Elephant Love – Swim with Elephants in Thailand

Elephants are epic. If you want to get up close and personal with elephants without riding them or annoying them, then this is the experience you are looking for, says Nicole Buckler.

When I was much younger, I went to Thailand and rode elephants. I immediately regretted it. The elephants appeared to be treated well, but I felt so sorry for them. They probably walked the same forest loop multiple times a day, while people like me sat in an annoying basket on their neck. I couldn’t bear it.

If you too are uncomfortable for using animals for entertainment, then have I got a holiday experience for you. There is a new sanctuary in Thailand that takes in sick and old elephants, and pampers them all day long – and as a paying visitor you get to do it too! These elephants have had a hard life as taxis for tourists, or as workers in the forests, moving logs for humans. Or they could have had other jobs, such as on building sites in the city, or as entertainers in circuses.

Editor-in-Chief Nicole Buckler with her new BFF
Editor-in-Chief Nicole Buckler with her new BFF

Happy Elephants

Some of the elephants are old and can’t work as hard as they used to: some are blind. Some are young but injured, so can’t be used in the usual commercial ways. But now, in their golden years, they are looked after in the sanctuary. The haven is funded by tourists coming to visit, to feed them, to pamper them, to hug them.

At the sanctuary the elephants are allowed to roam free. When you first arrive, you must walk through the humid jungle to find them. But this is joy in itself: the jungle is teeming with life: cicadas pierce of eardrums, birds sing to you, and an occasional monkey will swing above you. It is sweaty work tracking them down, but the life here is beautifully deafening. These elephants are living the good life. There’s no riding allowed, and the elephants are not required to work for a living.

Searching for the elephants in a sweaty jungle. What an adventure!
Searching for the elephants in a sweaty jungle. What an adventure!

I brought my family along to the sanctuary and this is the best experience I have had dragging my kids across the earth with me. They loved it, and still talk about it nearly a year later.

Elephants Love Bananas

Each elephant has its own mahout, who lives and even sometimes sleeps with the elephant. Their bond is very close. The mahouts meet you in the forest, and hand you a bag of bananas. So, you get to feed the elephants as you first greet them. They adore bananas, so they soon adore you!

Giving the elephants son bananas and some love
Giving the elephants some bananas and some love

This activity gets you used to being around them, and you’ll probably need this adjustment period! They are really quite big in person, and it can be overwhelming and a little scary. But the elephants are very aware of where humans are all the time, and have an amazing ability to never hurt you or squash you.

Found the elephants! Now to feed them one million bananas.
Found the elephants! Now to feed them one million bananas.

After you have fed them, you get to lead them to the river. You’ll need to strip down to your swimsuit, because things get messy: You give the elephants a mud massage. This is hugely fun! You get really, really muddy as you rub the elephants down and massage their wrinkly skin. You can tell right away they love this; they make strange noises in pleasure!

The elephants absolutely love the mud massages. We are like their mud slaves.
The elephants absolutely love the mud massages. We are like their mud slaves.

Swim Time

Then they are led to the water, where you can wash the mud off them, and swim with them. My kids are 10 and 12; the elephant was very delicate around them. Even in the deep water, the elephant was aware of where they were all the time. Plus the mahout swims with the elephant, just to solve any problems that may arise.

Washing off the mud and then swimming with the elephants was one of the best experiences in our lives.
Washing off the mud and then swimming with the elephants was one of the best experiences in our lives.

Swimming with elephants was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, I actually cried a little! The elephants showed obvious enjoyment in the experience, and so did we! After the swim, we learned about their diet, and did some food prep for the mahouts.

We made their food, a mash of tamarind, honey and medicinal leaves.
We made their food, a mash of tamarind, honey and medicinal leaves.

After preparing elephant snacks, we hand-fed the elephants. This was an amazing experience. We felt very bonded with these large, gentle creatures by the end of the day. The elephants let my kids hug them, pat them, and talk to them. They were definitely homies by sunset. If you are in this part of the world, do not miss this experience.

The elephants are now BFFs with my kids.
The elephants are now BFFs with my kids.

Getting There

The sanctuary is located in the province of Krabi, on west side of Thailand. From Bangkok, you can get a domestic flight to Krabi, an overnight train, or a bus. If you book a tour with the sanctuary, they will pick you up from your accommodation, as long as you are within the catchment zone. If not, then a private car and driver is cheap to hire for the day. Happy elephanting!

It’s wise to book, the groups are small and in peak times you won’t get a place. Click here for for details.  ■

Elephant love is happening
Elephant love is happening

Perhaps you would prefer to stay at home and have a night with no animals at all!

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