The Best Anniversary Gift for Travellers and Animal Lovers - Elephants World, Thailand

Elephants World Blog in Brief:

  • Elephants World is a large, self sustained organisation that supports elephants, their keepers and a number of staff. It allows tourists in to help with the daily ritual of the elephants.

  • Located in Kanchanaburi province by the banks of the River Kwai, Northern Thailand. About 2 hours drive from Bangkok. 

  • Tourists can choose a half or full day program, an overnight stay or a mahout program which can last between one and four weeks. Lunch is provided. The full day program is around 2,500 Baht. 

  • Machetes (for cutting banana trees), stirring woks with paddles, mud baths and washing in the River Kwai is just some of the things to expect.  

  • Despite worrying about what kind of impact making Elephants World into a tourist attraction has had on the elephants, fears were allayed by seeing how well they are treated by their keepers and how healthy they are. 

Elephant by the water in Elephants WorldPhoto by: China D

“Who are you messaging? And why are you smiling so much?!”

She replied with, no-one, which obviously wasn’t a good enough answer. Eventually, thanks to my persistence and fragile human ego, she was forced to say, “Isang sorpresa!”. Of course, it’s our anniversary tomorrow…

My wife organised something that had been on my Dream List for years. And While in Thailand, it was the perfect time to finally do it. We were going to not just see, but also feel and feed - elephants.    

It's difficult not to love elephants. The elephant is an image so familiar, it’s filed amongst some of my earliest memories - albeit a very simplistic caricature version. Since my earliest pre-school memory, I’ve seen many real-life images. Most are awe inspiring and contribute to the urge I have to seek this animal out, to see it face to face. Other images however, images of huge bulls lying on their sides with their tusks crudely cut from their faces or skin-and-bone Asian elephants with heavy metal seats and equally heavy people on their backs, have made me despair, and at times have even brought me to tears – they have contributed to me wanting to help this animal.

What is it about this creature that sends some human beings into crazed tourists, greedy tyrants or psychopathic killers? There are a number of factors, from financial interests to personal gratification. Perhaps it’s the size of the world’s largest land mammal, it’s docile nature, or a combination of the two, that tempts the base instincts of survival, greed, power, dominance and ego in our species to become unbalanced and predominate the good qualities of empathy, understanding, generosity and moderation. That then causes our basic responsibilities as conscious beings with a capacity for abstract thought – thought that can be used to create ideas and stir action for the benefit or detriment of the planet – to be neglected and forgotten. For others, the same elephant qualities kindle a deference that is humbling and calls for positive change.  

As I discovered in Elephants World, there must be a balance in everything. This simple idea is not just a philosophical concept, it’s the key to living together in harmony in a world that is increasingly forcing all species and their habitats to intermingle. Elephants World is an example of two different species – both capable of causing great harm to each other – coming together for the benefit of both, using balance as the stabiliser.

What to Expect

Photo by: Shutterstock

Located in Kanchanaburi province by the banks of the River Kwai, an area most famous for landmarks created as a result of human atrocities, one landmark has been built by some humans as a result of their compassion and empathy - Elephants World. Since its inception in 2008, Elephants World has grown into a large, self-sustained establishment that supports elephants, their keepers or mahouts and a number of staff. This is no mean feat considering that 100 kilos of food per day is needed for the satiation of one elephant. It's little wonder that a revered white elephant was the gift of choice between frenemies in Old Siam. 

At Elephants World, however, the descendants of royal companions are definitely a blessing for mahouts and those who visit. Unlike a regular tourist operation, where money is enough to earn the privilege of kings, tourists here must also help the mahouts in the daily upkeep of the elephants. This includes feeding the animals, gathering and preparing that food and assisting in their bathing routine. This symbiotic relationship between Elephants World and visiting tourists has allowed the establishment to continue doing its work. The financial contribution helps to pay for the staggering amount of food and medical supplies required for each elephant and the tourists receive a life altering experience.

Photo by: China D @projectgoalsph

Tourists can choose to do this through a half or full day program, an overnight stay or a mahout program which can last between one and four weeks. Lunch, which is a selection of rice and stir fried options, is provided with dietary requirements taken into consideration. We were given separate plates of pad thai as a vegan alternative.

The value that tourists receive is arguably worth much more than their monetary and labour contribution – in fact you could say it’s priceless. Because, in return for helping the organisation, tourists are given something better than just being a passive observer or getting a unique image of themselves next to a wild animal. They have the opportunity to literally feel an elephant, be of some aid to it, to learn more about it, to understand its needs, to know its importance in our ecosystem and the acute problem of its exploitation and from all this, to naturally develop an empathy much deeper than before – and that’s an asset to the individual and the world at large.

