Without a doubt one of the coolest things we’ve ever done was visit Elephant Jungle Sanctuary during our time on Phuket. When thinking of things to do in Thailand, we wanted to play on beautiful beaches and interact with elephants. I started, like most tourists, looking at elephant rides near our hotel. I stumbled upon Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and the original- Phuket Elephant Sanctuary– while searching online. These sanctuaries offered a different kind of experience with the elephants- feeding them and observing them for a half-day vs. a 30 minute ride through the jungle. I initially chose Elephant Jungle Sanctuary over Phuket Elephant Sanctuary because I thought it was much closer to our hotel, but they ended up being about the same distance- an hour drive from the hotel. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was a little cheaper (2,500 baht/adult, 1,900 baht/child, under 3 free) and transportation was included, so we booked a tour and away we went!
Both places have a similar mission: rescue old/injured/over-worked elephants from logging and tourist operations (like elephant rides) and allow them to retire on their vast reserves. In order to be able to buy and care for the elephants, they offer tours. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary offers feeding and observation in their natural environment, while Elephant Jungle Sanctuary allowed us a much more hands-on experience. We fed the elephants, gave them a mud-spa treatment and went swimming with them. It was unforgettable to say the least!
The adventure began at our hotel. An official Elephant Jungle Sanctuary truck pulled up with an open-air back and benches all around the side. Since we had Landon and Owen and I wasn’t sure how we were going to keep them in the truck for an hour, they let us sit in the back seats of the cab of the truck. Owen got car sick and barfed all over me and himself when we were still about 15 minutes away. When we arrived, there was a mama elephant and her baby in a pen waiting to greet us. We had seen some of the other elephants tromping around on a hillside on our way to the sanctuary. Landon and Owen enjoyed petting the baby elephant, although we were warned he was a little feisty!
After the rest of the trucks arrived, our guide for the day explained the mission of Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and why riding elephants is a bad idea. I had always figured that since elephants have been used in farming and logging for centuries, they were safe to ride. She told us elephants used to be owned by individual family farms. The elephants were treated as members of the family, and worked hard but did not have to work all day long. Also, those directing the elephants never sat on their backs, but on their necks/heads instead. Anyway, the elephant’s backs are not meant to hold the weight of a “saddle” or cage, nor the weight of fat American tourists 🙂 They are also not meant to be worked hard giving rides all day long. So, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary rescues and buys elephants from circuses, elephant riding places, and logging companies and allows them to retire from work and roam all day instead. If they want to, the elephants come up to the camp for yummy fruit and a mud bath and swim, either in the morning or in the afternoon. We observed that there were about eight elephants there at feeding time, but only four for the bathing/swimming part of the experience. With over a dozen elephants total on the property, this ensures they have plenty of down time during the day to do whatever they want!
Our first task at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was to prepare the elephant’s morning treats. We were broken up into several groups and given specific tasks- either chopping sugar cane, pineapple and watermelon or separating bananas. A few people had the dirty job of creating a gloopy mixture of soft vegetables, fruit and rice for the sanctuary’s geriatric elephant. Then the elephants came! The handlers divided up the fruit baskets and our group into several smaller groups, and then we had the opportunity to feed the elephants! The dexterity of their trunks it truly amazing! They seemed to like bananas and watermelon the best, and sugar cane the least.
We had plenty of time to feed the elephants and interact with them. Landon was so excited he was flitting in between the groups, while Owen as a little freaked out by how huge the elephants were, and we decided it was best for him to be held so he did not get trampled. Eventually, he worked up the courage to feed and pet the elephants as well. Because these elephants were all used in industry before, they were tame and used to being around people. Some of them could even give hugs. The handlers did a great job monitoring the elephants’ moods and keeping everyone safe. The best part was watching the two elephant babies interacting. They chased each other around and had lots of fun!
Soon, the handlers brought plants for the elephants to eat. To tenderize the shoots, the elephants grabbed a plant and slapped it hard against their legs with their trunk. We stepped further away while they did this! Next, we changed into swimming clothes and got ready for the mud pit.
The website makes the mud bath experience sound a lot more romantic than it really was. In reality, it was a dirt pit filled with shallow water. The handlers brought over a few elephants and it was apparent that they really liked it! It was a really hot day, so getting in the water and getting a mud spa scrub must have felt nice. We picked up mud from the bottom of the pit and scrubbed up the elephants. Some of them sat down in the water and rolled around, squirting water all over us from their trunk! The handlers made things more interesting by smearing mud all over us as we washed the elephants!
After a few minutes in the mud pit, we made our way into the slightly deeper elephant “swimming pool” to rinse off. It was fun to see the elephants swimming around, spraying water with their trunks, and rolling around. The water was shallow enough that Landon could touch, but we held Owen for safety reasons. Elephants can use their trunks as a snorkel and go all the way under water!
After the swimming pool, elephants and humans alike washed off under the giant elephant shower, a series of pipes with holes to allow water to drip down. We were provided with scrub brushes and gave the elephants one last scrub to remove the mud.
At this point, we said goodbye to the elephants and went back to the rustic shower/changing rooms to get clean and dressed. When we returned to the picnic area, there was a yummy Thai lunch spread with plenty of fruit, rice, noodles, and vegetables for everyone. We chatted with fellow elephant lovers- mostly westerners/Americans- and perused the trinkets being sold by local ladies who had their cute kids in tow. We bought a few little things from the vendors, and received neat local woven tunics and purses that were included in the half-day experience.
Elephant Jungle Safari half-day experience was one of the coolest things we’ve done during all of our travels. Even though we basically fed elephants and took a mud bath with them, it was incredible to interact with them for an entire morning. Although it was about twice as much as elephant rides, our entry fee included HOURS with the elephants, lunch, transportation, and cool swag. I would whole-heartedly recommend this activity for anyone who wants to have a special experience with these amazing creatures. For safety, we held our 21-month-old for the entire experience. With the elephants walking around freely, we did not want to risk him getting accidentally stepped on. A baby carrier or backpack would have been good to bring for a smaller baby, but we managed it between the two of us without one. We also had to watch Landon to make sure he stayed safe. The staff did an amazing job both handling the elephants and keeping an eye on Landon, at times telling us to reign him in or watch him closer as he was getting excited and running around during feeding time. Going in the mud was completely optional, with some of the visitors opting to watch from the sidelines and document others going in the mud. There was a staff member whose only job was to take pictures during every stage of the experience and post them to Facebook within a few days. It was awesome to get some action shots of us frolicking in the water and mud. There are Elephant Jungle Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai and Pattaya as well as Phuket. If you’re visiting Thailand and want to have a truly unique and magical experience with elephants, check out Elephant Jungle Sanctuary!