When visiting Thailand, meeting elephants comes high on many travellers’ to-do lists. Visitors are bombarded with companies offering a range of animal experiences, from tigers and monkeys to the beautiful Asian elephants, but sadly not all of these providers have the animals’ best interests at heart.
Prior to our trip, I spent a long time researching different options for getting close to some of Thailand’s majestic wildlife, and like many, I was appalled to read about what really goes on in some cases (the Tiger Temple being a very good bad example). One of my favourite things to do is spend time feeding and fussing over the animals I encounter, and I wanted to make sure that any new experience had to be ethical. My research led me to the Phang Nga Elephant Park which is one of Thailand’s top 6 ethical animal parks, and which has the support of a number of prominent figures in the zoological and conservation communities.
Phang Nga Elephant Park is a family affair, run by cousins Jake and Lek. The park opened in 2015 with the mission of providing first-class care for its elephants, many of whom were rescued from the logging industry. The elephants at the park live alongside their mahouts with whom it is clear to see they have a strong bond. The park not only ensures the elephants are well cared for, it also provides accommodation and education for the mahouts and their families
It is located near the village of Thung Ka Ngot in Phang Nga province, approximately 40 minutes drive from Ban Khao Lake. The park is set amongst stunning forest scenery, away from heavily populated tourist areas and it offers two programmes: half day elephant care and a family elephant experience.
Half day elephant care programme
We booked onto the half day elephant care programme on perhaps the rainiest day we had in Thailand. Transfers were included in the price (4,900 THB/person) as was a freshly cooked traditional Thai lunch.
We arrived at the park at around 9:00, half hour early, where we were greeted by our guide, Finn. When the other participants arrived, we were given a welcome tea, made of steeped flowers which changed colour when you added lime juice (yay for science!). We were given a safety briefing and spent some time filling out forms, before being given a set of overalls to wear over our swimsuits.
The day started with a talk on the history of elephants in Thailand, and a demonstration of the health checks which the elephants at Phang Nga undergo four times a day. We had a brief glimpse of the baby elephant with her mother, before those who wanted to mounted their elephant for the journey up the mountain to the feeding station. I chose not to as I have a healthy respect for animals (aka fear of unpredictable behaviour!), and was, to be honest, intimidated by their size! They were however extremely gentle animals. On the walk up, Por, our mahout, took control of the camera and Darren’s phone and got to work taking photos and videos of our experience.
In a clearing at the top of the mountain, it was time to prepare a light snack of bananas and pineapples for our elephants before feeding them ahead of the walk back down to the camp. From there, we headed down to the river as the swimming pool is currently being renovated, for a chance to bath our elephants. The river was swollen and fast-flowing due to the rain, but was entirely safe. Our mahout took more photos of us bathing with Duong-Jai, who was in her element in the water, spraying us and rolling around not unlike a (giant) puppy.
Following bath-time, it was time for an exquisite lunch of spring rolls, tom kha soup, massaman curry, sweet and sour chicken and fresh pineapple. As a fussy eater, I was worried about what lunch might be, but I absolutely need not have worried! The final stop of the tour was to see the mahouts village and its pachyderm inhabitants before heading back to our hotels.
It was an absolutely excellent day out. Although it was more expensive than other elephant interaction opportunities, it was clear to see that the animals in the care of the park are well looked after, and that they have deep bonds with their trainers built on respect. The animals are beautiful creatures that command respect from us. It was a wonderful opportunity to interact with them so closely.