The Reality – Does it Deliver on its Pledge?

I wanted to come up close to an elephant in my lifetime, but only if the meeting would not cause harm or distress to the animal. I was never interested in seeing one perform in a show or to have it pose like a Buddhist statue while I stand beside for a photo. I certainly never wanted to ride on the back of an elephant like a pretend Hannibal leading an army or a professional thrill seeker for the sake of the ‘Gram and, by extension, my own ego. So, as an avid rejecter of shallow experiences just to get the picture and as a staunch supporter of elephant (and animals in general) rights, possessing a basic understanding of its needs and emotions as a sentient being, plus a willingness to raise my voice over any little discrepancy that I found to be encroaching on those rights, I came to Elephants World with a very critical eye. The place was going to be under close scrutiny while I had my experience there.   

After leaving the main road and driving down a long, dusty driveway for about 10 minutes, we walked on to a large, open decking where we were greeted by a couple of dogs – they were friendly and no doubt cheaper for payroll than human greeters. Then, for a moment the world fell silent as my stomach released a months-worth of adrenaline in half a second – there’s the elephants! The decking came level with their chests and they stood in a line with their trunks ever probing the air for information.

Photo by: China D @projectgoalsph

While waiting for all the members of our group to arrive, we had the opportunity to place fresh fruit into the elephant’s trunk, feel their skin and admire their impossibly long eyelashes. The animals did not appear to be under any stress, in fact they played up in order to be fed extra. The only one a little distressed was me after I noticed that they were chained by the foot. Not yet having any further understanding or context as to why this would be the case, I noted the discrepancy while reserving full judgement and vocal punishment for the end.  

One of the mahouts who would be our guide for the day and who had been working with the organisation for a few years now, encouraged us to feed them water melon and bananas from the buckets on the decking. They certainly weren’t stingy when it came to feeding them – if the fruit ran out, more would be brought from the food storage area. This was good to see.

Photo by: China D @projectgoalsph

He gave us a rundown of the elephant’s ages and their relationships to each other. There were mothers, aunts and grandmas. They ranged from early 40s right up to 80 years, with one newer edition – a baby boy of 3 years. It was fascinating and somewhat enlightening to observe their behaviour with each other. When the mother of the baby clearly wasn’t in the mood for playful poking by her son, it was his aunt who stepped in with a gentle nudge of her shoulder. As they all chomped on their fruit, the trunk of the baby would reach into the nearest elephant’s mouth – the humans were obviously too slow. Down towards the end of the line, away from the excitable child, was grandma. Her face was sunken from lack of teeth but she seemed very comfortable with space to munch in her own time on the softer fruits. It wasn’t difficult to draw similarities between the way they interacted with each other and the way that our own species interacts. Elephants have a complex social structure within their groups, just the way that humans do. And, just like humans, to step outside the unspoken but official structure is to invite punishment in order to maintain the integrity, discipline and strength of the group.   

Once everyone had arrived, we were given a tour by our mahout guide. We walked down a dusty track surrounded by green scrub which eventually opened into a flat expanse with the River Kwai flowing by in the foreground. He introduced us to the outdoor, rustic kitchen where we were to prepare rice balls for the older elephants and he showed us the store of medical supplies for them. The medical supplies are necessary for the maintenance of the elephant’s general health as well as treatment for the significant injuries sustained during their lives prior to living under the protection of Elephants World. Many elephants used for the tourist industry suffer from back injuries – the chair that carries the ignorant tourists weighs 50kg alone.

One elephant had recently sustained a wound from a stray branch and the area had become infected. Our mahout, who himself had escaped a life of tyranny in Myanmar, had personally lanced and treated the wound. Before leaving his home country with a heavy heart, he had trained as a doctor in order to help his people. Although his current position isn’t what he originally trained for, his skills are being put to good use and are nonetheless benefitting the sick and vulnerable. The affection that our mahout had for the elephants was heart-warming and a personified example of kindness beyond boundaries – territorial and species. 

Photo by: China D @projectgoalsph

In the kitchen, our group gathered round a large wok-like pan and stirred a mixture of sticky rice with spoons the size of paddles over a wood flame until it was cooked. We had an eager observer, a 71-year-old elephant with an energy that defied her years. For her safety and that of everyone else, she was stationed by a tree with a chain around one foot. Our mahout told us how she had previously taken out a large wooden table in the kitchen, caused significant damage to a local house and also crushed a car. This explained the need for at least some restraints. He further explained that she and the other elephants weren’t kept chained all day every day. They were free to roam for large portions of the day. It was only in certain situations that required their cooperation that they were necessarily tied.

