Can one visit Thailand without an elephant encounter? We couldn’t.
There are a scarily large number of elephant rides touted around Phuket and it was hard to know what to choose. We were concerned the kids would be scared of the elephants so we chose to do a short 1/2 hour trek up a mountain to a lookout and back.
One trick we did learn was to haggle with the touts along Patong beach. We were able to secure our rides for 1/2 price by shopping around and being available to go at a certain time. A tuk-tuk came to pick us up from our hotel and took us to the northern headland of Patong Beach veering up into the hillside a short way where we were immediately confronted by huts and elephants.
It became apparent these elephants are serious working elephants as part of the tourist trade and while it was exciting to be able to get so close to these beautiful animals it was also sad to know they had such a hard life. Asian elephants live in a world of double edged swords. Their existence relies on the fact they are hard working labourers. The reality for these elephants is a life of slavery or death. If they were wild I have no doubt they would die out completely outside of the privileged few in zoos. It is hard to consider the ethical and moral dilemma of the Asian elephants. A dilemma so different from their African cousins. I would rather see these animals free … but had to put this behind me as it is wrong to apply my cultural attitude to Thailand I think.
An old lady manned a stall where we got our elephant allocation and touted to try and buy knickknacks and bananas. She also encouraged us – we would be able to buy elephant paraphernalia from the kwan-chang (elephant driver/trainer/keeper) while we were on our ride.
We were told to climb up on a platform where a small monkey chained to the structure cheekily chattered and jumped around as the first elephant gracefully strode over for us to sit atop.
Both Mitchell and Bethany eagerly climbed into the chair on their respective elephants. I have to say I was shocked. A few years earlier Bethany hadn’t wanted anything to do with riding an elephant and Mitchell normally has a fear of large animals. This seemed to go out the window as the elephants approached and they excitedly anticipated walking through the forest elephant style. I rode on the same elephant with Mitchell and one of his friends while our kwan-chang sat up front. The chairs on the elephant gave an amazing view but once the animal was in motion were incredibly hard on the back as the elephant slowly walked and the chair swayed from side to side.
Once again my heart pained for the the life this elephant had to endure hauling tourists like myself around all day however the elephant itself seemed happy as it slowly and carefully chose its path along the jungle track.
The dexterity of these animals was nothing short of amazing as we climbed a steep path brushing foliage aside. Occasionally the elephant would grab a leafy branch to chew on happily as it walked. Eventually we emerged from the bush to a view over the entire Patong coast where the elephants stood for 10 minutes while the kwan-chang took photos for us.
As we headed back down the track, passing others on their way up the kwan-chang pulled the elephants aside and showed us elephant teeth/tusk jewellery. They were most upset when we said we weren’t interested and told us they would be fine to take back to China which despite less stringent customs I am pretty sure you couldn’t bring elephant products into Hong Kong just as you certainly couldn’t take them into Australia or New Zealand. Eventually I told them we couldn’t take the elephant teeth bracelets back to Australia and they backed off knowing we weren’t stupid enough to risk it. (I have to wonder how many Australian and New Zealand tourists do fall victim to these guys though)
We alighted the elephants and the old lady in her hut was none too impressed that we hadn’t brought any of the elephant products becoming decidedly angry and snappy. I did however buy a bunch of bananas for the kids to feed to the elephant we had ridden on. They were extortionately expensive by Thai standards, but we wanted to thank the elephant.
The children bravely held out bananas to the elephant who gently took them with her trunk and munched contentedly on them. The elephant let them stroke her trunk gently. This also gave the elephant a welcome break. Her companions had already been loaded up with the next batch of tourists to take up the trail. As soon as she had eaten her last banana she too was back into the grind after a brief hose-down.
Bethany asked me if Burma’s trunk (the Asian elephant at Auckland Zoo in New Zealand) would feel the same. I told her I thought she would as she is also an Asian elephant. Bethany was appreciative of the opportunity to encounter the elephant. Mitchell too was proud of himself for riding and talked loudly about how much fun he had as well as all the quirky things the elephant did. While the lives of these elephants do bring me sadness I also feel privileged that my children got to meet the elephants close up and hopefully as time goes on they will remember and appreciate what zoos and conservation do for these unique creatures.