Can we talk about the elephant in the room? You’re planning your Thailand vacation and getting stoked for beautiful beaches and cheap massages. You’ve likely seen photos of smiling tourists in brochures (or maybe even on your friend’s Instagram) riding elephants in Thailand or bathing them in a river. Heck… on my first trip to Thailand, I was one of those tourists. I thought I was doing the “ethical” thing by choosing a company that promoted bareback riding as a kind option. But when we know better, we have to do better. And when it comes to elephant tourism… we know better now. There’s no such thing as an ethical elephant riding experience. I visited Samui Elephant Haven, the largest ethical elephant sanctuary on Koh Samui, and can honestly say I had a more meaningful experience with the elephants at the sanctuary because I didn’t go for a ride.
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A brief history of elephants in Thailand
A day at Samui Elephant Haven is one of education, inspiration, and —of course— heart-warming experiences with Asian elephants. Asian elephants are a little smaller than their African cousins, and can be identified by their rounded ears. Come nose to trunk with the female elephants who grow to be almost 7.5 feet tall and can reach 6,000 pounds. The males live in separate enclosures, but you can pay them a visit and admire their long, ivory tusks which weigh up to 45 pounds each! Male elephants can grow to be almost 9 feet tall, weighing up to 12,000 pounds! (That’s a LOT of bananas!) These beautiful animals are endangered, and it’s up to us to make decisions that will enable their survival. Their natural habitats are being destroyed by deforestation and agricultural development and they are at risk of poaching for ivory and skin to be used in jewelry.
Asian elephants have lived in Thailand for over one thousand years and have gone through multiple ‘careers’ through the course of history. The elephant’s first job was on the battlefield. These mighty creatures were a powerful force in battle, akin to the modern tank. In the mid-nineteenth century, the advent of gunpowder and dwindling wars, elephants were out of a job— no battles meant no need for battle animals.
Soon, elephants were ‘employed’ once more, assisting with the settling of the land and the building of homes. For years, elephants spent their days lugging felled trees, carrying goods and people and dragging farm equipment. That all changed in 1989 when the Thai government called for a ban on logging.
Overnight, elephants and mahouts (elephant carers) were out of a job. Elephants can eat up to 300 pounds of food per day, and without a steady job, elephants and mahouts were forced to the streets, begging and selling food to tourists to feed to the elephants. Tourists seemed to be elephants’ best chance at a life well-fed, and thus the tourist era began. Elephants are trained to perform and carry tourists… but the tourists are often unaware of the brutal methods of phajaan (crushing) used to break an elephant’s spirit and ensure compliance.
Khun Noi and Khun Maew: making a difference in Koh Samui
While the income from offering elephant rides and bathing is enticing and the demand from tourists is high, Samui Elephant Haven is committed to offering tourists an inspiring and heartwarming visit. Meet Khun Noi upon arrival— his name means “small” but his heart is large. He’s responsible for the very first elephant’s arrival on Koh Samui, years ago. His son, Khun Maew, went off to college in Bangkok and experienced his first elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai— reporting back about the happy elephants and tourists changed by the experience. Khun Noi and Khun Maew are now committed to rescuing elephants from a life of begging, trekking, and performing, offering a safe place for elephants who have endured much hardship.
A word from Khun Maew
Here’s what Khun Maew has to say about the motivation behind Samui Elephant Haven:
“At the age of seven, some 30 years ago, my parents moved from the Surin Province to run a circus. Even from this young age, it was my dream to create a sanctuary for elephants – a real haven for them to live out their lives happily and roaming free.
For many generations, my family has worked with elephants, and it was always my vision to give elephants a happy life. I trained as an accountant but always felt that something was missing. I was fortunate enough to visit Lek Chailert at Elephant Nature Park: this is where I believed that my dream was possible. That visit was the inspiration behind Samui Elephant Haven.
I chose love over money.
We opened Samui Elephant Haven just over a year ago, and since opening, we have achieved so much. To date, we have rescued 14 elephants from across Thailand and from the tourist-trekking industry. The elephants living at Samui Elephant Haven previously endured stressful lives. With that life behind them, these lucky elephants are now free to express their natural instincts without fear – interacting with each other in beautiful natural surroundings, foraging on native plants, and playing together in their custom-built and natural pools and mud pits. Visitors to the sanctuary, experience meaningful encounters with these magnificent animals in an environment where they are respected, and revered”.
