Elephants World in KanchanaburiMike - 09 December 2016
I’m not very good at planning for any of our travelling adventures. Luckily, Emma is absolutely amazing! Before leaving the UK I was tasked with researching what I wanted to see in Thailand to supplement Emma’s ideas. One of my few contributions was that we should go to a place called Elephants World, near Kanchanaburi. I had an overwhelming desire to see elephants at some point in our trip, since they are so iconic to this part of the world. The problem was doing this in an ethical way, as the vast majority of elephant experiences in Asia seem to involve riding them or them undergoing a harsh training program to ‘tame’ them. Elephants World seemed to be the perfect way to get close to elephants while maintaining a clear conscience. They do not offer elephant rides, but instead provide a full day of learning about the elephants and working for them.
Elephants World is expensive. We were budgeting £50/day for our time in Thailand to cover all costs (accommodation / transport / meals / drinks etc...). Elephants World was by far our biggest treat at 2500 Baht each. This meant that two tickets splurged £117 ($141) of our budget in one go. In other words, I spent cash intended to last us over two days on tickets to see elephants. Sorry Emma! The good news is that of our time spent in Thailand, this was probably the highlight for both of us.
Elephants World’s slogan is ‘we work for the elephants’ and they’re true to their word! When we arrived we weren’t given any kind of introduction to what our day would involve. Instead we were handed a huge bucket filled with fruit and veg, and told to go feed an elephant. Erm, what?
Neither of us had any idea how to feed an elephant, but the enthusiastic elephant made it fairly clear what to do. We placed the food bucket far enough away that it couldn’t be reached by a long and greedy trunk, then carefully handed the goodies to the elephant one at a time. Each time one piece of food had disappeared, an insistent trunk came back for more.
After the morning feed we walked with the elephants down to the river. Certain elephants are differentiated from the others by a thin red rope around their neck, indicating that they could be dangerous. Remember that these are animals who have been rescued and may behave erratically or aggressively as a result of their experiences. We walked with these elephants down to the river, and watched them playing with the mahouts.
Each elephant at Elephants World has their own personal mahout, who cares for them and knows their temperament and moods. They are the only employees, as all the work with the visitors is done by volunteers, who are largely westerners who are there on a month-long volunteering project.
Next up on our to do list was a bit of cookery! Elephants have only four teeth which are gradually replaced six times during their lifetime. When they are on the last set of teeth any damage is extremely bad news. The main cause of death for elephants in the wild is starvation, as they can no longer chew their tough diet. Like children, elephants love anything sweet, such as sugar cane or fruit, and can damage their teeth if they have too much of it. At Elephants World there are a couple of older elephants without any teeth. In order to keep them well fed and healthy, these grandmas are given pumpkin and sticky rice balls instead of the usual crunchy fruit and veg. We chopped pumpkin into tiny pieces using comically large cleavers, then boiled it in a large cauldron sat on a burning fire. The sticky rice was added to the softening vegetable and the viscous mixture stirred with big wooden oars until ready.
While we were waiting for the elephants’ lunch to cool, we got to eat our own. Lunch was included in the price of the Elephants World ticket and we helped ourselves to a tasty, well-stocked buffet. Afterwards we watched a couple of informational videos about elephants and their struggles.
Next in the loose itinerary we watched as the elephants enjoyed a mud bath. A young elephant began playing with a car tyre, pushing it into the mud, before seeming to get his feet muddled and tumbling in after it. What followed can only be described as Elephant Vs Tyre, as he pushed and pulled the tyre out of the mud, repeatedly falling in himself. I'm not altogether sure the tyre didn't win.
Another highlight of the mud bath was watching the rescue centre’s newest resident get stuck in. She had arrived the previous day, having been rescued from a tourist trekking camp. She was so underfed and overworked that she looked skeletal stood next to the other elephants. She stood for at least half an hour squirting mud over herself and her evident joy at this simple pleasure convinced me that we’d spent money on a good cause.
After the mud bath we went out in the songaethaw to harvest some bana grass, although every group did something different. Elephants are more than capable of pulling the grass up from the fields themselves, but doing so destroys the plant. Cutting it and feeding it to them allows it to be harvested three times in the year instead of once. We then fed it to some very happy elephants - apparently much of an elephant’s day involves splashing around and eating!
Now it was time for more cooking for (and with!) elephants. The cooled sticky rice was rolled into balls and coated in protein powder, all while two greedy elephants looked on, occasionally coming over to check on our handiwork. Finally it was time to feed our concoction to the hungry old elephants!
Coming to the close of the day, we all bundled into the water and gave the elephants a bath, scrubbing their tough skin with stiff brushes and throwing water over them. While this was a great chance to get up close and personal with them, it felt like you had more opportunity to have one-on-one time with an elephant when we were feeding them.
After we had dried off a little, it was tea and biscuits for us, yet another feed for the elephants, and suddenly 4pm had come and it was time head home. Elephants World was a decadent treat when travelling on our budget, but it's one we don’t regret. The money is going to a good cause and the memory of watching an elephant chow down on an entire pumpkin in one go is priceless.
What to take with you when visiting Elephants World
- Insect repellant
- Swimming costume
- Camera (ideally waterproof)
Getting to Elephants World
We’d camped out at Erawan National Park overnight and risen at 5:30am to climb the seven waterfall tiers. After descending Erawan we checked out of the campsite and jumped on our motorbike to head to Elephants World. The journey took us about an hour, but we did stop for a quick breakfast and to add some fuel for the bike. We arrived at Elephants World a few minutes after the 10am start time, but this wasn’t a problem. It looked like everybody else had arrived using the free minibus pickup from Kanchanaburi. There were around 40 other people visiting on the same day as us, but we were subdivided into three separate groups of approximately 15. Most of the groups were English speaking, but there were also guides who spoke French and Spanish.