of course I replied with a 'yes please!'
Despite the language barriers, we found common ground over a love for Elton John and The Beatles as we had a little singalong. Climbing the mountain roads, I taught him how to say the word 'steep' and he was honestly the happiest bloke in Thailand, and spent the rest of the journey repeating 'steep' every time we got to an incline in the road. By the time we arrived at the sanctuary, we were practically best friends.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is steadily growing in size - since opening in 2014 the company has had to increase the number of 'elephant camps' to eight! Upon arrival at 'Camp Two' we were taught about the history behind the company. Many local Karen Hill tribes own elephants which have been passed down through the families. Previously used for work, but now essentially just a burden to the families who own them, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary looks after the elephants and provides them with the food and care they need. They rely on visitors and donations to keep the sanctuary running. It was really interesting to learn about, and once the initial welcome talk was complete, it was time to go and meet the elephants!
Pockets loaded with bamboo, we got to spend the next hour or so making friends with the gentle giants. (Seems that I'm quite similar to an elephant, in the sense that I'll become a good friend of anybody who gives me food too!) It was incredibly cute that they know exactly where you keep the bamboo, so every now and then you'd look down to find a huge trunk trying to pickpocket you. Everyone knows that elephants are huge, but they really do tower over you when you're up close - they're beautiful! (And they feel EXACTLY how I imagined them to!)
Sadly, the bamboo soon ran out and that meant that it was time for us to eat. The sanctuary put on a lovely (all you can eat) Thai spread, and we all stuffed our faces and got to know each other. It was really cool to see the elephants themselves chilling out in the shade as we ate and chatted amongst ourselves and once we were finished, we got the chance to learn how to make 'medicine' for the elephants. (It was more like one of those little health/protein balls you can buy, the ones you're supposed to only eat one of, but are filled with peanut butter so you feel like you want to eat about twelve.)
Medicine balls in hand, we made our way down to the little lake to feed them to the elephants - after which they went for a little lie down in the water, waiting for us to cover them in mud. The playful staff were on hand to make sure that we got covered in mud too (which saved me 'accidentally' falling in to cover myself, and also gave me a license to start a bit of a mud fight with one of them!) The elephants loved it! It was like a proper little pamper session for them - they looked so relaxed, wallowing in the shallow water!
I thought the little lake was going to be the extent of our time in the water with the elephants, but it wasn't long before we were walking down towards a waterfall and bigger section of water! The elephants were as eager to get in as we were, and we were given bowls which we could fill with water to throw over the elephants and clean the mud off. There was a LOT of splashing, but smiles and laughter all round as we played with the elephants in the water!
Before we knew it, the day was over and it was actually incredibly sad to leave the sanctuary. I think both Liam and I considered actually paying to come back the following day, but both of our budgets decided against that idea for us! Before I overheard the backpackers in Bangkok talking about Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, I was adamant that I wasn't going to be involved in any tourism involving elephants, but you should honestly see for yourself the incredible work that these guys do - as volunteers! The elephants are happy and well looked after, and of course in an ideal world, they would be free to roam the jungles as they please - but this isn't an ideal world - there simply isn't enough jungle left in Thailand for these animals to survive without having to venture onto farm land, which unfortunately, is an invitation for local farmers to shoot them.
An incredible day, which I'll never forget. Big thanks to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for having us! And if you happen to be visiting Thailand, don't miss out on this incredible daytrip!