8 of the kindest ways to experience elephants in Asia

Riding an elephant was one of the biggest regrets I have from my travels. I was new to the whole thing and wanted to experience elephants in Thailand so I booked a cheap tour that included an elephant ride. BIG MISTAKE.

The worst point was when I was sitting on a chair atop an elephant that was bleeding from the head because the handler kept on poking it violently with a metal stick. The elephant and I were in the middle of a muddy stream and I had to decide whether to protest and get off or shut up and deal with it. I chose the latter because I didn’t know where  I was or how to get off. It was a sorry sight. I was a bit tearful because the elephant was being abused right in front of me and it was all my fault. I just wanted it to be over.

This was my first and last experience of elephants getting a rough deal as a side effect of tourism in their countries. I later learnt that they are often drugged, beaten and put through horrible ordeals in order for tourists to enjoy a ride. Their spirits must be broken to bring on submission. There is a name for this process. It is called ‘phajaan’. Rather than me explaining in words I found this video on YouTube for you to see for yourself.

Click here for video

There are so many other better ways to enjoy these majestic animals while travelling Southeast Asia. Organisations that protect elephants let tourists visit and help care for the elephants and an increasing number of elephant camps are transverting to this conservational style of tourism. Yes you will have to spend a bit more money but that is the cost of keeping them happy. Scroll over the project names in this article to find links for booking and more information. Enjoy!

  1. This is more like it. Rather than ride an elephant people are opting for washing them and caring for them at sancturies, such as The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.

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2. You can volunteer as a conservationist with Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society. This is more like being a scientist. You get to work with scientists and local people to help collect information, care for elephants and find solutions to help elephants and local people to live together without conflict.

Pinnwala

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3. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage , in Sri Lanka, is one of my favourites. It has the world’s largest population of captive elephants. The experience here is observatory, while relaxing with a snack.

4. You can actually go an see wild elephants roaming around Khao Yai National Park, in Thailand, which is just three and a half hours outside of Bangkok and easily reachable by minivan from Victory Monument Skytrain station.

5. One of the biggest elephant camps in Thailand, Sai Yoke Elephant Camp in Kanchanaburi, has transitioned into a conservation camp. Now called Elephant Haven, tourist trips include feeding, bathing and walking beside elephants.

6. You can emerse yourself in the Gwi culture by volunteering in a remote village in northern Thailand where The Surin Project provides economic sustainability to mahouts (elephant keepers) so that they don’t need to rely on elephant shows and riding.

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7. If you are visiting Chiang Mai pop into the Elephant Parade House where you can buy a painted elephant sculpture or even paint one yourself. There are no live elephants to see but your cash goes to support elephants conservation projects in India and Southeast Asia.

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8. Also see the Elephant Parade Exhibition in Bangkok at Asiatique from December 20, 2015, to January 11, 2016, and at Lumpini Park from Janury 18 to 31, 2016.

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Pack Sri Lanka into a six-day roadtrip

Sri Lanka is a huge country with a lot to offer from amazing wildlife and gorgeous beaches to cultural experiences you will never forget. With the help of Sri Lanka Tourism, I managed to pack a ridiculous amount into just six days proving if you have a week off longhaul is an option.

Day 1. The city.

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Colombo. Cars, taxis, buses, tuc tucs and cow-drawn carts fought for space on the road while the people went about their day in the humid heat. The bright colours, eclectic mix of colonial architecture and glorious stretch of ocean told me I had arrived in Sri Lanka’s capital.

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The city is divided into 15 suburbs (Colombo 1 to Colombo 15), of which the countless tuc tuc drivers know very well. My driver joined the throng of honking vehicles and weaved in and out of the traffic while I gazed at colonial buildings left by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.
We drove along the coast up to the Galle Face Green in the city’s financial district where people were having picnics, flying kites and strolling the grounds. We whizzed by on to the harbour and the Pettah Market, which was in full swing selling fabrics, clothes, food, household items, books and art, up and down the criss cross streets.

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I wanted to eat local. Comfort food in Sri Lanka is curry and rice and I was in need of some dhal. there were some pretty awesome offerings at The Raja Bojun in Ceylinco Seylan Towers, in Colombo 3. A three course lunch buffet of traditional Sri Lankan dishes cost 1,800 Sri Lankan rupees (about £8/12 euros). There were meat, fish and vegetable curries served with spicy chutneys to increase the appetite and cool salads to calm the palate.

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That night. I stayed at the Galle Face Hotel; the iconic colonial style beach front resort with about 200 hundred rooms. It has a history of being frequented by celebrity guests, such as Roger Moore and Noel Coward; and heads of state, including Richard Nixon and Edward Heath. My room had high ceilings, an intricately carved four poster bed and stunning views of the Indian Ocean.

Day 2. Meet the locals
There is so much to discover along the Galle Road. In the dawn light I could make out the silhouettes of the toddy tappers balanced on high wires in coconut trees extracting the sap so they could make palm wine with it. I checked into Heritance Hotel, in Ahungalla, had a cocktail and headed to the parties on Hikkaduwa Beach.

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Day 3. On the beach.

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DJs mixed house tracks while a sand castle making competition was under way. I sat and watched while a group of locals struggled to hoist themselves into a glass-bottom boat bobbing up and down in quite strong waves. The golden sands were crowed. I slunk off to one of the many Ayurvedic centres for an hour-long massage to revive me.

Day 4. Back on the road.

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I wandered inside a precious stone mine in hope of finding moonstones.
I met the owner, who told me if we were lucky we would find blue moonstones. Our luck was in – he harvested a handful of white and blue raw moonstones. He gave me one for luck and I bought a ring from his shop to show my appreciation.

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Back on the road I drove to the coastal town of Balapity, where the Wednesday market was in full swing, and then a quick stop in Ambalangoda, which is a  town famous for ancient devil masks.

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A man was fishing out in the ocean with only a pole to support him at Galle Fort. I spent a couple of hours at the UNESCO world heritage site. It is the largest Dutch fort in Asia. Built by the Portuguese and fortified by the Dutch, it is now a living museum filled with alleyways and streets, lined with museums, shops and sights. The National Maritime Museum, The National Cultural Museum and The Closenburg Hotel are all located here.

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The largest Buddha statue I saw was 44 feet high and sitting in the courtyard of the Weherahena Raja Maha Viharaya Temple.

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The temple is famous for its colourful artwork embedded in an underground gallery.I removed my shoes at the gate and explored the whole place barefoot. I made an offering and was blessed by a monk.

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I loved the sea turtle hatchery. The experts look after the eggs and hatchlings until they are old enough to go out into the sea. You can also spot them migrate on the beaches.

Day 5. In need of peace and quiet.

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In Bentota we found Lunaganga, the remote country house hotel of renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa. Its 10 acres of land are made up of rice paddy fields, an enormous lagoon and far stretching lawns, scattered with magnolia, rubber, mahogany and ebony trees.

There are no televisions, radios or other modern day distractions here, just monkeys swinging in the trees and the scent of magnolia.

Day six. Elephants and festivals.

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I had to leave at 5am to make the three hour journey to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in time to watch the breakfast feeding at 9am.

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I took tea on the balcony overlooking the scene and browsed through the buffalo leather chairs and bags in the shops.

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I slept all the way to Kandy. It felt like a lifetime away from hectic Colombo, beach parties and crowds of elephants.

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The annual Esala Perahera – the celebration and worship of the ancient tooth relic of Buddha – is one of the most important festivals in the Buddhist calendar. I checked into colonial-style  Queen’s Hotel that sits in centre of the city and overlooks all the action.  A procession of dancers, musicians, stilt walkers, fire dancers and more than 85 ornately decorated elephants passed by. Generations of families learn the skills needed to perform. Men danced while snapping giant whips on the pavement, small children rotated fireballs from their hair and drummers performed a miryad of different rhythms.

After that is was a long trip back to the airport. Time to catch up on some sleep!