Elephant World

"Washing with giants"
By Steve Lyons, November 2012

We'd come to Kanchanaburi primarily to see and learn about the history surrounding the bridge over the river Kwae and Hell Fire pass, though the wildlife and the waterfalls were also possibilities on the agenda.

After a day of hiking we bumped into a lovely young German couple called Max and Jessica; they'd been in the area a year before and had taken a day trip up to elephant world. It sounded as though they had fallen in love with the elephants and the work there immediately as they were now on a 4 week volunteer program at the park. Sporting their Elephant World t-shirts, they were on a working night out in Kanchanaburi promoting trips to the park. Their passion for the park shone through. For us $45 each (1,500 Baht) for a day out is more than we could normally afford but with my girlfriends’ birthday pending (and birthday money to spend!) it sounded like a good day out.

We confirmed our reservation by email a few days later for Wendy's birthday and received a prompt and cheery reply informing us that we'd be collected between 0900 and 0930. We were reminded that to bring a change of clothes as the days program included working with the elephants as well as swimming in the river. As well we were reminded to bring ripe yellow bananas as a treat for the elephants.

Our driver arrived shortly after 0900, though there was some confusion as he didn't seem to know who to collect and we didn't know he was from Elephant World (I suppose we were expecting him to be wearing the company t-shirt?).

The journey to the park took just under 1 hour and as we arrived not only were we met with the wonderful sight of several of the elephants wondering untethered but we were greeted by the ever smiling Max. 

It was clear that the number of guests that day was more than they had handled of late. There appeared to be some confusion but Max and Jessica seemed to handle it famously, especially considering that they had only been at the park for two weeks. There were other members of staff we think (they were wearing Elephant World t-shirts) but their roles in the day were undefined.

Max called the group to order giving us an important safety briefing regarding the elephants. There was some amusement and confusion as to the number of "very important safety rules". Was it two or three? And when he'd remembered we weren't really that sure either; in short, don't approach an elephant from the side, don't stand behind it (in case it gets scared and backs up... and it can't see you), don't approach an elephant that does not have its' mahout with it and ... well I think that was both rules.

Several of the elephants were waiting at the side of the building, ready to be fed, and after signing health-and-safety waivers, we were all as eager as them to get started! Large baskets of pumpkin, sweet potato and bananas were put forward and Max showed us how to approach the elephants and how to present the food. We were very impressed by his maturity and levels of confidence considering the amount of experience he had.
Tentatively we approached these colossus creatures, cautiously stretching out our arms as far as they would reach to meet the reach of the elephant’s trunks. The more we fed the more confident and comfortable we all got and soon everyone was feeding them. They clearly like the yellow bananas most, as miraculously they sensed what the food were with their trunks, sort of squeezing it to see if it was a ripe banana or not... or just more sweet potato or pumpkin. If it wasn't a banana, then it was generally discarded, but within reaching distance and the begging trunk came forth again for food. As the bananas ran out they started to devour everything else. We were feeding 4 older untethered females as well as the young Jonny, a 5 year old male. He was tethered, though it was explained as a male it was for our safety as well as that of the other elephants. And you really could see him trying to get at their food! One of the mahouts’ called his name and raised is hand in the air. Jonny responded by raising his trunk and opening his mouth, ready and eager to be fed. It was fun to see this game between handler and a young bull elephant.


Forty-five minutes of feeding and photographing zoomed by. We'd all also learnt one more thing about the elephants; from time to time they sneeze, so be ready!

The elephants fed, we were walked down through the park towards the river area. Max showed us the guest lodges and the volunteer lodges along the way. The river is a wide strong beast, but with a much shallower and calmer inlet area for the elephants and guests to swim in. We watched on as the mahouts’ took their elephants into the water for the first time of the day to bathe. It was fantastic to see these unshackled animals and their carers at one in the water. The balance of the mahouts was amazing, though I'm sure if the elephants wanted rid of their rider, they could have done it with ease.

Little Jonny was tethered to a tree but allowed to play and wallow on his own, though still under the watchful eye of his mahout. After they were bathed it was time for us to return to "work". But before that we were taken to see Bwankam.

Bwankam is a 73 year old cow elephant that was rescued from a life our entertainment for tourists. Her face was so gaunt and her sores so prominent and returned us all to silence. Unlike the other elephants, she was in a small coral and fed mostly on a diet of ripe bananas. It was explained that at times she simply fell over because she was so weak. Her energy levels were increasing and she was gaining weight and the purple-iodine was to clean her wounds. It was scary to think that the elephant we saw was actually better than when she had arrived. 

We were split into two groups to prepare either bananas or sticky rice for feeding to the elephants later in the day. We delegated to the banana-bunch and 20 minute or so cutting green bananas from their bunches to speed up the ripening process. Max's really did a great job of explaining as much to us as possible with his limited knowledge. Elephants can eat at least 2 whole bunches of bananas in a single day, if allowed!

