Elephants have been an important part of Thai tourism for decades, with everything from circus shows to conservation camps available to tourists. Elephant-back riding is particularly popular but, in recent years, it's come to light that, in some cases, this type of tourism can be unethical, cruel and unsustainable.
Experts claim that, contrary to popular belief, elephants do not have particularly strong backs, and that long hours spent carrying tourists on metal seats can cause lasting damage. And whereas as some elephants are well cared for, others are maltreated and are forced to carry heavy loads for several hours at a time.
Ethical Ele Encounters
Thailand is home to around 4,000 domesticated elephants in total and, with growing concern for their welfare, a new approach for Asia's biggest animal is needed. A complete halt to elephant tourism simply isn't feasible – Mahouts (elephant owners) rely on the income from tourism to feed their elephants, and Thailand has neither enough natural habitat to release them into the wild, nor enough funding to care for them all in conservation centres.
Luckily, there's another solution that can benefit elephants and their mahouts, as well as Thailand's tourist industry: ethical ele encounters that focus on experiencing and caring for elephants, rather than riding them or forcing them to do tricks, are on the rise. When I visited Thailand last year, I was lucky enough to experience this for myself – staying in southern Thailand, not far from Phuket, I spent a magical morning at Sonchana Farm and its eco-ele-sanctuary.
After an early breakfast of sticky rice and Thai curry, I was picked-up from my guesthouse in a 4x4. A little while later, my driver tuned off the highway and rumbled down a dirt track that was lined with lush vegetation – it felt as if we driving deep into the jungle but, moments later, we arrived at Sonchana Farm. Here, a retired trekking elephant called Songboon lives with Khun Eak (known as "Eak") on the fringes of Khao Sok National Park – one of Thailand's oldest forest reserves.
Eak greeted me with a smile as I stepped out of the 4x4.
"We're making lunch."
He grinned, guiding me to a table where three other tourists were mixing cooked rice, grain, salt and banana into a white dough. A few metres behind them, Songboon the elephant waited patiently beside a tree.
"Make a ball and push a tablet inside."
Eak told me, demonstrating how to hide one of Songboon's protein and vitamin pills into a fist-sized ball of dough.
Songboon the Elephant
After making two big trays of "elephant buns," we took it in turns to hand-feed Songboon, offering one bun one at time to his outstretched trunk. When he'd hoovered them all up, we moved on to crunchy sticks of sugar cane and bunches of bananas, which he devoured whole, with the skins on.
As we fed Songboon, Eak pointed out the deep scar on his shoulder – just one reminder of his previous life as a trekking elephant. Before he came to Sonchana, Songboon worked long hours carrying tourists on a metal chair that was strapped to his back. After several years, his back injuries meant that he was no longer fit for work, so Eak and his family rescued him and brought him to Sonchana Farm.
While Songboon digested his meal, Eak took us over to the sugar cane garden. Here, we each planted a fresh shoot and, after patting them into the soil with our hands, we marked our shoots with name sticks. Sugar cane, along with bananas, bamboo and other element's of Songboon's diet are grown right here on Sonchana Farm. Eak and his family control what Songboon eats, and they encourage tourists to be part of this.
Next, we took Songboon – or rather he took us – for a walk around the farm. As he trundled around the forest fringes, skidding about on the mud and stopping every now and then to munch at the undergrowth, we jogged beside him, taking care not to get in the way of his huge feet.
As we walked, Eak explained how, since arriving at Sonchana, a vet had treated Songboon for his injuries, and that he was now on a carefully controlled welfare program. Part of this involves restricting tourist visits to no more than five people per group, and no more than two groups per day during the busiest periods.
Nearing a large watering hole, we stood back as Eak guided Songboon into the chocolate-coloured waters.
"Time for a bath."
He grinned. Throwing off his t-shirt, Eak waded in after Songboon, took out a scrubbing brush and began scouring the elephant's back.
Stripping down to my swimwear, I climbed into the cool water and wallowed chest-deep towards Eak and the partly submerged elephant. Half an hour of scrubbing and sloshing ensued, with Songboon playfully lifting his trunk and spraying us with cold water every few minutes.
When Songboon finally clambered out of the pool, Eak's uncle was waiting to greet him.
He cooed, throwing his arms around the ele's neck. Watching the two together, it's obvious how much love the Khun family have for this gentle giant – from abused trekking elephant to becoming part of the Khun family in a national park eco-farm, Songboon really has landed on his feet.
Other Eco Ele Sanctuaries
Sonchana Farm is just one of several ventures that offer ethical elephant experiences in Thailand. At larger operations like Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) near Sukhothai (northern/central Thailand), you can spend several days helping out with elephant care; if you're staying in Chiang Mai, you could visit Thailand's best-known elephant rehabilitation centre for a day; and if you have a whole week to spare, you could visit The Surin Project (central/eastern Thailand) and be part of a movement that teaches mahouts about elephant welfare and eco-tourism. Also, Elephant Hills with Thailand's first luxury tented camps offer ethical ele experiences and tours in the most amazing surroundings.
Unethical elephant tourism is still widespread in Thailand but there's hope that this could change in the future. More tourists are starting to recognise the difference between "good" and "bad" elephant tourism, and are realising just how exciting and rewarding an ethical ele encounter can be – in my opinion, if you're looking for a Thailand bucket-list activity to tick off, bathing with an elephant beats riding one any day.