When I first began to travel extensively, I read the book The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau. I recommend this book for a myriad of reasons as it really expands the idea of how to approach an upcoming journey. One of the main shifts I discovered from his writings was to change my thinking from ‘taking’ while traveling someplace to ‘leaving’. Instead of buying endless trinkets, taking photographs, taking a vacation, etc., I began to look for ways that I could leave something behind; to contribute to the places I visit. There are many ways to do this such as Thank You notes, bringing small gifts from home to share with people you meet, or to write a poem or create a drawing to leave behind.
When you travel, what is the impact you wish to have on the place you visit? This is a the question that really dominated my thoughts after our visit to the elephant sanctuary.
After our short flight on Jet Star from Singapore to Phuket, we booked a car service to drive us to our hotel near Patong Beach. The traffic was insane as it was a rainy Saturday night and there were multiple accidents involving motor-bikes along the way. Sunday was a spa day for us: Starbucks + mani/pedi + lunch + nap + Thai massage + sleep.
On Monday, Steve and I had booked the morning tour at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. The goal of this place is very different that many of the animal encounters that are available to tourists in Thailand. This sanctuary was not created for human entertainment, rather it was created as a retirement home for the elephants where they are nurtured and loved. This was a very powerful place to visit and was THE highlight of our time on Phuket Island.
In Thailand and elsewhere, you can pay to ride an elephant or to watch an elephant show (like a circus act). What they don’t tell you is the years of chains and beatings the elephants endured to be docile enough to respond to their trainers cues. What they don’t tell you is that most of the elephants have been beaten blind in at least one eye in the belief this will prevent them from killing their trainer. The trainers carry hooks at all times and if the elephant mis-behaves it is chained up and severely beaten after the show.
In Thailand and elsewhere, you can buy a painting that was created by an elephant. What they don’t tell you is that while the elephant is painting the picture, the trainer is holding a sharp nail to a corner of it’s ear and painfully pinching the ear to get the elephant to paint the way they want it to.
Elephants have long been a commodity: they have been used for tanks in battle, for carrying and hauling heavy loads, for transportation and for entertainment. Some of the elephants currently used in entertainment industry were formerly used in the logging industry (where they may have been fed bananas laced with stimulants) until they were injured. Many of these elephants injuries are never treated properly, but they still work 8 hours a day for the amusement of humans. When the elephants are near death and are no longer of any use to the entertainment industry, they can be purchased for $10,000 – $15,000 by a sanctuary (we were told that a young elephant is worth $60,000+).
There are several elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, but Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is different. The interaction between humans and elephants is very limited and the elephant is free to walk away at any time and the mahouts (trainers) do not carry sticks, they only carry bags of food. The elephants are content to get watermelon, bananas and cucumbers from the visitors in exchange for some gentle petting on their trunk. However, at this sanctuary, visitors are not allowed to bathe the elephants as the founders believe it causes emotional stress for the elephants. Instead, after feeding and photographs, the elephants wander away to find bamboo to munch on or a watering hole for hydrotherapy and the humans walk around and follow them.
As we walk around, the guides tell us about the elephants: Darling is a 60yo female who was blinded in both eyes and they believe she was blinded via slingshot and worked in the logging industry and the trekking industry (rode by humans for entertainment). She is scared of the other elephants but loves to eat bamboo leaves and shoots. Grandma, Jasmine Flower, is 68yo and before she was able to be transported to the sanctuary, she was given over 20L of fluids and treated for a life-threatening festering wound on her leg.
Moonlight is the newest member of the group. She is 38yo and worked in logging and when she refused to accept the chair for trekking she was beaten so badly she went blind in one eye and sustained massive injuries and infections around her head and neck. She has only bonded to one human there and refuses to socialize with the other elephants. It took one month for them to get her to put her feet in the water, they believe she had experienced some type of trauma involving water because most elephants love water. We did not feed or touch her, but we were allowed to watch her walk in water and get treats from her mahout.
The last two females, Little Flower (34yo) and New Beginning (60yo) are BFFs. New Beginnings had a broken leg that did not heal right, so they apply tiger balm on her leg and Little Flower is very protective of her.
After walking around and following the elephants, we returned to the main visitor’s center for a fabulous vegetarian Thai lunch. During lunch, the staff walked around and spoke to the visitors. Louise, the project director who’s homeland is England, asked me about my mala. Before I left, I gave her a wrist mala that I had brought with me. I can only hope that she receives some amount of joy from it just as her work with the elephants provides joy for so many visitors.
If you go to Thailand, you must stop by this amazing place. In total, we spent about four hours at the sanctuary. Our experience here reminds me that part of being a visitor is being respectful and having a positive impact on the people, the animals, and the place that I am visiting.
The tour included breakfast snacks, water, soda and juice, as well as an impressive lunch buffet. There is a small gift shop onsite and relatively decent restroom facilities. They had rubber boots to protect your feet and umbrellas to loan for sun shade.