The Only Ethical Way to See Elephants in Phuket
Elephants and Thailand go hand in hand, but the tourism industry doesn't always have the gentle giants' best interests at heart. While Chiang Mai has established locations like the Elephant Nature Park and luxe Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle where visitors can engage with elephants in their natural habitat, until this year, the popular beach destination of Phuket did not. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary opened in August 2016 as a retirement home of sorts for "sick, injured, and old elephants who have worked an exhausting life in the logging and tourism industries." A visit to the sanctuary is eye-opening and utterly mesmerizing. Read on to learn more.
The Trouble With Elephant Trekking
All of those elephant treks and shows that are heavily promoted to tourists in Thailand (and throughout Southeast Asia) come at a cost. In order to tame a baby elephant, its spirit has to literally be broken. This is achieved through a process known as phajaan, or "the crush," that involves taking the baby from its mother and confining it to an extremely small cage or hole in the ground where it can't move. They're beaten, pierced with bull hooks, starved, and sleep-deprived — terrible stuff.
What Makes the Sanctuary Different?
There's no riding (or "trekking") involved here. Visitors feed, walk with, and observe the elephants in their natural surroundings — a 30-acre forest sanctuary in northeast Phuket.
What the Visit Entails
Visitors can sign up for a half-day adventure with the elephants. After a brief introduction to the facilities and a history of elephant tourism in Thailand, guests have the chance to feed the sanctuary's animals — you'll watch in amazement as they down whole watermelons and pineapples by grasping them with their trunks.
Afterwards, follow the elephants on a leisurely stroll throughout their forest habitat. You'll see them splash in mud, interact one another, and swim. The visit is capped off with a home-cooked Thai lunch overlooking the elephants. Guides are on hand throughout the day to answer any questions and share additional info about the project.
Those interested in spending more time at the sanctuary can sign up to volunteer onsite.
Meet The Herd
The sanctuary is currently home to four rescued elephants ranging in age from 32 to their late 60s, and they're all veterans of the logging and/or tourism industries. You can learn more about each of their heartbreaking stories here.
A Few Tips
- Phuket gets hot, so be prepared for a toasty day in the forest. The sanctuary provides water, but heading out for the day with a bottle of your own isn't a bad idea.
- The agenda at the sanctuary is very relaxed and is an incredible experience for children. Mine (who were 4 and 1 at the time of our visit) really enjoyed the visit, but did get hot and tired. We trailed off from the group early during the walking portion of the itinerary and relaxed at the tree-top observation area until lunch.
- Arrange transportation from your hotel or villa in advance (and be on time!). There is no public access to the sanctuary, so taxis and private cars drop visitors at a central meeting spot — the Monkeypod Cafe in Pa Klok — and the sanctuary's vehicles will take you into the forest.