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Should You Visit Elephant Stay Ayutthaya?

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After the sights and senses overload of Bangkok, Justin and I were looking forward to our weekend escape to Ayutthaya, Thailand. Ayutthaya was, we felt, a place where we could get some much-needed R & R. Ok, there was also the little factor of the Legend of King Naresuan film series–the 6th installment of which was being advertised like mad all over Bangkok. This series follows the adventures of the real-life King of Ayutthaya who, as narrated by said films, was not only totally able to rock the all-important “I may be splattered in blood, but I’m still hot” look…

Exhibit A

King Naresuan

© Prommitr International Production & Sahamongkol Film International

…but was also an awesome warrior who won Siamese (Thai) independence from Burma by killing his childhood nemesis (I.E. the King of Burma) in an elephant duel to end all elephant duels:

Exhibit B

Elephant Battle King Naresuan 2

© Prommitr International Production & Sahamongkol Film International

Anywho. We were eager to see the historical locales where the drama unfolded–or, at least, what’s left of it (the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya again in the 18th century and sacked the city)–and, that first morning in the city, we were fully expecting the headless Buddhas and charmingly crumbling Wats. What we weren’t expecting were the elephants.

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As our Thai hostess at San Sook Place Guesthouse wheeled our rental bikes out, her French partner pointed out key sights on a comically inexact map of the city. “There,” he announced, “is the historical park. There is the night market…et ici, another market you can go to tonight. And if you want to ride far…” he circled a spot on the map’s edge “…here you can see the Elephant Kraal. You can see baby elephants there.”

Baby.

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Elephants.

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To put our reaction mildly, yes, we wanted to ride far.

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I will admit, as we peddled out, we had some mild feelings of foreboding. It’s not exactly news that some so-called animal sanctuaries in Southeast Asia are often…questionable in quality. To be fair, Ayutthaya’s Kraal, also known as Elephant Stay, doesn’t claim to be a sanctuary in the ways that Americans commonly understand the term. The elephants at Elephant Stay aren’t being rehabbed for release in the wild, and the herd is comprised mostly of working elephants (and their babies)–though the place also houses retired elephants and elephants who are considered “troublesome”–I.E. not fit for work. Still, we weren’t sure exactly what kind of living environment we would find at Elephant Stay–and if we’d be happy or sorry that we’d ridden the distance.

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According to their website, Elephant Stay is focused on improving the working lives of elephants in Ayutthaya–not stopping Thais from working with elephants for income (something they claim is unreasonable given the human poverty, lack of land, and lack of money for elephants’ breeding and care in Thailand).  

We must have been thinking pretty hard about these issues (or the heat really was getting to us at last) because after a short ride around the historical park, we decided to take a dirt road which appeared to cut directly across to the bridge which would take us over the river (the same Chao Phraya River we loved riding in Bangkok) and toward the Kraal. 

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Only, as it happened, the dirt road may have quickly devolved into a tiny dirt footpath… and it might have gone straight through the middle of some ruins that were clearly not open to the public… and that could, in turn, have resulted in our having to lift our bikes (and ourselves) over a barbed wire fence in order to get back onto pavement…maybe.

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Whatever may or may not have happened, we did, in the end, cross the bridge and, after a brisk ride past gilded temples and through a number of small neighborhoods we arrived at last at the Kraal. Of course, we entered the wrong way (in our defense, signage was a bit dodgy). Rather than take the broad driveway that connected with the main road…

Elephant Stay Entrance UL_Opt

…we opted for the steep dirt path just beyond that led to the village next to the Kraal. 

Watching us descend the road on our bikes provided a good deal of amusement (and rightfully so) for the village children–amusement which only increased when, quite abruptly, we found ourselves within arms length of an elephant walking next to her mahout (elephant rider). Let me tell you something that will utterly shake you to the core with its truth: elephants are huge.   

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Ok, now that we’ve gotten past that, some other truths: in spite of their hugeness, elephants are also, when not being viewed from a distance, able to appear right at your shoulder, seemingly, from nowhere (much like Monitor Lizards). And I don’t care how many zoos you’ve visited or how much Animal Planet you’ve seen, nothing prepares you for suddenly finding yourself within a foot of a fully grown she-elephant who’s just walking along, free as a bird, on a narrow dirt road. It was amazing. It was terrifying. I was in love.

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After walking our bikes to the real entrance (keeping a respectful distance from a bull elephant who gave us an appraising eye as he chewed his food) we paid the 50 baht photography fee (which is the only fee involved in a day visit) and started exploring.

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Elephant Stay isn’t really designed for casual visitors, so there isn’t much in terms of information about the sanctuary on-site. But the babies were there, as promised. And (be still my heart!) when they spotted us, they stopped their play, climbed out of the enclosure they shared with their mommas and came to say hello.

Which, apparently, in elephant-culture involves running straight at you and head-butting. 

