I never dreamed I would be swimming through the mud in a giant elephant bath during my first day in Phuket, but as soon as I heard that the elephants were in need of protection, I signed up to be a volunteer at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. There are a total of 4 parks in Thailand you can visit to help save the elephants (Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Samui, and Phuket) that all offer an educational hands-on experience with them.
The day starts with a free pickup from your hotel (from most locations) to the sanctuary. After listening to a presentation on why it is important to protect the elephants, you are handed a knitted shirt and are given directions on how to feed them with corn stalks, bananas, and sugar cane. The elephants are extremely friendly and approachable, and the English-speaking guides will tell you each of their stories. You can tell that each one has been through a lot by the marks on their bodies. They seem much happier in their natural habitat than anywhere else!
Most of the elephants I met were rescued from a harsh lifestyle of show business. Due to being forced to lift heavy equipment and be trained to do tricks, some of their ears were worn from leather harnesses and and straps. Additionally, their skin was discolored from being away from the mud for so long. It is evident that elephants used for riding and for circuses are lacking in hygiene and not taken care of properly. This is why we must do what we can to collectively help them and spread awareness.
A very important lesson to learn is: elephants should never be ridden. The elephant’s spine will degrade overtime from the weight on their backs and it can cause permanent damage to their bodies. One thing that upsets me with tour companies in Thailand is that they often feature both an elephant sanctuary and and elephant riding course. Elephant riding should be discouraged as much as possible to tourists and permanently removed from the tour companies because it is extremely harmful to them. Even though elephants look strong, they are fragile creatures that should be treated with respect.
After our feeding session, we headed to the mud bath where we happily washed and played with them! The mud is extremely important in nourishing elephants’ skin and you can tell that they really enjoy it. I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous to get in, but the group of friends that I met here encouraged me to so I took the plunge! I am so happy that I decided to do this because I feel like I understand the elephants a lot more now.
You can choose from a half day and full day course with them, and an overnight course is available as well. I decided to try the half day course just to see what it was like for 2,500 baht. All of the money is used for medicine and maintaining the elephants in the sanctuaries, so I felt like this experience was well worth it.
After you bathe with the elephants, you will be able to take a shower and feast on a delicious Thai buffet meal, I enjoyed my experience here very much because I feel like I learned a lot about them, and I even got to hug one at the end of the tour!
For those looking to volunteer, please look at the volunteer page, and cherish the moments you are able to spend with these precious animals.