On our way upto the Big Buddha, Phuket we passed 2 elephant trekking sites, and I pointed out the elephants to my daughter. We were both excited to see these amazing animals there by the side of the road! I had asked the taxi driver at the first ones we saw if you could travel the rest of the way up by elephant. He said no, and that the next ones on the way were at a better site if we wanted to see elephants.
On the way back down from visiting the Big Buddha, I asked if we could stop to see the elephants, at ATV Seaview Elephant Trekking Camp on the hill just down from the famed Big Buddha. I paid for a basket of bananas to feed them. They had a baby one there who you had to peel the bananas for, but the adult elephants just ate them skins included.
I have had a particular fascination with elephants ever since I saw this amazing video of Tara and Bella from an elephant sanctuary:
When we stopped, I had only intended to stop and see them, and perhaps feed them; but a lady there did a heavy sales pitch on me, and told me that we’d see baby monkeys… Our taxi driver told her off, and told me that there were no monkeys in this area (though to be honest, we had just seen wild monkeys at the Bug Buddha a few minutes up the road-so it wouldn’t have surprised me). That said, the monkeys weren’t the attraction any way-I was absolutely mesmerised by these huge majestic creatures!
I ended up relenting and agreeing to go on the trek up the hill; strangely for me-I didn’t even attempt to haggle or barter the price down. We were asked to remove our shoes (since our feet would rest on the elephant) and climb up onto a platform where we could easily access the seat on the elephant’s back.
Our elephant was called Natalie… Not very a very Thai name, but that was her name and she responded to it. Our tour guide was quite a funny character and kept talking to Natalie and she appeared to talk back by making a slightly squeaky ‘honking’ noise in response. We were sat on a chair on her back, whilst he sat on her neck with his legs straddled around her.
Initially I was concerned about these amazing animals being used for tourism, but when I asked him how old Natalie was, he told me 10, and when I asked how long he had worked with her, he emphatically replied “She has been with me for 10 years… I LOVE HER. She is my woman-aren’t you Nataliiiiiiie!?” She made a squeaky honk back at him. He also more or less allowed her to walk off and pull at the leaves and plants with her trunk to eat, without being demanding that she walk in a straight line, and I began to get the impression that there was a genuinely affectionate bond between them.
At the half way point, there was a panoramic look out point, and a man ran out to take pictures of us. I asked if we could have some with my own camera, and our guide told me ‘after’… I was concerned that they just wanted to sell me pictures, but at the top, he Jumped off Natalie, took my camera and offered me the opportunity to get into the position he had been in on Natalie! I felt very privileged as this was more of the experience I wanted and imagined, and felt less contrived than sitting in a chair on an elephant.
Whenever he told Natalie “Nataliiiie? Will you please do your sexy pose for meeee?!” She would do a squeaky honk and raise her trunk in the air. It was very sweet. I was fascinated by the way she felt: rough and wrinkly with dryish skin and thick, coarse hair poking out of her skin. I stroked her, and asked if Elephants liked being touched and stroked on their heads and he said yes. The tour guide seemed like a bit of a softie. A female dog was following us, and he explained that he had ‘adopted her’ as she was pregnant and malnourished. She had clearly been lactating, and certainly didn’t look malnourished any more.
He took lots of pictures for me including one of Natalie’s elephant dung, (which his dog-who was following us promptly ate-grim huh?!) Thanks for that you nutter, I’ve included it in the slide show for you to enjoy as much as I had to. I found myself having to hold back branches of trees that Natalie was yanking at with her trunk as she just wandered off to the side of the path way and ate at at her leisure. If I hadn’t, the branches would have whipped back and hit me in the face; but I didn’t complain, because I thought it was rather lovely that she was allowed to do as she pleased, and she had a lovely temperament.
Our guide made some ‘crowns’ by weaving fern leaves together and told me I was the ‘queen of the jungle’… In fact-it made me look like a dork, and my 4 year old refused to wear it, but I embraced the silliness and Natalie was happy to pose holding my daughter’s unworn ‘crown’ in her trunk for a picture.
I loved riding Natalie, and I loved her personality! As we came down the hill to return to the elephant camp, there was a large muddy puddle on the ground. We saw some other tourists approaching us on one of Natalie’s elephant friends, and she filled up her trunk from the puddle and sprayed them! I thought that was so funny and mischievous!
Just before we turned the corner back to the camp, our guide asked me to return to the seat and got back onto Natalie. He then turned around and proceeded to go into a guilt trip based sale of over-priced jewellery, telling me that he needed the money to help feed and care for Natalie. Up until that point, I thought that it was all quite charming, but this was a little off putting. The jewellery also resembled ivory-which he assured me it was not. He told me it was coconut I think (I might have imagined that though). My daughter was keen to have a bracelet, so in the end I relented, but I didn’t for one second thing that the money was for Natalie, so that did take the edge off what was otherwise a magical experience.
In retrospect, I think that the tourist in me was not terribly switched on… The taxi driver had told me that this was a better site than the other one, though in retrospect, I may have been naive to assume this was not because he earned commission/better commission from this elephant camp. Also whilst I was researching just now, I found this news piece that has left me feeling a little uncomfortable at having been there, as it would seem that the baby I photographed was taken from his mother at a different elephant sanctuary in Thailand.
That said, there is no doubt in my mind that these elephants were not malnourished or unhappy. In fact, if this story here is anything to go by, the baby elephant who was removed actually seemed quite traumatised to be leaving and so he must have actually been very happy there. Either way-if you are planning to go elephant trekking. Then my advice would be to research before you go, and to make sure you go to a proper elephant sanctuary that rehabilitates abused elephants rather than a tourist hotspot that is there to make money for profit, so that you are only supporting the people who 100% have the elephants best interests at heart.
NB Please check out this response post that was kindly guest written by Amy, who’s comments you may like to read below if you are considering doing this… I was shocked and appalled to discover how awfully animals like Natalie are treated in order to enable experiences like the one I had…
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