In February this year I spent five days at the Thai Elephant Home and it was the most wonderful experience!
Myself and three dear friends sent ourselves on a well deserved and much needed holiday to Thailand and Malaysia. I have to admit, prior to arriving in Thailand, I had only seen pictures from friends and family who had travelled there, and from that I got the very wrong impression that Thailand is mostly about tourists, beaches and cocktails. There definitely is that aspect, but there is also much more. Don’t get me wrong, the beaches and cocktails were fabulous, our last six days in Thailand were full of just that. The Thai Elephant Home though…that is something else.
Let me start by saying that I really love elephants. Living in Australia obviously doesn’t afford any opportunities to see elephants apart from at the zoo. The first time I ever saw one was in India when I was about 7 years old. It was just walking along the road beside its owner in a slightly rural part of South India, and I could not contain my excitement. I have been back to India a few times since and I have seen elephants every time. I went on one ride, but unfortunately I did not have anywhere near enough time with the beautiful creature. At the Thai Elephant Home, I had 5 whole days with my gal Ezy (pronounced ‘easy’). Ezy, like many other elephants at the Thai Elephant Home has been ‘freed’ from her former life and brought to the home for her own health and happiness. She’s very clever – she gives people kisses!
The Thai Elephant Home is located in Maetaman Village in the picturesque countryside of northern Thailand, near Chiang Mai city. On site there are huts with attached bathrooms for accommodating visitors, a communal dining area, and a sitting area that surrounds a fire pit where we would help to prepare meals. That was my favourite spot. I should mention, the Thai Elephant Home has some of the best food in Thailand, including the best Massaman curry I’ve ever tasted. It’s all fresh and homemade. Oh man…just writing this is making me miss the place so much!
There is also an area where the elephants eat and sleep which is next to the mahouts quarters. Each elephant has a mahout, which is the name given to a person who rides an elephant. In this case it would be more apt to say that the mahout is a person who can control an elephant and cares for it. The mahouts and staff here are absolutely lovely. They have an amazing bond with their elephants and go to great lengths to ensure they are well looked after. There are many elephant-related tourist attractions all over Thailand but very few of them treat the elephants in an ethical, let alone caring, manner. They often use spikes or sticks to control them, or force them to carry heavy baskets with passengers in them. The Thai Elephant Home is completely different, the welfare of the elephants is their number one priority, and the mahouts and staff educate visitors about this. They are also fun people to hang out with. They would join us for meals, drinks and even some card games. Joe, or as we nicknamed him ‘SuperJoe’, is the man who runs the Thai Elephant Home. SuperJoe enjoys card games but he’s really good at them. If you go to the Thai Elephant Home and play cards with SuperJoe, watch out and don’t make any bets.
So what did we do for 5 days? That’s a good question. I’m so glad you asked.
For 4 out of the 5 days at the elephant home, we rode the elephants along the trails that wind their way through the forests, fields and rivers. There was one day when we went to a nearby field to gather some food for the elephants, and we had fun riding in a trailer. Apart from that day, the routine was more or less as follows.
In the morning, we would get up, get dressed and help feed the elephants. We didn’t have to do this, but it was fun. We would then have breakfast, which included a really nice sticky rice and custard type pudding, get changed into our gorgeous double denim outfits and say a quick prayer in front of a statue of Ganesh (Hindu god with the head of an elephant). Then we head down to the elephants’ area, give them a treat of a few bananas and jump on top. Most people get used to climbing on top of the elephants. I didn’t. Oh well, everyone had a laugh.
I was pretty nervous about making the elephant carry me for a long time. I’m generally not a fan of relying on others for transport, haha. But the mahouts did assure us that the elephants need to do a fair bit of walking everyday for their own workout. Fair enough. Anything to stay in shape, right?
There are a few different trails which we could ride along, but the best one had a nice lunch spot, a ‘mud spa’ and a river crossing. Around lunch time we would arrive at our lunch spot and tuck in to the delicious pad thai that was brought for us in banana leaf parcels. Then we head next door to the mud spa, where the elephant is already waiting for its massage. It’s a small pool of mineral-rich black mud that is supposed to be good for protecting the elephant’s skin against the harsh sun, so we get to spread it all over the elephant. The playful mahouts explained that it is good for our skin too and put some of the mud on our faces and arms. After knowing us for a few days, they either threw mud at us or threw us in the mud. To new visitors, this looked ridiculous and abusive, but I can assure you it was all in good fun.
After the mud spa, we would head over to the river to wash the mud off. This was probably where we had the most fun. Everyone was splashing around and the mahouts got the elephants to do tricks with their trunks, like spraying water around or lifting us up and dropping us in the water. It was actually amazing, probably the most care-free I’ve ever felt. From the river we head back to the elephant home, get cleaned up and just chill for the rest of the day. There isn’t a whole lot of activity going on, but it was a nice change to be able to sit back and enjoy the serenity. Many will be shocked to learn that there is no WiFi there. It was the best thing ever. Being offline forced us all to switch off and properly unwind.
I would recommend the Thai Elephant Home to anyone who wants a real getaway and a chance to get in touch with nature and culture. All meals as well as bus transfers from Chiang Mai city and back are included in the booking. You can stay there for a few nights or even just go for a day trip, but if you have the chance to visit, definitely do it!