Elephant Sanctuary, Dok Ko Ki, Thailand

November 17-18, 2019

Typically, we are not into animal tourism where animals are used to perform entertainment services for people. It is usually not natural for animals to do tricks under questionable living conditions and training circumstances. Thailand has been infamous for exploitation of animals for tourism purposes and even today, there are plenty of opportunities to visit monkey schools (where monkeys are taught to get coconuts and do other tricks for tourists), take photos or pet (drugged) tigers, ride elephants, etc. We try to avoid (or at least vet) such activities. Since inhumane treatment of animals for tourism purposes has been exposed to the world, there is more pressure on these outfits to either change their business practices or all together disappear. Riding elephants in Thailand has become unpopular over the past decade and most places that used to provide such services rebranded themselves as elephant sanctuaries. However, not all places are what they seem As tourists, we have the responsibility to research reviews and look for places that treat animals fairly. 

I tried to do just that, but I am not sure how well I succeeded. In reality, all these places exist to make money and we can’t be naïve to think that these animals are not exploited even if just for feeding, petting or taking photos with them. I was thinking that we would not be doing any outings that involved animals but then I came across one venue that had forty eight 5 star reviews, one 4 star and one 3 star. This was a huge contrast to a sea of other business that had hundreds of reviews equally split between 1s and 5s. The experience we selected promoted a visit to a Karen Hill Tribe village called Dok Ko Kik, located in the mountains 90 minutes away from Chiang Mai. Local families have lived there for more than 4 generations. They have owned and cared for elephants for over 20 years. This was a small village with only 20 homes where villagers are farmers who plant rice, corn, bananas, vegetables and tend to livestock. We decided to go up to this village and stay with a family for a couple of nights to get a little glimpse of village life and as an extra benefit, see their elephants in their natural environment. 

The reality was sadly more ‘real’. Life has changed for these villagers over the past 50+ years. It has become hard and really expensive to live a life without modern conveniences, without sending their children to school in the city, owning vehicles, etc. They are working hard to establish businesses that can bring them ‘progress’ and ease of life ‘modern conveniences’ provide for the rest of us. They are doing all they can to improve their living conditions, to change their way of living to fit this new world we all live in – the world of internet and Facebook where we all strive to have what others have. In the past, they’ve used elephants for farming purposes while now, they are using them in these new roles as tourist attractions, a means to achieve their current financial goals. I was naïve to think that this outing could be more “authentic” than it was. It was, after all, a commercial offering to a typical tourist family. Still, even with seeing it for exactly what it was, it was a valuable experience for us, especially for our kids. 

We did get to interact with the local families, learned a few cooking tricks, e.g. how to make a toast in the wild using a (banana) tree stick, or make a BBQ over open fire. We got to light up a couple of big lanterns, made a couple of wishes and let them float up in the air under a clear star studded skies. 

We definitely spent enough time with elephants that seemed to be treated humanely and live in their natural environment, being tended and fed by overly excited tourist (just like us).

Even with a language barrier, I saw a husband and wife on two different tracks, a real struggle of a capable woman stifled by an overly confident, probably average male. I’ve seen a young man trying to develop his business too quickly, without much education, proper tools, right perspective. He is eager to grow the business, bring more tourists to the village, do what hundreds of other elephant ‘sanctuaries’ around him are doing. He doesn’t see that what was attractive about his particular place is disappearing and is becoming exactly as the rest of the undifferentiated offerings around him. He doesn’t see that earning a quick buck now will not serve him well in the future. His business is highly dependent on good tourist reviews but his execution of big dreams lacks many crucial factors. 
Anyway, our experience was overall positive even though it did not turn out as I expected it (or how it was ‘advertised’). We were to stay 2 nights with a family in this village, see animals, help around the farm, etc. In reality, we arrived to a village, a place specifically set up for churning loads of tourists, got to spend time with elephants (which we all appreciated and kids really enjoyed), we made some elephant food supplements, ate a great lunch and for the rest of the first day, we walked around the village, meeting different family members, learning a bit about locals and their way of life. I could see the owner of the place, in absence of any procedures or business structure, running in every direction, trying to cover all the bases – the daily tourists that were visiting his place in two groups every day and us, his longer term guests. He was trying to do it all but in reality, he didn’t have the bandwidth to do it well on all fronts. At some point later in the evening, I was questioning if he ended up getting a hold of some alcohol as his behavior got a bit erratic. His demeanor the next morning was too subdued which did make me think that there was something fishy about his overly excited mood of the night before. 

When it was time for dinner and sleep, the owner brought a friend who helped him with BBQing meal for us, we lit up the lanterns, set up our bedding on an open platform right on the wooden flooring. There was no proper bedding, there was not enough of it for us – just a mosquito net and a few old blankets, one under us and one on top of us. It was a chilly night, I slept with Maki and Petra snuggled up closely to me while Pedja and Nina did the same right next to us. It was probably the most uncomfortable night of this trip as we pretty much slept almost directly on wooden boards. At some point, I even wondered if we were safe. We were out in some mountains, it felt far from the civilization, no good phone coverage, no way to explain to anyone where we were and the only people with us were two young men, one seemingly intoxicated. As I was drifting to uneasy sleep, I was anxious, worried about our safety, about kids being too cold, and least of all about the lack of comfort of our makeshift beds. It didn’t help that all the scariest thoughts usually increase with the darkness of the night. 

All in all, everything turned out fine and it was a valuable experience. We decided that one night of this experience was just enough for us. We were going to return back to the city without compensation for the second night we were not going to stay. Pedja and I agreed that those funds were a good donation to this man’s efforts to move his business to the next level (much needed if he was going to offer such services to some other tourists in the future). He had the half-day visits well developed and at this point, his business was the best suited for that type of an offer. 

After lunch, we said goodbyes to our hosts with the best wishes for their future, for this business to develop in the right direction with the good results for all of them. I wrote a good review for their half-day visit offers and sent private feedback on the overnight arrangements.

I hope my account of this experience is received as it is intended. I can’t spend too much time writing and editing to make sure that all my words are measured well and received as intended. My sincere hope is that my intention of providing accurate account of our time at this village does not have leave the impression of my self-importance, superiority, or know-it-all westerner. I see that we are all on this earth, living our own paths, developing at our own pace, seeing the world mostly through our own eyes, rarely able to put ourselves completely in other’s shoes. I hope that the overall experience of our Refresh Journey will add to our better understanding of each other and imprint the love for all that we cross paths with.

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