Bonding with Elephants in Thailand

I spent the morning of my day with the elephants nervously eyeing the sky. The sky threatened rain, and since I had been on Koh Chang, the weather had been unpredictable to say the least. One moment, I was standing on the white sand beach and the next I was taking shelter on the covered porch of my private but very affordable beach bungalow. However, I had come to Koh Chang, the “elephant island,” with not just sun and pad thai in mind. I knew there was an elephant reservation here for working elephants whose owners were no longer able to care for them. Ban Kwang Chang is a sanctuary sponsored by the Asian Elephant Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting elephants in Asia. In Asia, elephants are working animals, somewhat similar to camels, and with increases in technology, families that have for years relied on elephants for their work have no need for these majestic creatures. Thankfully preserves have stepped in, and I was happy that my money was going to a great cause.

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Visiting and riding elephants is a highlight of many travelers’ time in Thailand. I was looking forward to it long before I got on the plane bound for Hanoi via Qatar in London. However, it’s really important that people who plan on making elephants a part of their visit do their due diligence in advance and make sure the elephants they plan on visiting with are treated right before committing. Most commonly, people take part in an elephant trek as part of a trek outside of Chiang Mai, where it is often combined with a visit to local minority villages and other hikes or rafting activities. However, there have been many reports of elephant mistreatment at these tour groups. It is my hearty recommendation that a traveler wishing to spend time elephants do so at a reputable reservation dedicated solely to elephant preservation. There are several of these places throughout Southeast Asia, including the highly recommended (although I haven’t visited it) Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Not only do you come away with new knowledge and an intimate experience with elephants, you know your money is going to a place where elephants are well treated and cared for.

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I was picked up at my bungalow after a lunch of spicy papaya salad in a songthaew, a type of transportation unique to Thailand and neighboring Laos. A pickup truck with benches in the back, it’s a guarantee of bouncy ride over unpaved road. We went inland from the beach, up through rice paddies and jungle landscape, narrowly missing a few monkeys playing in the road, before arriving at Ban Kwang Chang. A number of the elephants, including an elephant cub, were hanging out in a clearing near the main building, but my group followed an elephant down to the river. Stripping down to our bathing suits, we followed the elephant in. Riding elephants was one thing I was excited to do, but I couldn’t even comprehend getting to swim with them! I climbed on top of the elephant (it was a girl but I couldn’t catch her name) and began to scrub her with a brush. She decided to thank me by spraying me with water from her trunk. Well, I like to think it was a thank you at least.

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After swimming with the elephants, we had the opportunity to go on a jungle trek with them. The jungle scenery is fantastic on Koh Chang, and the back of an elephant is the best way to see it. In a number of places, you have to sit on a bench on the elephant’s back. At Ban Kwang Chang, we were able to choose either the seat or to sit directly on the elephant’s back. I was able to take in the scenery, but was mostly enjoying riding on my elephant.

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After we returned to base camp and fed our elephants some bananas, we were forced to return to the beach. My time with the elephants on Koh Chang was one of the highlights of my trip to Southeast Asia, up there with climbing the ruins of Angkor Wat and exploring the magical city of Hoi An. I urge every visitor to Thailand to take part in an elephant excursion at an elephant park. However, be very careful. My recommendation is to participate in treks in Chiang Mai that do not include an elephant ride, and instead spend an entire morning or afternoon at a reserve devoted to protecting these beautiful animals.

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