There is a lot of controversy regarding visiting elephant and/or tiger sanctuaries in Thailand. The biggest arguments against them being that:

  1. The animals are drugged or given substances to tame them.
  2. The animals are mistreated in training and raising them.

For this trip, Contiki partnered up with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (#ContikiThai) to ensure our tour was properly guided, explained, and ethical. We were told that they don’t wish to take us to the tiger sanctuaries for the reasons listed above, and even that many elephant sanctuaries are, in fact, mistreating their elephants in training and raising them. For these reasons, neither Contiki nor the Tourism Authority of Thailand wishes to condone visits to most of these “attractions”. There was one, however, that they could support, and gladly took us to go and see it.

Maesa Elephant Camp

Once we had arrived and stepped off the coach, the first thing we saw was a group of elephants bathing in the river. There were some men there with brushes and buckets, giving them a little scrub action, but for the most part, the elephants were just rolling around on their own accord in the flowing waters. Although difficult to tell, we were pretty sure one of them was scratching its back on a rock in the river, almost completely underwater. Like a dog scratching its back on the carpeted floor, except way bigger, and much slower. But these elephants looked to be having the time of their lives.

As we continued on, we entered an open area in the forest where the elephants performed little tricks and showcased their talents. We were blown away by the abilities of these massive creatures. For 10 minutes, we watched the elephants play soccer. The employees would roll a big soccer ball across the way towards the elephantel6s, who would wind up, trot towards the ball, and boot it across the park. And when we say ‘boot it’, we’re talkin’ like ¾ of a soccer field in distance. They had soccer nets as well to aim at, and every time an elephant scored, he would swing his trunk in circles like some kind of celebratory dance. It was hard to say who was smiling more, us or the elephants.

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Another incredible skill they have is painting. They are given a blank canvas and a paint brush (to hold with their trunks). The general painting would be a tree, or flower of some sort, but they were surprisingly well painted. The elephants would draw the lines of the tree trunk and branches, then the trainer would pass them a new paintbrush (with varying colours) and the elephant would then dab at different spots of the branches to create the effect of flowers or leaves on a tree. All-in-all, it took about 10 minutes to paint a single painting, they looked amazing, and could be purchased afterwards. The general price for an elephant painting is 2,000 Baht (equivalent to $60). The proceeds, of course, going back into the conservation and maintenance of the sanctuary and its sacred elephants.

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After the paintings, we got to ride the elephants for a short trip around the grounds. They walked us along the edge of the forest, up to a little lookout point where we could see the surrounding area and valleys, and then continued onward to the little river nearby, before heading back to the main sanctuary grounds.

Although we didn’t get to do too much research into the place, we can see that the elephants here are truly enjoying themselves. Babies are not taken away from their mothers, they are not working by dragging around heavy logs all day, they get fed well, bathed, cleaned, and lots of time to play daily.