With the bananas done we sat and waited for the other group to return. It’s a shame that the we were so ill informed with regards to the days schedule because at that point diving into the cold river to wash off the heat and dust of the morning would have been fantastic! We had worked for just 20 minutes but everyone was wet through with sweat. 

As the others returned a fantastic buffet lunch was served at 1200 back in the main building. Food was plentiful, not overly spiced and a good selection with fruit as dessert; a very relaxing lunch indeed. The only call for alarm was that one of the many camp dogs was allowed to climb up onto serving the area after people had finished. At first it took to cleaning down the plates, until one of the staff covered these up; it then went on to mop up the left-overs that had been tipped into a bowl. Feeding the animals the left-overs is not a problem; the staff being aware and letting them climb up though is. It wasn’t until a young American girl questioned feeding chicken bones to the pregnant dog that the food was removed. Possibly this is a good point to suggest popping into the local 7-Eleven and getting a pack of dog-treats for the dogs and cats that are wondering around?

After lunch we were told that we were then off to collect banana leaves for the elephants. The day at the park is as much "hands-on" as you like and is a great way to see what it takes to care for these magnificent animals. 
Collecting the banana leaves was a little more than that. We were driven to a neighbouring work-shop that had banana trees growing around the wood yard and the mushroom farm. The owner cut down trees and some branches to be loaded onto the truck. If you've never handled freshly cut banana trees before, be warned that they emit a sticky-wet sap for some time after they have been cut. Though not shy of hard work, we decided to sit back on this one as we’d already helped out cutting banana trees at a friends house in Sri Lanka and were still washing out the amazingly sticky sap that seeps out when the trunks are cut. The truck full, we were taken back to the park.

We were taken down towards the river area close to Bwankam's enclosure and introduced to another of the "old ladies" of the park; 72 year old Songran. She is blind in her left eye though in much better condition than Bwankam. The sticky rice was rolled up into balls and then coated with a rice-flour that contained additional minerals for the elephants. Again, Max was up front demonstrating how we could feed the rice-balls to her straight into her mouth. His confidence was amazing. We all took it in turns feeding her.

With the older elephants fed it was time to head back down to the water. The mahouts were exceptionally playful with their animals. Taking them into the water, balancing and playing. The staff led the way and jumped straight into the water, though poor Jessica seemed to have been assigned washing duty, as she sat to one side to wash out the sticky rice trays. 

We were then invited to join them, though it was totally unclear what was allowed. We later found out that this was not part of the normal day (hence the lack of information) but a total bonus for us, based upon how the Mahouts perceived the mood of the elephants. It was fantastic that it was so laid-back, but it seemed to contradict our earlier "safety briefing". It was unclear whether we should wait at the side and climb aboard, swim out between the elephants or how you should approach them?  

Once aboard an elephant (though I was instructed to swim out to one) the mahouts’ playfully instructed their elephants to "dive", subsequently dunking the unsuspecting guest into the water, whilst the mahout showed great balance by standing on the read of the elephant as it did this. To be so close to these elephants but to feel so calm and relaxed was something I did not expect to feel on the day before we visited. Everyone was in high spirits and the elephants were enjoying being washed and patted. Jonny was particularly playful, being smaller than the cow elephants he was able to submerge himself completely, much to the amusement of everyone that wasn't on his back!

Throughout the day, it appeared that some of the other guests were not actually guests but staff. This happened again when a lady that arrived at lunch time started calling the elephant mahouts’ in to get some of the guests that she'd met onto mounts. It took some time for poor girlfriend to get her birthday gift, but eventually one of the mahouts came in to trade guests. 

Our last activity was a final feeding of the 4 cow elephants and young Jonny. 

We finished the birthday with a dilemma bigger than an elephant though; pizza at Bells or ??. If you haven't been, for the pizza or to see the elephants then add it to your itinerary.

Before I posted this blog, I decided that the negative comments that remain and several that were taken out should be presented to Elephant World before publishing. I have to say that the response I had was one of a young business venture for Elephant welfare learning to come to terms with the requirements and expectations of a public audience. 2012 is only their second year working with tourists and you can see from their growth that things are working. 

Although an expensive day out for us, it’s clear from talking to the owner since that every Baht of our money was spent on the well-being of the elephants. The main costs are the elephant's food, medicines and of course the salary of the mahouts and kitchen staff. 

The whole organization is based on volunteers, and Elephant World gets no support from the Thai government or in fact any other organisations on a regular basis; only the mahouts and the kitchen staff is paid. This means that most of the daily tasks are completed by the volunteers-guides, most of them staying only one month. Not only guiding the visitors, but also a lot of administration work (answering emails, finding out donation options, taking care of online marketing etc. etc.), assisting the vets, preparing food baskets for the elephants and more.

If you’d like to know more about their organisation or volunteering for a month then please do contact Agnes. If not, then why not visit, as I am sure it will be one of the most memorable experiences of your life.