A Day with the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary
Animal tourism is a huge issue in Southeast Asia. In developing countries where tourism is often one of the more lucrative ways to make a living, tour operations often overlook the wellbeing of these animals. This is the case with the elephant tourism industry in Thailand.
Elephants are highly social creatures with bone structures that aren’t built to carry the weight of a human. Yet, many elephants are forced to carry hundreds of tourists each day and are kept chained in isolation at night. This creates chronic health issues for the elephants and a shortened life span.
There are a small handful of elephant sanctuaries that prioritize creating a safe habitat for the elephants over creating that magical Instagram shot for tourists. At the same time, there’s no regulation on animal tourism in Thailand, so many operations can unrightfully claim that they’re sanctuaries, so it’s important to do research before deciding which to visit.
Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary
In our research, Allison and I came across the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, founded by Kerri, an Irish zoology graduate, and Sombat, head mahout and a Karen tribe native. Together, Kerri and Sombat created Kindred Spirit to rescue elephants who are held in captivity by releasing them in an area close to their natural environment. They also create jobs, teach English, and generate income for the Karen hill tribe in which the sanctuary is located.
Because of the limited amount of time Allison had in Thailand, we opted to do the 2 day/1 night visit with the sanctuary. Our driver picked us up in Chiang Mai at 9am on Tuesday, and we headed off on our 4 hour journey through the national park southwest of Chiang Mai near the Thailand-Myanmar border.
It rained during most of our ride, leading to very bumpy road conditions, especially as the road gave way to mud and broken gravel.
The Homestay Experience with the Karen Hill Tribe
One of the most unique parts of this experience is that you’re actually immersed within the local village. You stay at one of the villager-owned homestays, which also serves as an alternative means of income so that the villagers don’t have to depend on slash-and-burn farming. And you cook dinner with your homestay hosts!
Communication is a bit difficult since most villagers don’t speak English, and their language is unique to their tribe, but luckily many of the sanctuary volunteers have learned basic words to help translate. This particular village consisted of about 13 households and 8 families, and many of the young adults have gone to Chiang Mai for university, so a few households were also able to speak some English.
Hill tribe village tourism is a popular thing to do in Thailand, which I find a bit strange. It reminds me of the scene in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale when the Japanese tourists storm through the Handmaids’ town armed with their cameras. They’re not really interested to know the Handmaids; they just want a good story and bragging rights.
Banning a village from using smart phones in front of tourists because it makes the villagers look less exotic is fucked up. I’m happy to say that many of the village boys were playing happily on their gameboys.
Celebrating a culture vs exploiting a culture. The debate continues.
Kindred Spirit has four elephants roaming freely in the jungle near their village. Every morning, their mahouts roam the land with them, while the volunteers eventually make the hike to observe the elephants.
The hike to the elephants depends on where the elephants decide to go on a given day. Luckily, the morning we visited, the elephants were within a half hour hike from base camp.
I say luckily because so many other things went wonky on that hike:
- The rains caused the river to rise, so we had to forge the river with all our gear
- Wasps stung Allison three times
- Caterpillars stung two other volunteers
- My shoes fell apart
- Fire ants invaded our personal belongings
- The elephants found us while we were on a steep incline with very little trail to work with
The four elephants were together when they came across us, excited to see that we had bananas. Gen Thong, the baby of the group, got overly excited and tried to eat everything in my hands, including my camera. We tried to make our way up the bush once we ran out of food so that the elephants could pass us, but Gen Thong kept following.
Finally, once he realized we didn’t have food, he quickly lost interest and roamed away.
Boon Rott, the friendliest of the four, stuck around and led us down the hill and to the river. He really enjoyed when we blew into his trunk and kept on trying to steal water from the staff’s water sack.
Once we got to the river, we enjoyed a peaceful lunch as Boon Rott foraged through the bamboo.
Around noon, we made our way back to base camp for a quick shower before heading back to Chiang Mai.
Visiting Kindred Spirit was truly a one-of-a-kind experience. With the exception of being able to see the elephants, nothing about it caters to tourism. Their organization truly benefits the elephants and the village in many ways. If you’re looking for a real experience with the elephants and the hill tribes, do this. But leave any expectations for luxury accommodations at home because what you see is what you’re going to get.