There is a lot of controversy surrounding elephants in Thailand and yeah, unfortunately I did witness tourism elephants in Bangkok and the main city centre of Surin. We stayed over an hour away in the countryside and I can assure you this was one of the good ones. The elephants were happy and healthy and taken care of 24/7 by their Mahouts (elephant carers). I went with the team at RealGap
The tour I did was Bangkok > Surin > Elephant Village > Surin. Most meals were included and all accommodation and transport was planned and provided for us. I had to make my own way back to Bangkok after Surin and that was not paid or provided for. They did assist me in booking the right ticket back and dropped organised transport for us to the bus station in the morning. I was in Thailand for a total of 10 days and this programme was for 1 week only. One of our guides met my friend Kelly and I at the airport and drove us straight to where we were staying for a few nights.
We did a varied amount of tasks in rotation. We cut their food (grasses, banana tree leaves, sugar cane etc.) cleaned their area several times a day, hung out with the elephants, mahouts, our guide and the family taking care of us too (we had no signal & Wi-Fi so we really got stuck in!), We got to go out to the local villages in search of jobs (to cut their grass, trees etc. and gather food for the elephants) We walked the elephants to the river and washed them (please read: they had fun playing in the water and we just pathetically occasionally scrubbed them free of mud) and free time; where we visited the local food market, I almost died in a canoe (read about that one Here) and just got taken care of! All of our meals were made for us by the family at the Home Stay and honestly? You really cannot beat homemade cooked local food.
How can you do something similar?
My advice to you would be do your research! I cannot stress that enough. Off the top of my head, I only know about this programme and one in Chang Mai which is genuinely volunteering and not just tourist attractions which harm them. Again, I went with RealGap so it is worth checking out if they have something similar. I paid around £600 (not including flights, they were £450 found on Skyscanner, flying with BA) for the experience and it was worth every penny. Not to mention, it really helps the locals. A lot of that money really actually goes to them.
It was really nice to go out and visit the local villages too. We visited the market where we tried a lot of different new food. We even created paper out of elephant poo. Yes, you read that correct! Admittedly, I didn’t get involved in the first process (stepping bare foot in poo to break it down) even if it is mostly grass, nope! Haha. I left the elephant village covered in cuts, bruises and bites but it was so worth it. If you are going to do something similar definitely pack long sleeve t-shirts and longer trousers. Not just for temples but because cutting grass and sugar cane really takes its toll on your body! (We were sitting on it on the truck) On the way back to Surin we also visited a little village that sold lots of handmade products made from real silk. I ended up nabbing a little over the body bag for 75 Baht (£1.25) and still use it regularly.
Below: Elephant Poo Paper final processes where I am bleaching and making the shape and the final product (that I bought!) of what they make out of the paper!
Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Surin and actually really miss the elephants. I grew quite attached to them and feel quite sad that I won’t get to see little Dumbo grow up (not his real name, just a nickname everyone apparently gives the baby elephant! Too much Disney I think… haha guilty!!)
If given the opportunity, time or if you have the money, I would definitely encourage you to do some volunteering with animals. It changes you for the better and I can actually say that I washed some elephants in a river!