Photo by: China D @projectgoalsph

I realised that while these were wild animals with the right to basic freedoms and dignity, they were in a setting that is not wild and a setting which, by necessity, has another species that they wouldn’t naturally interact with in the wild – certainly not at the same level of intimacy. It therefore wasn’t possible for the elephants to have complete free rein as they would in the wild. This was a compromise they had to make in order to receive the protection of those wanting to look after them into their twilight years. Given the circumstances of the environment where elephants would be found living wild – illegal deforestation with humans using elephants to haul wood and an insatiable tourist industry that causes humans to capture elephants for their exploitation - this situation, even with its compromises, was far better than what they could face if they were on their own. It might not be perfect, but it is better than the current alternative. There is no questioning the good intentions of the humans in the Elephants World environment, which is in stark contrast to some of the humans in the wild.   

After our own lunch, we piled into the back of a small, open truck and were driven to an area of the grounds that grew banana trees. We took turns swinging at a few trees ready for harvesting with a machete under the supervision of our mahout.

Although the soft banana trees are easy prey for a sharp machete, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d somehow channeled the strength of an elephant as I sliced through with one swing and a triumphant push.

The trunks and branches were loaded into the back of the truck. At this point, the truck appeared to be full but this is Asia – it’s not full until there’s a group of people piled on top. We all climbed back in and held on to anything solid while our mahout drove us back to the elephants.

We arrived back near the decking and could see that the elephants had been released and were on the move. It was at this moment we discovered that banana trees are their favourite snack. At the sight of our truck full to the brim, the elephants excitedly accelerated towards us. Our mahout gave us half a second warning and put the pedal to the metal. What happened next only occurs in a fantasy – or so I thought up until now.

With dust flying from the back tires we took off down the dirt road to the river. The elephants ran after us in a stampede. Knowing that our mahout wouldn’t put us in danger, I suppressed any fear I initially felt at the sight of stampeding elephants just metres away and marvelled at the sight. The dust that was kicked up from the truck and giant feet was highlighted by the sun and framed the herd. This was an image of very excited, happy and healthy elephants and one I promised myself never to forget in exchange for the privilege of the experience.  

Photo by: China D @projectgoalsph

The elephants enjoyed their banana trees by the banks of the river, eating them and swinging them around using their trunks. After that, they wandered over to a mud hole and began applying a protective layer to their skin in the best possible way – by rolling around. In the wild, a coating of mud protects against insect bites, sunburn and helps with blocking out the heat of the sun. We were able to assist in their routine by grabbing a hand-full of mud and massaging it into their skin. Our presence didn’t seem to bother the elephants, they graciously allowed us to help them.


After their mud spa, most of the elephants walked a few metres to the river and at about chest height, tumbled over completely submerging themselves. Only an older grandma stayed back, preferring to enjoy her own company while the others frolicked. The mud dispersed in a murky ring before disappearing with a spray of water from their trunks. We also had the opportunity to rinse off and scratch a few elephant backs clean with brooms.

The last job of our day was to make large sticky balls from the rice we had cooked earlier. The rice was mixed with a bran meal, making it easy to mold and fortifying it with vitamins and extra fibre for the pachyderm pensioners. With some of the residents well into their 70s and one octogenarian, they have become afflicted with a problem not generally experienced in the wild – toothlessness. What would have been a slow death sentence in the wild has turned into an enjoyable experience for the venerable members of the herd and an honourable act for the mahouts and their helpers.


By the end of our day, not only was I satisfied that Elephants World treats their charges appropriately and performs the duty they purport to exist exclusively for, I was in fact incredibly impressed by their work, dedication, care and commitment and already planning my next visit. 

Photo by: China D @projectgoalsph

The humans behind this organisation have made a sacrifice and commitment to the elephants. However, just by existing, the elephants have given something back which is priceless. Balance has been restored. 


Project Goals Recommends: 


Getting There:

  • Kanchanaburi is about 2 hours by car from Bangkok. You can arrange a private car with Elephants World to pick you up from your hotel and drop you back at the end of the day for an additional 3,500 Baht.

  • A taxi will cost around 1000 Baht one way. You may be able to pre-arrange for a driver to drop you off and pick you up, however, arranging a private car with Elephants World is a safer bet. 

What to Wear:

  • Wear your swimmers underneath your clothes for spontaneous splashes by the river. Even if you choose not to get wet, the work is sweaty and messy. Elephants World has you covered with showers, lockers and a changing area if you want to freshen up and change before leaving.

  • Bring sunscreen and water. Elephants World gave us a cool bottle holder that we could sling around our necks or shoulders.  

Contact Information:

For footage of our Elephants World experience check out our YouTube video:

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