You know those goofy too-big smiles that feel great at the time, but look a bit wide and white in the pictures afterwards? Yeah, that was us having fun playing with the elephants at the Hug Elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Cuddling with elephants is a sure way to get one of those goofy grins on your face!
I couldn’t believe I was actually swimming in a river with a herd of elephants!
We were scrubbing off the mud from our mud-fight with them a few minutes earlier using brushes and buckets. Legs, bellies, behind the ears, and they even rolled over in the water so we could reach the top of their backs. They seemed to enjoy all the hard scrubbing on their leathery skin, even though I doubt they could feel much from our brushes.
They were so playful when we were splashing them with water to rinse it all off. They would spray us back with their trunks and dunk their heads under the water as if to hide. I’ve had a harder time giving my cat a bath! Not to mention the scratches!
They were surprisingly nimble on the slippery rocks as they wallowed through the water, up to their sides. I was slipping all over the place, even with my Teva sandals on, and was half-scared that one would slip and fall onto me! Half of me was excited as I got the confidence to go closer to the elephants and trust them more, while the other half of me was scared and always looking over my shoulder for a place to run if the elephant decided to blindly back up or roll over and squash me.
We were getting more and more comfortable with being so close to these huge elephants, and trusting how incredibly self-aware they were. I had always pictured an elephant as a big sort of clumsy horse that wasn’t very coordinated with its feet, but that’s far from what we saw. These huge elephants were always feeling around with their trunks, and even careful where they put their huge feet. I was especially surprised that their feet were just skin with a few toenails, and no hoof on the bottom – just like us. They were very sensitive, and often would choose a different spot for their foot if they felt a twig or rock beneath it.
It was so fun to see them interact in their natural environment, and watch them play with each other and the people on the tour. The mahouts, or elephant trainers, were nearby the whole time but weren’t directing the elephants how to behave in the water. They were just playing like it was the most natural thing they did all the time.
Elephants In Their Natural Environment
Elephants in nature is one of the most satisfying things to see, especially on a tour to see them. There aren’t many wild elephants left in Thailand, so to see a sanctuary that lets them roam around and look for food is very satisfying.
When we were eating lunch, the elephants roamed the hills looking for tasty trees to munch on. The 4 year-old was curious what we were doing, and came by to take a look for some more bananas.
He couldn’t fit under the roof, so just tried feeling around with his trunk. His mahout distracted him and threw an old motorcycle tire down the hill for him to play with. This must have been his favorite toy because he started flinging it all over the place, and running after it like it was a banana trying to escape!
Feeding Elephants in Thailand
When we first arrived, we each had a bag full of bananas to feed to the elephants. That sure made us their friends quickly, they were so excited for those bananas! As we walked up they knew we had a treat for them, and were feeling us all over with their trunks, sniffing for the bananas. It felt like an excited dog was saying hi to its owner after coming home after being gone all weekend!
The youngest one was especially playful, running around, full of excitement to see all us new visitors.
This was the first time I had seen an elephant this close with no fence, and had a bag full of its favorite treat. It was incredible!
At first I wasn’t sure how close to get or how much to trust them, but they were all very well behaved. I held the bananas out one at a time for my elephant “friend” and he curled his thick, wet trunk around the banana and my hand and started squeezing it! I was expecting more of a bite or “grab” like other animals I’ve fed, but this felt more like, “I’m taking your hand with this banana unless you let go!” It was the weirdest feeling – sort of like what I’d imagine a boa constrictor snake would feel like. He kept coming closer to me and I’d take a step back to put my hand in my banana bag. “Ease off,” I thought, “You’re the one with the 3 foot long trunk anyways.”
I doled out my bananas and the elephant grabbed each one from me and popped it in his mouth, not even pausing to peel it or chew. By the last of the bananas I felt way more comfortable being so close to the elephants, and trusted them to not trample me or get too pushy. Once we all tipped our bags upside down to show them that we weren’t hiding any treats from them, they calmed down and lost interest in us a little. They let us feel their bark-like skin, their tusks, and their muscular trunks that never stopped moving. The mahouts were always nearby, but didn’t do much more than tell them a few commands once and awhile to keep them calm and orderly.
Elephants Are HUGE!
I never realized how enormous elephants are until we were standing right beside the herd of them! The 4 year old baby was the smallest of the group, and was still a foot taller than me! The oldest was 29, and dwarfed all the others! The little one was nimble enough to fling a motorcycle tire like a rubber band using his foot and trunk, and even the biggest ones could sure move quickly when they wanted to!
He even knew where to get clean water to drink! This elephant came up to the water spigot and waited until one of the guys turned it on, then filled his trunk up and squirted the water into his mouth. Amazing!
Connecting With the Elephants
This was the best part of the tour. We had plenty of time to just watch the elephants interact with each other and be themselves. We didn’t feel rushed or in a hurry to go see the next thing or another trick, but instead we had time to just enjoy being with these magnificent beasts. That’s the thing I enjoyed the most about this specific sanctuary was the amount of time to actually absorb what we were watching and experiencing.
Too often, tours are like a zoo with so much to see and so little time because the next group’s coming along soon. It’s easy to feel disappointed in the end because there was so much missed, and it’s harder to appreciate all the amazing things that we did have a chance to see. One girl on this tour just sat down in the dirt in the middle of all the elephants to become one with them and build her trust. She never got stepped on, so check that box off!
Scratch Those Trees!
After awhile the elephants headed into the trees to find more to eat and to scratch against some sturdy trunks. We just followed them and watched how they made their way through the jungle, how they yanked down a tree branch to eat some leaves with their snake-like trunks, and how one of them used its trunk to search the branches of a guava tree for some fruit without yanking them down.
This is where a “sanctuary tour” is way better than an elephant show or a riding trek. We were just watching them enjoying life in their normal habitat and playing with each other, and had plenty of time to pet them, look at their ears, and take all the pictures we wanted. Everyone on the tour actually hit that photo peak where they were satisfied enough they got the perfect shot that they put their cameras away to just watch the elephants in nature. That photo moment doesn’t happen very often with travelers, especially with me, but when you’re not watching from behind a camera lens there’s so much more to see. It’s magical.
There is certainly a draw to watching a highly-trained elephant do a handstand or paint a picture with its trunk, but our close experience with these gentle, beautiful animals is something that we’ll remember and cherish for much longer than a memory of a circus show, or an elephant painting we bought.
On the walk back from the river we went a different route than the elephants and stopped by a waterfall to get all the mud off of us. It was a bit chilly at first, but felt good in the afternoon heat.
The hiking through the rice fields and over log bridges just completed the experience and made it so much more authentic and rural.
We’ll always remember how happy the elephants were playing with each other and with us, in the water, with a tire, roaming through the trees.
And we’ll always be wondering why they don’t peel the banana before they eat it.
A special thanks to Hug Elephant Sanctuary for our incredible intimate experience with these awesome elephants.