When travelling the world the treatment and care of animals really does differ wildly. One minute you may be in a country where an animal is sacred and respected and the next you may find yourself fighting back anger and tears at the treatment of the very same species.
Heading out to Thailand for the first time this year was one of those times where we were a little wary. We were determined to see some elephants but had read so many horrible stories about them being ‘broken’, mistreated, living in fear of their owners, being confined to small spaces or being chained up in fields or rivers.
We stayed in Khao Lak in Phang Nga and at our welcome meeting we were given the usual breakdown of excursions available. One of the excursions involved seeing some elephants however it contained photos of people riding them and with the elephants posing for a photo with a leg raised or their heads bowed with their trunks curled up.
This type of photo really doesn’t sit well with me as it’s such an unnatural thing for an elephant to do; it immediately put me off.
Eco Khao Lak Adventure
After our welcome meeting we did some research into local tour suppliers and came across Eco Khao Lak Adventure.
Eco Khao Lak Adventure was founded in 1996 by local Khao Lak native, Kunorana Ruangapibal (Kwanna).
Their motto is, “Small groups, more time” which is exactly what they do by running excursions for a few people at a time to allow more time and a more personal experience during the excursion. They state on their website:
The success of Eco Khao Lak is due to our strong work ethic, customer service minded thinking, insistence on top quality products, and through the employment the best guides and drivers in the industry.
These guys certainly looked a lot better than some of the other operators in the area so we took a closer look into the elephant excursions that they offered.
Seaside Retreat Elephant Friendly Half Day
The most popular elephant excursion on their website was the “Seaside Retreat Elephant Friendly Half Day“. The website description for this stated the following which was backed up by numerous people on TripAdvisor; it sounded perfect so we made our booking:
Our commitment to the ethical treatment of Thailand’s elephants is clearly represented in our Seaside Retreat.
It is the only Elephant Camp that guarantee a NO riding concept so that our guests are able to experience the majestetic giants in peace and harmony.
The Seaside Retreat is a relaxing place nestled not far from the Khao Lak National Park with a splendid view over the Andaman Sea. This is the place to be when you want to enjoy some quality time with our majestic Elephants. At a beautiful lagoon in the neighborhood, you will get the experience bathing and showering an elephant.
Arriving at the Seaside Retreat
Having been picked up from our hotel early afternoon we were transported in a minibus to the Seaside Retreat. During the transport our guide for the afternoon explained what to expect which was really clear and informative.
On arrival at the Seaside Retreat we realised that this was everything it promised to be; our minibus was the only vehicle on site so there were just 9 of us for the afternoon with the elephants.
Driving into the Seaside Retreat we could see the elephants roaming free in a very large field and eating from the trees. There was also a large lake which we were told the elephants like to splash around in. It certainly seemed like there was a vast expanse of land here for the elephants to enjoy and most importantly, not a single chain in sight.
Introduction to the elephants
From the minibus we were directed to some information boards about the 5 elephants that are kept at the Seaside Retreat. This outlined names, ages, weights, owners and their various temperaments and individual quirks.
We were also told a little about their history with stories of how they were previously mistreated, ridden by tourists and generally not well looked after. One of the elephants was saved from a show.
At the Seaside Retreat the elephants roam freely and live under the protection of their owners who also live on site with them. One of the elephants who is 32 years old has lived with her owner for an impressive 30 years so there is a long standing relationship there. It’s really clear that the elephants trust their owners and there’s certainly no signs of any mistreatment or distress here.
Before we got to meet the elephants our guide gave us a few simple house rules. As the elephants aren’t chained up and roam freely we had to remember that they are large wild animals and could therefore be unpredictable. We had to ensure we kept that in mind at all times. We were also told a few things about the elephants which we had to be mindful of such as one not liking her trunk touched, another not liking her head touched etc.
The entire time we were there each of the elephants had its owner stood right next to it keeping an eye on their temperament and ensuring there weren’t any issues. They said they’ve never had to use it but the owners carry a metal hook as a last resort (you’ll see in some of the photos) which would be the only way to stop an elephant if something were to happen to one of the visitors at the retreat.
All things considered our guide was very clear in explaining everything about the elephants and we felt very well informed and safe.
Feeding the elephants
A short walk from the entrance we reached the feeding area for the elephants who were lined up waiting for us.
We were each handed a basket of bananas and shown how to feed the elephants by placing the banana low enough for them to reach them with their trunk.
The elephants eat a huge amount of food per day and feeding them bananas was clearly one of their favourites as they strained to be fed more!
The feeding area was also really safe as a double barrier had been created. This prevented the elephants from getting too eager about their food and walking forward creating a risk to us. It also prevented them from being too close to us when they swung their trunks.
Bathing the elephants
Having fed the elephants their owners then rode them down a fenced off path and into the river. Whilst they got in we got dressed into our swimming gear on the platform next to the river.
The elephants clearly loved the water as within seconds of getting in they were trumpeting their trunks and rolling around in the water, playing like only a baby animal would.
Once the elephants had got the initial excitement of being in the water out of their systems and settled down a little the owner of each elephant invited us down into the river.
We grabbed a brush and bucket and made our way in. Wading towards an elephant in a river is one of the weirdest, coolest and most breathtaking things I think I’ve ever done. The animals are absolutely beautiful and to see them so close up and so well cared for, roaming free in the river rather than being chained up in it like at other places was really special. Once at our designated elephant we could touch it, scrub its body with the brush and throw water over it which they seemed to love.
If you’re going to head here to do this trip too then my top tip is to keep an eye on their trunks as they like to spray water!
We were in the water with the elephants for around half an hour so you have plenty of time here to take turns and all get in the river to take pictures of each other.
Photo with the elephants
After you have got out the river and are drying off the elephants are brought up the bank of the river next to you. They are stood behind a barrier for safety reasons where again you can take some great photos of these magnificent animals.
Once you’ve taken all the photos you want your time with the elephants is over and they are taken back to their enclosure.
With the elephant experience compete we were then driven back to Khao Lak for a Thai buffet at a local restaurant. The food was fantastic and there was certainly plenty of it!
Seaside Retreat review
Although not a completely perfect experience, only for the fact that the elephants here are still being “shown off” for tourists, relatively speaking the Seaside Retreat was one of the best ways for us to experience elephants in Thailand.
They weren’t made to perform any tricks for us, they weren’t allowed to be ridden by any tourists, they weren’t chained up and quite frankly their surroundings were fantastic. They seemed to be really happy in their surroundings and were playfully splashing about in the river when allowed to get in.
Our guide from Eco Khao Lak Adventure was really good at explaining everything to us and the people at the Seaside Retreat were friendly and informative too.
Supporting a more progressive business
We strongly believe that when abroad where possible you should avoid funding the mistreatment of animals and support the more progressive sites. Over time this behaviour will encourage better treatment of the animals as those experiences will attract a greater volume of tourism.
Our experience at the Seaside Retreat was fantastic and we’d highly recommend booking this one yourselves if you are staying in the Khao Lak area.
Are you heading to Thailand this year and planning to see elephants? Let us know in the comments!