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“You have to move to the side if they try to do that! If you don’t they’ll knock you right over.” A couple of Elephant Stay’s voluntourists came over. Voluntourists pay to stay in the village (in air conditioned rooms) for anywhere from 3 days to 4 weeks and to help take care of the elephant herd (in particular, the retired female elephants and babies). The program is expensive, but given that the funds go directly toward covering the elephants’ care and feeding (elephants eat upwards of 149 kg/ 330 lb. of vegetation daily), the cost makes sense.

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The two visitors (a mother and daughter) were from Melbourne, Australia–one worked at a zoo, the other ran a small animal rescue from her home. We asked them about the experience of staying and working with the elephants. “It’s a dream come true,” the mother, Kay, replied. We asked about some of the things that, to our eyes, seemed questionable: the takaws (bullhooks) carried by the mahouts which have been framed as torture devices in western media, and the chains which most of the adult elephants wore around one ankle.

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Kay’s daughter, Haley explained that these things had troubled them too when they first arrived, but the knowledge they’d gained during their stay, coupled with their own observations changed their understanding. “We’ve never,” she told us, “ever seen an animal being abused during our time here. If anything, the mahouts treat their elephants with a level of love and respect that goes beyond anything I’ve seen working in a western-style animal care environment.”

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The Elephant Stay’s website addresses these controversial issues directly, but it was good to hear their claims that the elephants are (by all appearances) happy and well cared for confirmed directly from two volunteers–and experienced animal care-givers at that! (You can read about other volunteers’ experiences on Trip Advisor, or, for a longer account you can check out this story on Perceptive Travel.) 

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After taking a short walk down to the water to watch the elephants enjoy a bath in the river with their mahouts (who, we saw, are training up the next generation)…

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…we headed back toward town in the growing twilight having added another unique animal encounter to our Thailand experience. Just watch out for those babies if you visit  Elephant Stay Ayutthaya yourselves. That cute will have you wishing for a bigger suitcase. Just kidding. (Maybe.)

For more pachyderm entertainment, watch our video of the Ayutthaya Elephant Stay!


Visitor Information for Elephant Stay: 

Location: Easiest way to visit is via tuk tuk (just tell them “Elephant Stay” and they’ll know where to go), but if you’d like to follow our biking route, either plug the Elephant Stay coordinates into your google maps (which is what we did) or follow these directions (compliments of OneWeirdGlobe.com): from Ayutthaya’s main tourist street, take a right (west) onto Naresuan. Go about 900 meters to Chikun road, and take a right (going north). Cross Uthong road and over the water, then make your first right. Bike about 1 kilometer until the road ends in a T, then take a left. Take the right fork 150 meters away, then follow this road for about 1.5 kilometers until you see the elephants on your right.

Hours for Day Visitors: 8am-5pm

Cost for Day Visitors: free or 50 baht if you want to take pictures. For volunteer package prices, click HERE.

 

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9 Responses to Should You Visit Elephant Stay Ayutthaya?

  1. Bethany August 13, 2016 at 11:12 am #

    *Editor Note: comment has been edited for length.* I’m sorry you couldn’t SEE how these animals were being mistreated…or that just because ES had an explanation (excuse) for functioning they way it does you took that as meaning “it’s ok” …but that doesn’t change the fact that ES is continuing to abuse and profit from the exploitation of these animals! …Learn how painful it actually is to stand in one spot for hours chained, or lug tourist around in the hot sun. Learn the history of how elephants are domesticated…and that those babies you saw will eventually all be SENT AWAY to do “the crush”. I hope you will then see how forcing elephants to continue to work and by profiting from torture (even if that is done in the elephants past) is wrong and promoting the ideas that it’s ok cuz they are poor or need to make money etc. etc. is even more wrong. …Paying for services where the right thing is practiced encourages MORE people to change to that model of businesses! ENP [Elephant Nature Park] is proof that the non working non riding (even by the mahouts) non chained elephants style experience can make money AND do the right thing for the animals! In fact this group is helping convince other elephant owners to convert their old methods of making a living off their elephants to this better animal welfare first model. …let other places know that if they want to make any money they must change!!! Please spend your time/money in places of love! Peace!

    • UncontainedLife August 13, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

      Hi Bethany,

      Thank you for sharing your insights. I doubt any animal lover would disagree with your assertions that the way the elephants at Elephant Stay live is not ideal. That said, some of your claims are based upon the assumption that the situation in Ayutthaya can be solved if tourists “vote with their dollars,” so to speak. Voting with your dollars can be an effective tool for change in many circumstances, but it’s not an infallible method; the situation at Elephant Stay, if nothing else, reveals the limits to this approach. For those who truly care about the welfare of Ayutthaya’s elephants and the people whose livelihood depends upon these elephants, we encourage you all to consider the following questions/ points. Then, rather than commenting back here, take action based on the answers you formulate in response to these questions:

      1) Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand are located in the north of the country (by comparison, Elephant Stay is in the far south–just north of Bangkok). The location of these sanctuaries is not coincidental. Having land available for elephants to roam freely is key for the sanctuary model to be successful. When land is not available, as is the case in Ayutthaya, what can, or should be done? Voting with our dollars (choosing to visit ENP rather than ES) won’t change the lack of available land for sanctuaries in Ayutthaya. A more proactive solution is needed.

