Updated: Aug 31, 2019
It's time to throw away your list of the "top 10 things to do in Thailand" and read this. I want to tell you how horribly the elephants in the above photo have been abused and what their life is like while being trained, but I'm expecting you to be a responsible person and do the research yourself. My bottom line is go ethical or don't go at all.
Instead I will tell you about my experience at the 9 Dee Phuket Elephant Retirement.
I knew before coming to Thailand I wanted to spend time with elephants. My Mom collected elephant figurines for most of her life, so I felt (feel) a strong connection with them while remembering my Mom. Before she passed away, I told her I was going to come here someday and she was both horrified and excited. She used to tell me I'm brave for traveling to so many different places and that she never could out of fear. So Mom, this one is for you.
Before I left New York I also messaged a friend, Andria, to find out the real scoop on elephants in Thailand. She works for the travel company Contiki Tours and has pretty much touched every corner of the world. If anyone knew, it would be her. She insisted that any place allowing people to ride on them, paint with them, or has them "perform" is no good. It means the elephants have been severely abused and the old adage is true that they have a very long memory.
I booked my ticket to the 9 Dee Phuket Elephant Retirement park through my hotel upon arrival and chose a half day excursion. Transit to and from the park was included in the price as was a Thai cooking lesson, lunch, water, and a free tee-shirt. The total cost in US dollars was about $83. All of the money goes toward the care and feeding of these beauties, education, and staff training and salary.
"Here we do everything for the animals because they need us right now. We do it with pure heart which is the best." --Biggie
The experience began as soon as we arrived at the park. We were met by the four elephants we would be taking care of that day. The gasps from my van-mates was audible and precious.
We all sat down for a history of the park, an introduction to the four elephants we would be taking care of, and the basic rules of interacting with them. Our guide "Biggie" was very knowledgeable. He has so far studied for three years to be able to do this every day. He was informative, funny, personable, and his love for these animals was clear as day.
Next on the agenda was making a snack for the elephants and making a special mixture which we used to massage them. Their skin needs oils and nutrients just like ours.
After we were finished massaging them (patting their bodies pretty hard) we walked with them to the swimming hole where we got to cover them and ourselves with mud and then take a shower with them.
I'm struggling to find the words that describe how I felt doing all of this. I was amazed at their beauty and intelligence. Their eyes speak volumes and their lashes are as long as my fingers. They were playful, and temperamental when the food (bananas and sugar cane) were gone from our hands. They were gentle, but we had to be careful in the water because when they lay down they don't look to avoid you.
Once everyone was clean we headed to the onsite restaurant and the elephants headed to their relaxation space.
Biggie gave us a lesson in making pad thai and spoke often of his grandmother and how much she taught him. Bringing in his life lessons from his own family made it really special and I'm almost positive it made the food taste better.
After lunch the day came to an end. I thought often of my Mom and how I wished she could see all of the photos I took. I wished that everyone who visits Thailand comes to Phuket for this experience alone - it's worth it.
If you do make the journey to this part of the world, please visit. Do not go to a place that allows you to ride them. Do not participate in their abuse, please. There are over 10,000 elephants in Thailand but only 400 (yes, 400) are in the wild. The rest are in captivity or lucky enough to be in a rescue/sanctuary like The 9 Dee Elephant Retirement Park.
Please visit their website at: https://www.elephantsretirement9deephuket.com/
where you can read their story and book directly for an excursion. You can also find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ElephantsRetirement9DeePhuket/. Go show them some love and support from the States.
(Tip: I was solo for most of my time in Phuket. If you're with a group of people for 9 Dee, you may be able to get a morning or afternoon excursion that is just for your group alone. I was absolutely fine alone as everyone there was very excited just to be there, but if you have a group, book as soon as you know you want to go!)