A visit to the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

Since Thailand had been on my travel bucket list for ages and I was in Asia anyway, I simply had to go right? I ended up travelling from Bali to Bangkok, from there to Phuket and last but not least, I spent a few days in Koh Samui with a close friend of mine. Today I want to share one of the absolute highlights of my travels – my visit to the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Before travelling to Asia, I knew that I wanted to visit a sanctuary at one point and although the Phuket one had stood out to me, I wasn’t sure whether it would be worth the money. So when I was living in Bali, I joined the other girls on a trip to an elephant sanctuary there. Looking back, I so wish I would have spent more time researching that place in Bali because it clearly wasn’t a sanctuary at all – it was heartbreaking. The elephants had to do shows (only 5 minutes every hour or so but still!), were chained to the ground a lot of the time and clearly in distress despite the “sanctuary” claiming otherwise. Anyway, even though there are probably places that are a lot worse, this place wasn’t a sanctuary in any way and I’m sad and frustrated for having given my money to a cause I don’t want to support. So lesson learned, this time I was up for paying more money if I only that meant the elephants would be treated right. And I’m so glad I decided to book a visit to the elephant sanctuary in Phuket because it ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

I had booked an afternoon visit with shared transport so I got picked up by one of the sanctuary staff members around lunch time. The drive to the sanctuary took about 45 minutes and even though I had booked shared transport, it ended up being a private car. Arriving at the sanctuary we were taken from the office to the lodge which is located right in a nature park – there we were greeted with a traditional Thai dish, sticky rice with mango and also got wellies and a bottle of water if we wished. Next we saw an informative video about the elephant sanctuary, the idea behind it and how the elephants arrived at this place. Hearing about the abuse the elephants had experienced in their previous life was heartbreaking, in order to train an elephant for the tourism and show industry the animal is separated from their mother, kept chained up in isolation and is then forced to learn tricks through physical punishment, a lot of the time with sharp objects. The shows that are often seen as cute have a very dark side to them. We also learned that when elephants are “dancing”, this may look cute but is actually a sign of acute distress. I saw such an elephant two weeks later on Koh Samui and my heart just broke for him. Anyway, we also saw how the elephants were bought by the sanctuary – an elephant costs about 100,000 quid, which also explains the high ticket prices – and brought to their new home. One of the elephants had her trunk in the air during the entire journey, curiously sniffing what was going on around her – I am not being dramatic but it was pretty much the cutest thing ever. A lot of the elephants had sustained injuries and were being treated for them at the sanctuary and apart from that they finally got to be just elephants, nothing else.

But onto the main part – meeting the elephants. As I was visiting alone I got to go with a small group of 3 locals and one tour guide which was amazing because it meant that we basically had a private tour and could spend more time with the animals as well. There are only two tours per day so that the elephants don’t get stressed or overwhelmed and all of the tour guides are very considerate and knowledgable, knowing which elephants need more distance than others. In general, elephants are seen from a small distance and only approached if they approach us first to avoid stress. The first elephant we saw was Richy, a 70 year old elephant lady. Richy spent decades working in the logging industry before she was sold to a trekking camp where she had to carry tourists on her back all day. All the hard work resulted in Richy having a broken leg and a twisted ankle but now that ¬†she can enjoy a life in peace and freedom she is slowly recovering. Richy is incredibly cute and I can’t believe she’s 70 already – fun fact: in elephants, sunken temples are an indicator of old age.

The next elephant we met was Tong Kwaw which means beautiful orange flower in Thai. Tong Kwaw worked in the tourism and trekking industry before she came to the sanctuary. Since all elephants at the sanctuary have suffered a history of abuse, some of them are terrified to be near humans. Not this girl though – when Tong Kwaw spotted us she immediately came over and basically stood right in front of me. This elephant clearly didn’t have a concept of personal space, her trunk was nearly touching my face and it was actually impossible to take a photo that up close. Luckily the guide took photos whilst I was feeding and stroking this gorgeous lady. Meeting Tong Kwaw was my highlight without doubt – she was so curious and ‘cuddly’, as much as an elephant can be. After meeting her, we went past some other elephants and even watched one have a bath – it started raining though and the elephant quickly decided she’d had enough. I felt her.

Whilst we moved away from Tong Kwaw we also saw another elephant roaming around whose name was Darling. Darling was found in a poor condition, with cigarette burns over her body and she’d lost her eyesight due to injury. However, Darling is now living a peaceful and happy life and does what she likes best – eating. Our guide told us that a few weeks ago Darling had broken into a nearby farm destroying 20(!) banana trees. When visitors came the next day they asked about the elephant who was standing in a corner hardly moving – Darling had completely overeaten. I don’t think I have ever related to an elephant that much. Last but not least, we also got to feed an elephant near the lodge which was very cute too and then had a traditional Thai buffet before being brought back to the hotel.

Overall, I am incredibly glad about my decision to visit this sanctuary, I had an unforgettable time and will definitely keep up to date with the work of this place – they are planning to adopt more elephants in the future! If you ever visit Phuket, I can only recommend visiting this place and in general, I can only urge you to do your research when visiting elephants and to stay clear of trekking camps and other places abusing these amazing animals. Visit elephants that are just elephants, nothing more. I promise you it will be an incredible experience.

P.S. Check out the Elephant Sanctuary on Facebook or check out their website for more information!