What to expect on a day tour at Samui Elephant Haven
We spent our day with a guide named Pa. She used to be a tour guide on the island of Koh Samui, arranging elephant rides for tourists who requested them, pocketing the commission and not thinking much about the elephants. Now that she’s seen how happy these elephants are, she says she’d never recommend riding elephants ever again.
Observe elephants in a beautiful and natural environment
The day starts with a pick up in an air conditioned van for the scenic trip to Samui Elephant Haven. On arrival at the sanctuary, enjoy a refreshing cup of iced tea as you check in. Fill out paperwork and watch a safety video from a covered pavilion, just feet away from the elephants! The day I visited began with a downpour. If it’s raining when you visit, count yourself lucky! Elephants have very sensitive skin (that’s why you’ll see them slinging mud on their backs) and they LOVE playing in the rain!
Go bananas at feeding time!
I could have watched them play for hours… but when the sun came out, the girls knew it was feeding time! When the banana buckets come out, the elephants mosey on up to the guardrail, reaching trunks toward these sweet snacks. All interactions at Samui Elephant Haven are initiated by the elephants under the watchful eye of their mahouts. If the elephants aren’t interested, they’re not forced to play or interact.
After (the first) feeding time is over, enjoy a walk through the sanctuary. Get to know each of the elephants as you feed them some extra treats from the banana bag you’ll carry around with you. Listen to the stories of their heartbreaking past and celebrate their rescue.
Observe elephants in their very own infinity pool with a panoramic view of Koh Samui
After taking hundreds of photos and handing out bananas, head up to the viewing platform for a panoramic view of Koh Samui. Cool off with a cold towel and an iced tea while watching elephants in their infinity pool! One of the elephants decided she wasn’t done swimming yet and followed her friends to their next play location backwards… never taking her eyes off the pool!
PS. If you’re wondering why there’s no elephant bathing here, the answer is twofold. When teeny fragile humans get in a river with elephants, these fun-loving creatures need to be careful not to squish anyone… squashing their innate desire to play instead. If you need another reason… they don’t have toilet control. So although the elephants may be getting clean… you’re sure to experience a *poopy* situation!
Get spicy with a Thai cooking class
All that eleFUN is sure to work up an appetite… so next up is a delicious vegetarian lunch! Before you eat, enjoy a Thai cooking class, where you can learn to make papaya salad! I’ve been told to recommend you only add one chili… but I’m going to have to disagree. Two chili peppers is the way to go!
After your meal, it’s time to head home…. but not before picking up a souvenir or two! Be sure to take a look in their shop for a jungle-friendly printed copy of their new coloring book, The Painted Elephant. Twenty artists donated their beautiful drawings for the project with hopes that it will bring awareness to the plight of the elephants. If you’d love to do some coloring, but won’t be in Koh Samui anytime soon, you can download a printed version online. (These guys really practice what they preach– no shipping minimizes their impact on the environment.
With a full belly and a full heart, it’s time to say goodbye. If your day is anything like mine, you’re sure to leave the sanctuary with a newfound appreciation for elephants and the kind humans who are choosing to do the right things by the elephants.
Samui Elephant Haven offers two tours daily. Choose a morning (9am-12pm) or afternoon (2pm-5pm) tour. All tours include hotel transfers, a delicious vegetarian meal, and water, tea and coffee. Tours cost ฿3,000 or approximately $100USD. Book your tour here!
Get to know the elephants at Samui Elephant Haven!
I hope you’ll have a chance to visit the elephants in Koh Samui soon… but for now, I’d like to introduce you to some of the 14 elephants who call this elephant sanctuary in Koh Samui home.
Sri Nin (Grandma)
Grandma is 53 years old, but a physical shows her tired and overworked body presents as that of a 65-year-old. She began her life working in the logging industry, where she lost sight in one of her eyes when a mahout punished her disobedience with a slingshot to the eye.
