Thailand - Phuket - Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Phuket

We departed Koh Yao Noi on a speedboat to Phuket, Thailand’s largest and most touristed island. After the short boat ride, we drove to the Khao Phra Thaew Royal Wildlife & Forest Reserve, which protects the last untouched rainforest on the island. We walked down a jungle-frinched path to the Nam Tok Bang Pae waterfall to swim, then visited the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center. Operated by a local NGO, the center takes in formerly captive gibbons and rehabilitates them for reintroduction to the wild.

In the afternoon we arrived in Patong, my final destination of the trip. Patong is the polar opposite of Koh Yao Noi, with a Starbucks, Hard Rock Cafe, and other chains; Americans can travel to Patong and feel like they never left home. The main street, Bangla Walking Street, is a combination of Bangkok’s Khao San Road and Soi Cowboy. In other words, Bangla has the carnival atmosphere of Khao San Road, along with the go-go bars of Soi Cowboy. Patong makes no pretense of offering a cultural experience–it’s a place to chill on the beach and party. (For a cultural experience, visit Chiang Mai.) Patong isn’t my style of beach town, but I was looking forward to partying on New Year’s Eve with my travel companions before flying home.

On my first full day on Phuket, I visited the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (EJS), an organization that rescues mistreated elephants. Most of the captive elephants in Thailand are forced to haul lumber for loggers, provide rides for tourists, and perform circus activities. The EJS uses the fees raised from visitors to buy abused elephants, land, food, and veterinary care. The EJS does not attempt to reintroduce its elephants to the wild, because their natural habit has been lost to deforestation. Upon arriving at the EJS, we were educated on the characteristics of Asian elephants. We learned that elephants have sharp, bony protrusions extending upwards from their spine, so weight on their backs is painful and can result in tissue damage; therefore, the EJS does not allow its visitors to ride the elephants.

Each elephant at the EJS has a “mahout”, an elephant caretaker. For 1300 years in Thailand, boys have been designated as the mahout for a young elephant. The life expectancy of elephants is approximately the same as humans, so the relationship between a mahout and an elephant can last a lifetime. A mahout uses over 40 verbal commands to instruct his elephant, ensuring the safety of himself, the elephant, and nearby humans. The mahouts introduced us to Sai Thong, Wandee, Dok Khun, and the other elephants living at the sanctuary. After the introductions, we fed the hungry elephants bananas and water melons by placing the fruit in their trunks and mouths. After the elephants were finished with lunch, it was time for their mud spa and bath. According to the EJS, the baths “make the bond between domesticated elephants and humans stronger and shows them the love that they may not have previously received”. We bathed the elephants by plastering them with mud, and then rinsing the mud off their bodies with buckets of water.

I have conflicting feelings about the EJS. While the sanctuary is an improvement in the quality of life of elephants held in captivity, elephants should not be domesticated. I want to see elephants living wild and free, not existing in captivity for the amusement of humans. The EJS has good intentions and is a step forward in the treatment of elephants, but ultimately Thailand’s elephants should be living in their natural habit, safe from poachers and abusive humans.

The next day we embarked on a full-day boat trip to Ko Phi Phi Ley and Ko Phi Phi Don. Upon arriving at the Royal Phuket Marina, we were herded like cattle onto our large, fiberglass boat; I longed for the wooden, longtail boat that the small group of us cruised on a few days earlier. Our first stop was Maya Bay, the setting for “The Beach”, a film based on Alex Garland’s cult novel. The scenery is spectacular, but like me, everyone else wanted to take a photo of Thailand’s most famous beach. Because of the crowds, I was ready to move on after quick photo and swim in the bay. Disappointingly, the crowds persisted at Loh Samah Bay and Pileh Lagoon. When I thought that the boat traffic couldn’t get any worse, the captain backed our boat onto the shore of Ton Sai Bay by scraping the sides of two other boats. Now that the Phi Phi islands have been checked off my bucket list, I don’t see myself ever returning. Why would I? There are other picturesque islands in Thailand, but without the crowds.

My last night in Thailand was New Year’s Eve. We kicked off the evening with dinner on the beach, where I ate my last penang shrimp curry. Every night on Patong Beach people launch sky lanterns, which are constructed out of rice paper, a bamboo frame, and a small candle. On New Year’s Eve the lantern launching intensified, with hundreds of lanterns floating out to sea and lighting up the sky. We all made a wish and released a lantern, watching our lanterns disappear into the night sky before heading to Bangla Walking Street.

Most of the nightlife establishments on Bangla Street are go-go bars, but we found a small, less noisy bar on a side street. We played Connect 4 with the server, who insisted that we drink a tequila shot every time we lost to her. I lost to her every game, and my chances of winning grew slimmer after every shot. When we stumbled out of the bar onto Bangla Street, a full-blown silly string war was underway. We bought ammunition and were covered head to toe with silly string by the time we migrated to the beach for the countdown to 2018.

I yearned for the crowds of the Phi Phi islands after squeezing through the crowd of people on Patong Beach. A DJ was rocking the tunes, and thousands of drunks were dancing around beer bottles littered across the beach. At 12:00am, the sky lanterns were joined by fireworks, and a “full moon”-esque party ensued. At 3:00am, I called it a night. Sadly, my five week holiday had come to an end.