a peek inside the fishbowl

27 Oct, 2019

Visiting the elephants at Green Elephant Sanctuary (warning: lots of photos!)

Posted by andrea tomkins in: travel talk

The Thailand diaries continue! To read past posts in this series, click here.

In my previous post I wrote about a questionable spa treatment we received while we were in Thailand. Thankfully, nothing bad happened as a result. (Yay us!) I know a few of you are probably wondering AT WHAT POINT THIS TRIP GETS OFF THE GROUND. Well, spoiler alert, this day was like a dream come true… and I don’t say that lightly.

Our alarms were set for an early wake-up call because we were booked for a very special excursion that we’d arranged months before. Our destination: The Green Elephant Sanctuary.

Thankfully, part of our booking included transportation, which was a huge relief. Our driver picked us up at 7 a.m. and off we went. The drive took about an hour but it was so scenic that the time went by very quickly. We zipped past roadside food stands and temples, shops, hotels, schools, dense jungle, the sea. We saw elephants from other tourism outfits, bikes pulling carts laden with durian, stray dogs, and ordinary people doing ordinary things. It was really cool.

There was a bit of a traffic snarl before we arrived, but we made it. As we were pulling in I realized this place was BIG.

[By the way, click any photo to view an enlarged version…]

Entrance to Green Elephant Sanctury

Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about the Green Elephant Sanctuary. Everything from beginning to end was expertly organized. It’s a high-calibre operation, and, elephants aside, every aspect of a visitor’s experience is thoughtfully considered from secure lockers to hold our stuff, coolers of drinks, rows of luxury washrooms and similarly pretty shower stalls (with good soap!).

I will explain WHY an elephant sanctuary has shower stalls in a moment.

Upon arrival, we were ushered to a large covered area with rows of tables. It easily accommodated all of the tour groups, which were timed to go out to different areas of the park. (In other words, there were a lot of people but we weren’t tripping over other groups.)

Waiting area, Green Elephant Sanctuary

It was easy waiting while people changed into swimsuits and stowed their stuff. At one point I was ushered into a small office (everything was super professional) to pay the other half of our booking while the youngest checked her Instagram on the free wifi. (Obvi.)

First on the agenda, getting to know the elephants and their stories.

Green Elephant Sanctuary

Our guide gave us a brief introduction to each elephant resident and each story was heartbreaking. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been dealing with lifelong trauma after seeing Dumbo as a child. If you’ve read anything about elephants at all you know that they are intelligent creatures. They show empathy, mourn their dead, and cry when they’re lonely. The elephant residents at this sanctuary are all rescued; purchased from owners who used them for logging or entertainment purposes. All of them suffered years of hard labour and daily corporeal punishment. Babies were always separated from their mothers. Sold. Chained up.

Many elephants in Thailand lead lonely lives and die a sad death. The Green Elephant Sanctuary buys these elephants and gives them a good retirement. You could argue the elephants still “entertain” tourists here. They’re fed snacks by tourists and pose for photos, but it’s actually a small part of their day. Our visit with the elephants also included a dip in a mud bath, swim, and a shower (hence the bathing suits!) but there is no elephant riding here.

But I’m getting off track. After our introduction, it was snack time for our elephant group.

Each elephant was positioned in a shady part of the park with a basket of mini-bananas and corn on the cob.

How can I describe what it feels like to feed and touch an elephant?

I will say that the elephant trunk is an amazing limb. (I think I’m going to use the word AMAZING a lot in this post, because it was the one word that hovered at the top of my mind throughout this whole experience.) It’s massive; all muscle. It’s so strong and powerful yet seeks out your offering so gently and with great care and tenderness.

Feeding the elepants, Green Elephant Sanctuary

Feeding the elephants, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

It’s been months since we were there, but it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about how lovely it was.

Mama and baby, Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, Green Elephant Sanctuary

The elephant hide is rough and tough; thick old wrinkles and stubby hairs that feel like brush bristles. You haven’t felt anything like it.

Feeding the elephants, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

I have to explain what happened in the photo below. It was taken precisely after the elephant standing behind me created a GUST OF WIND by flapping its massive ear:

posing for pics, at the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Next, we went for a walk to see their enclosures. Each elephant has its own space at night (although mamas and babies stay together).

I learned something that really surprised me. Elephants are always paired with a person called a mahout. This is a trainer/caretaker/friend of sorts, and it’s a lifelong bond. Green Elephant Sanctuary pays for the elephant AND the mahout and gives him and his human family a place to live on the premises. In fact, the mahouts live in small homes directly across from the elephant pens, which are seriously spacious and impressive. I was very happy to see how well-built they were.

Then it was spa time. This was a multi-part undertaking. First up: the mud bath. We were all led to a shallow pond that is very squishy and muddy at the bottom. Visitors were encouraged to pick up handfuls of mud and rub them on the elephants. The mahouts were there the entire time and we never felt unsafe, although we were cautioned to avoid the tail, hindquarters, and legs.

Staff photographers were on hand to capture all the muddy glory, and high-res downloads were made available to us afterward, free of charge.

Mud bath, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mud bath, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

After the mud bath there was a quick hose down before venturing into a second, less muddy pool of water, where we were given buckets so we could scoop water and help rinse off the mud (from ourselves as well as our elephant friends).

Elephant rinse, part one

Elephant rinse, part one

Mud bath, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

There was more. If you can believe it, we were led to ELEPHANT SIZE SHOWERS. It reminded me of a car wash with no roof and rotating bristles. We had the option of borrowing scrub brushes (short- or long-handled) for a round of what I can only call Elephant Exfoliation. They got more snacks at this point… mini pineapples. They seemed quite pleased with all of this pampering.

Elephant shower, Green Elephant Sanctuary

Elephant shower, Green Elephant Sanctuary

Elephant rinse, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

Elephant shower, Green Elephant Sanctuary

After this, we humans enjoyed our own solitary luxe showers (in private shower stalls, no elephants allowed), got changed, and ate a traditional Thai buffet lunch and fresh fruit for dessert. It was delicious.

While we were eating, the handlers took a mama and her baby out for a snack and cool-down rinse. I can’t recall the specifics but I believe this pair was kept from the bigger crowds until the baby got older… but that’s no reason NOT to have a nice rinse, right? I took about a hundred photos because the toddler was so funny and curious. Here is a small selection, to give you an idea:

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

This might be weird to say but I was secretly pleased there was no gift shop, no souvenir t-shirts, no photo packages to buy. It made it feel more like a rescue mission and less like a business. As we were getting ready to leave, the owners (or managers?) simply came out to say thank you for supporting the sanctuary and if we liked our experience, to leave a review on Trip Advisor.

I have to give my daughter credit for finding out about Green Elephant Sanctuary. She did all of the research, and it exceeded our expectations. It was an AMAZING way to spend a few hours. We learned a few things, had an unforgettable experience, and helped support a really good initiative. I give it a 10/10, and if you know me you know that I’m a tough customer.


1 Response to "Visiting the elephants at Green Elephant Sanctuary (warning: lots of photos!)"

1 | a peek inside the fishbowl » Blog Archive A bite of Thai food - a peek inside the fishbowl

November 15th, 2019 at 12:39 pm

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[…] our extraordinary time with the elephants, we decided to chill out by the pool for the rest of the […]

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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