When logging was banned by the Thai government in 1989, Sri Nin began a new career as a trekking elephant. In this job, she was forced to carry tourists in a 100 kilogram metal chair. With tourists in those chairs, she often carried upwards of 500 kilograms of extra weight on her back. The missing hair from the top of her back is a permanent reminder of the weight of carrying tourists day in and day out.
Now, she’s living her best life at Samui Elephant Haven and has earned the nickname “Grandma” because she cares for two of the young elephants. When it comes to feeding time, she’s a gentle giant. Don’t be surprised if her trunk comes back to you one, two or three times… she’s asking for extra bananas! Since her teeth aren’t what they used to be, she likes to swallow multiple bananas whole. And fun fact? Since elephants don’t have a poor digestive system… we were told that sometimes the mahouts will find nearly intact bananas when she goes to the bathroom!
If you’ve given birth, you’re well aware of the anticipation of expecting a baby. Your belly stretches as the baby grows and you make preparations for your little bundle of joy. As you near nine months, you’ll hear the inevitable “Are you sure it’s not twins?” and “Wow! You’re huge!” as strangers reach for your belly. All I can say is…. Thank goodness we’re not elephants!
I met Somboon in her twentieth month of pregnancy. Nope. That’s not a typo. Elephants have a gestation period of 19-22 months, and will deliver a baby weighing up to 200 pounds. Her baby will be able to stand on its own within minutes of its birth… I sure hope Somboon’s ready to keep up with her baby!
Kwan Samui (which means good luck Samui) is the first baby elephant born in Koh Samui. She was born in 2011 and taken from her mother as a baby. Her early life was marked by trauma, but now, she gets to spend her days at Samui Elephant Haven playing with her best girlfriends, Nong Pech and Moloair!
Aom & Perm Poon
Aom and her son, Perm Poon, arrived at Koh Samui in a non-traditional way… by foot! The mother and son worked at a trekking camp, where one and a half-year-old Perm Poon was tied to his mother and forced to walk by her side every day. When Khun Maew came to rescue the pair, Aom was so fearful of being separated from her son, she refused to get on the truck destined to bring them both to Samui Elephant Haven. Plan B: The mother and son walked six hours across the island of Koh Samui to their new home, where the pair can live together. Aom bang her trunk against the metal gates– a behavior trained to attract tourists in her past “career.” At this ethical elephant sanctuary in Koh Samui, elephants are fed just because they’re loved… not for any behavior or performance.
Book a day tour at Samui Elephant Haven
If you’re considering elephant trekking in Koh Samui, I hope you’ll reconsider. Elephants are emotionally complex creatures, feeling emotions like love, grief, rage, and joy. When traumatized animals are rescued, hands-on interaction with strangers on a daily basis isn’t kind. Yeah, elephants are cute. But aren’t they so much cuter when they get to just be elephants? These adorable elephants at Samui Elephant Haven were rescued from street begging, elephant riding, and performing in shows.
What do they do now? Whatever the heck they want. I watched one curious girl check out the visitors with her trunk while another beat dirt off palm branches before eating the leaves. Yet another picked up a rock in her trunk and used it to scratch an itch on her foot. These enormous creatures are adorable and intelligent and worthy of respect. When you know better… do better.
Looking for more fun things to do on Koh Samui (including ways to give back)? Check out my list of 40+ awesome things to do in Koh Samui!
Can’t get enough? Check out these books I recommend about elephants
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
Elephants are some of the most empathetic animals on the planet. Get a glimpse behind those knowing eyes in Carl Safina’s book which delves into animal emotions.
Ellie’s Elephants: A true story of a little girl and her wish for chain-free elephants
Ellie Barnard is a little girl with a big dream. Ever since she was a child, she loved elephants— she collects elephant stuffed animals and figurines and was so excited to see real elephants up close. But even as a child, she knew elephants shouldn’t be in chains… so she decided to do something about it. I had the pleasure of meeting Ellie at her book reading at Samui Elephant Haven and am so impressed by her big dreams and desire to change the world… and I believe she can!
If you have a little animal-lover in your life, be sure to order a copy of Ellie’s Elephants for bedtime reading. My generation grew up thinking elephants were there for our entertainment… may the next generation grow up knowing that elephants should be cared for and loved!
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