      2) The fact that the elephants’ owners are poor doesn’t mean it’s ok for elephants to suffer, certainly. And if it is possible to offer ride-free, chain-free tourist experiences which also allow the elephant owners to make money, that is definitely the best possible scenario. But given point #1, the sanctuary model of tourism isn’t (at least currently) available to elephant owners in Ayutthaya, even if they wanted to make a change. So, what other solutions can be found?

      3) If your answers to points 1 or 2 involves relocating the elephants of Ayutthaya to the north, how can this happen? How can funds be raised? Where will the elephants be rehoused? Who will care for them in their new home, monitor their breeding, etc.? What will happen to the elephants’ former owners now without a livelihood? Who will support them while they find a new profession and cover the costs of retraining (ex: becoming a licensed taxi driver) or purchasing the materials necessary to start a new business?

      We’re very glad this post has sparked so many conversations. Complex problems do not have simple solutions. And we hope all our posts of this sort (whether about elephants, or people living in slums, or street children, or any of the other sensitive topics we have covered on this blog) move people to become more informed, and, ultimately, to take action to make a better world. Thank you again for reading, and we wish you the best in all your travels.

  2. Genie May 15, 2016 at 1:44 am #

    Why don’t you check out Elephant Nature Park. It is very good and they have been on BBC and National Geographic.

  3. kim August 13, 2015 at 6:00 am #

    Slavery used to be seen as totally acceptable by slave owners. They were taking care of these slaves after all!! even if the mahouts aren’t hitting the elephants publicly with them, WHY do you think they carry them? These elephants have been beaten into submission early in life and the hooks are carried as a reminder not to get out of hand. Of course they will come up with all manner of beautiful stories and excuses to make them seem acceptable. There ARE sanctuaries in Thailand that do NOT use bullhooks, do NOT chain their elephants and do NOT make them perform for tourists. Elephantstay chooses to do these things, they do not have to. I think you should have trusted you’re initial gut feeling, if they did not have to use the hooks as physical or psychological punishment, they would not be carrying them around.

    • UncontainedLife August 13, 2015 at 7:40 am #

      Hey Kim, thanks for sharing your thoughts. We know that some of Elephant Stay’s practices are controversial and we are aware that for many people the only proper way to handle elephant care is the true sanctuary model (which, as we mentioned, Elephant Stay does not claim to follow). At the same time, we can say that we personally did not observe any violent behavior toward any of the young elephants during our day with them (we saw both babies and elephants in mid-childhood). Too, the question of whether or not violence was at all endorsed by Elephant Stay was answered in the negative by the volunteers we interviewed, and by the volunteer whose article we link to in our story, who spent extensive time with the elephants day in and day out. We do realize it is within the realm of possibility that violent practices do go on at Elephant Stay out of sight of these volunteers, but we don’t have any evidence to back up such a claim–if you have this kind of evidence, or know someone who has, we’d certainly want to hear from them! From our observations, the young elephants at Elephant Stay did not appear to fear humans–in fact they seemed curious and eager to engage with us. In posting this article we are not giving the thumbs up to bullhooks or claiming that we believe that Elephant Stay is the ideal home for elephants. But given the specific circumstances under which Elephant Stay is operating (which Elephant Stay discusses in detail on its own website) we felt comfortable saying that a visit to Elephant Stay isn’t adding to the problem. Again, we appreciate your comment–we believe a big part of mindful travel is starting conversations about what it means to engage in positive ways with the cultures and countries visited–and that certainly includes conversations about the ethical treatment of animals.

      • Lynn August 13, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

        Kim, I have been to Elephantstay three times, each time for a full week. The majority of their elephants come from situations where they could no longer be cared for, or where they were deemed dangerous. Whilst these animals may well have suffered abuse in the past, they are NOT abused at Elephantstay. It seems that you are basing your comments on assumption, not fact. I have seen first hand how passionate these folk are about the beautiful pachyderms in their care. The welfare of the elephants at Elephantstay always comes first, they are fed well, receive a high level of veterinary care & plenty of love! These guys take on “killer” elephants who cannot have contact with the public & cover the enormous costs associated with their care just so that they can have a place to live safely. They work with the limited land & limited funding that they have & do the absolute best they can. In a perfect world, there would be endless land, food & money to provide a true sanctuary where these animals could live freely….but this is not a perfect world! I love these amazing creatures, and if I had observed any cruelty in the multiple times that I have been to Elephantstay I would never have returned. I have absolutely no doubt that Pi Om, Michelle, Ewa & the rest of the team there always have the best interests of their elephants at heart!

        • UncontainedLife August 13, 2015 at 9:32 pm #

          Lynn,
          Thank you for sharing your experience at Elephantstay. As mentioned, we spoke with some of the volunteers and they seemed to have similar experiences. We support and applaud you and anyone who gives of their time and resources to help care for these amazing and beautiful creatures.

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