It was an early start. Even Tom’s sister who had come to stay with us in Phuket and had major jet lag, was up and ready to go! We were all so excited to go and see the elephants! We had paid a small extra fee to be picked up from our villa. The van turned up on time, fitted with a car seat for Bertie that we hadn’t expected, and with a wonderful driver who made sure everyone was strapped in safely. We arrived at the head office and were registered and transferred into jeeps that took us off onto dirt tracks, through rubber plantations and into the jungle setting of the sanctuary. The kids were thrilled with the jeep ride, getting the day off to a good start before we’d even seen any elephants!
First we were welcomed and fitted with socks and wellies. Which took some time as they kept giving us ones that were too small for Bertie’s fatty feet and no one could manage to squeeze him in a pair! Finally, kitted out, we were shown into the Tree Top reception. We were given snacks, fresh fruit, juices and tea while our tour guides introduced themselves and we watched a video that explained what the sanctuary does and why it is so important. The sanctuary is a final home to elephants who have been retired or rescued from the logging and tourism industries (find out more here).
Then we went with our tour guides to feed one of the elephants. This is a sanctuary for the elephants, so the elephants can choose whether they eat the food or not and visitors must stay at a respectful distance, behind a barrier, as the animals are not being trained to stay or interact with people. It is still an amazing experience though, being so close to them and watching the way they feed. Bertie wasn’t all that thrilled about someone else eating his bananas.
After the elephants had their snack, the tour group moved off around the site. First up was to see the elephants who were in shelters. These elephants were newer to the sanctuary and receiving veterinary care. One elephant was still choosing to stay in her shelter than leave and move around, the staff assumed she felt safer there and hope that she will wander out soon. We also saw elephants who were in a hydrotherapy pool, which is part of the care routine for some of the elephants as many of them have leg injuries sustained while working in the logging and tourism industries.
It was great going further out into the sanctuary and seeing the elephants that were roaming around, even with Arthur and Eirlys moaning about all the walking like they were doing an Iron Man or Tough Mudder race. (They do actually provide golf buggies to get around if you need them.) We were asked to keep about 6 metres away from the animals and if the elephants began moving towards us, the tour guides got us to move out of the way pretty quick. It was explained that trained elephants are usually kept in check by a mahout (keeper) who uses a sharp nail or stick to poke the animal’s sensitive skin, which (combined with being broken in when young) means that the elephants are safe around people. The elephants here do have keepers but they obviously have a very special bond. The keepers are there to help lead the elephants to their medical care, to their night time shelters and to try and keep them away from the nearby rubber and fruit plantations. There is not enough natural jungle habitat in Thailand, and definitely not in Phuket, to support complete rehabilitation into the wild and so the sanctuary tries to mimic a natural life as best as possible, whilst keeping the animals safe and cared for.
The best part of the tour was definitely when an elephant who had been feeding on a far bank of a water hole, started walking towards us, sauntered right past, down into the water and completely submerged herself. You could almost hear her relief getting out of the midday heat! It was really amazing to see.
After an hour or so trekking around the site, it was time to return to the Tree Top reception, pull off our now very sweaty boots and socks, and eat! The sanctuary provides a delicious vegetarian Thai buffet, with loads to choose from and plenty of mango to keep our now mango obsessed kids happy.
CLICK HERE for the video of our visit!
Why we chose Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
Like most people visiting Thailand, we really wanted to see elephants while we were there. We also knew that it was hard to do it ethically and that many elephants are hurt and exploited as part of the tourism industry. We started to do research and it was tricky to settle on an option. There were plenty of elephant riding and trekking camps that were definitely not an option. Then there were places that offer elephant bathing and claimed to be ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘ethical’. This was where it got tricky. During our research we read that places which offer bathing with elephants are not technically considered to be genuine welfare centres. As elephants wouldn’t naturally spend time in close proximity to humans (in fact they can be pretty aggressive), they need to be trained to obey their keepers and let people interact with them. Although in these sanctuaries the elephants are often treated well, the training process can be pretty brutal. We are definitely not judging anyone who visits one of the other sanctuaries in Phuket or who has bathed with elephants, as most of these places are far better than the riding/trekking camps and do fantastic work promoting the idea of ethical elephant tourism. We found it a hard choice as we could see how amazing being in the water with the animals would have been.
You can find out more here: