There are many elephant “sanctuaries” throughout Asia, where they claim to help save the elephants, but in fact they abuse the animals. This is not to say that all elephant sanctuaries abuse these beautiful animals, but if you visit anywhere that you can ride them or they perform circus tricks such as painting or playing soccer, there is a good chance that they are being abused. Not everyone realizes what goes on behind the scenes, so if you went to one of these places accidentally in the past, it stinks but don’t beat yourself up too much. Unfortunately, many tourists make this mistake (including myself). During my first trip to Thailand about 5 years ago, I went elephant riding and to the Tiger Temple without knowing any better (read more about my visit to the Tiger Temple). I hate to admit it, but they are extremely popular attractions that people go to, without realizing what really goes on. Now that you know, you can avoid it and spread the word to others that might be thinking of going to one of these places.
Thankfully, there are real elephant sanctuaries that you can visit such as the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary. This elephant sanctuary was established in Malaysia in 1989. It holds many elephants that have been orphaned or that were found in the jungle injured. Once tourists found out about the elephant shelter, it then evolved into a sanctuary where tourists can visit the elephants in a healthy environment and even contribute towards their future.
How to get there
There are many tour companies that can bring you here or you can rent a car or you can indeed get go on your own with public transportation like I did with a couple friends, but I have to say that it was quite the journey! It took us almost 4 hours each way, starting with the tram from Kuala Lumpar to a bus that eventually dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. The bus driver told us where to get off and pointed to the “taxi”. We knew we had to take a taxi after, but didn’t realize there would be one guy standing outside the bus stop next to his tiny, beat up car that was clearly not a legitimate taxi, someone just trying to make a little extra cash. It was our only option so we took the “taxi” to the sanctuary and he said he would pick us up later to bring us to the bus station. When we got out of the sanctuary, he found a larger group of people that would give him more money, so he told us to go to another car that was in the parking lot that was willing to take us. I was glad I had friends with me! Maybe a tour is a better option, if you can afford it.
When we first arrived, we watched a video about the elephants and a guide takes you to visit the elephants. When it is feeding time, the elephants are gathered from the jungle area that they roam, which is obviously far more humane than having them chained up. Once they were brought to the feeding area, I was introduced to some of them and given their background stories which were incredibly sad. One was missing a leg because he was found in the jungle, caught in a trap, but was thankfully saved and nurtured back to health. Another was a baby elephant found trapped in a ditch, separated from its mother. It was a little heartbreaking, but I took comfort in the fact that they are now being well looked after and being respected in the manner that they should be.
Before feeding time, they brought all the elephants out and did a little “show”, which I thought was questionable at first, since it is supposed to be a sanctuary but the show wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. They brought them out to introduce them and then the elephant would sit or stand with two legs on a log as their intro “trick”. It wasn’t anything extravagant that made me concerned. I guess they think they need to do this to entertain the guests. After the introduction, they brought out huge carts of fruit to feed them. It was a lot of fun feeding them, as they snatch the fruit so fast out of your hand, fling it right into their mouth and then put their trunk out for more. So demanding! 😛
Next up, bath time! Eat, shower, maybe nap after? They are pretty much like us (or at least myself)! We watched as the larger elephants were bathed and then we got to bathe a baby elephant. It was such an amazing experience. I did my best to give the little guy a good scrubbing, as you can’t forget to wash behind the ears! 😉 One of the workers started splashing us which turned into a huge splashing war. I thought we were supposed to be washing the elephant?! That being said, make sure to bring a change of clothes. Women cannot wear a bathing suit so I had to stay in my clothes which I did not expect, so I had to buy something after in the souvenir shop.
Overall, I had an amazing truly unforgettable time at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary. I didn’t need to ride them or have them perform crazy tricks. I had a natural experience and it is something I will always remember. Even better, I really got the feeling that I visited a place where people really do care about helping this majestic and slightly cheeky animals!