Elephant Retirement Park

Kuala Lumpur was a great city. It wasn't as polished or futuristic as Singapore, but it was still a vibrant and active city that had a lot to offer. I could have easily stayed here longer but it was time now for be to continue north on another long bus journey. Today's bus was a step down in comfort from the bus out of Singapore as it lacked the massaging chairs. One journey on a bus with massaging chairs and you will never want to go back. My next destination was George Town which was on Penang Island. George Town is the capital of the Penang region and the second largest city in Malaysia. At the north-west end of the country Penang is conveniently located halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Phuket, both popular destinations along the backpacker trail. As well as a convenient rest stop, Penang has some beautiful scenery, laid back vibes, cool temples to visit and a handful of elephant sanctuaries which was the main reason for my visit. I had to get to Butterworth first and take a ferry the following day onto the island. George Town and Butterworth, both suspiciously un-Malaysian sounding names. These cities are former British colonies; the left over remnants of the East India Company. A topic for another day. It was late evening by the time I had arrived into Butterworth. Annoyingly the bus terminal was located outside of the city, I would have to get a taxi from here to the hostel. But there were no taxis here at this time of night. Instead, there were only scooter taxis. I was slightly apprehensive about getting on a scooter whilst wearing such a heavy backpack but I didn't really have a choice. My driver, a small gentleman in his 40s didn't seem too concerned. Whilst we were sat on the bike, one of the other drivers did a quick analysis and deemed us road worthy with a thumbs up. What followed as a slightly terrifying 10 minute journey, although it felt like an hour. Going downhill was fine; I even enjoyed some of the longer downhill sections of our journey. I had time to appreciate the moment; the city lights, the warm breeze, the sound of the small scooter engine working hard, the bemused looks people gave us as they overtook. It was all very pleasant, until we hit an incline. Here the straps around my shoulders would begin to firmly pull me backwards towards the edge of my seat, it was like my own backpack was willing me to my doom. My biggest concern though was that the bike would flip over. But somehow we made it into Butterworth.

An empty hostel

The Frame Guesthouse was the hostel I booked for the night. It was a rather bland name for what turned out to be a bland hostel. Each room was square in shape and devoid of any furniture or furnishings. No artwork, no photos of the local area, no map of the world with pins in it to show where previous guests were from, just blank white walls, concrete floors and ceiling. Ironically this building was previously a frame making workshop, a building dedicated to making wall furnishings now had none of its own. It wasn't a bad hostel, just a bland one. This was a good metaphor for Butterworth. I am sure it is an important industrial city to Malaysia, but not particularly important to me. on this trip As a backpacker, it is the place you get the ferry to Penang Island.

George Town

Penang seemed to be a relatively popular tourist location. As well as the regular backpackers and local Malaysians on a city break, George Town, being a coastal city, is frequented by cruise liners. Large container ships, disguised as holiday resorts deposit vast quantities of tourists into George Town during the holiday months between November and January. I was here in April, outside of holiday hours. This left George Town, a place built to facilitate lots of tourists, feeling rather empty. I passed many large hotels and shopping complexes that were either barely open or not open at all. Some were undergoing refurbishment, preparing for the next season's onslaught of cruise liners. In the evening, the streets were lined with bike taxis, with most of the drivers asleep, slumped in the chairs where their non-existent passengers would sit. Whole queues of them, dozing away the uneventful hours.

In my quest to find something to do before visiting the elephant sanctuary tomorrow I stumbled upon a self guided walking tour that started at the waterfront and finished downtown, conveniently near my hostel. The walk started at an area known as the clan jetties which were a series of small shanty towns on stilts on the waterfront. The history is that these jetties were constructed and run by Chinese immigrants who grouped together to form clans, each jetty had its own. At first they just worked on the jetties, but as the jetties were expanded the Chinese begun to live on the docks in basic accommodation. The expansion of the jetties continued as competition between the clans grew fierce. Hostilities and all out fighting frequently occurred between the clans as they fought for the business of passing ships looking to dock. The clans continued to build and expanded their jetties like trees competing for sunlight. This arms race was ended with the construction of the modern dockyard which immediately rendered the old wooden jetties obsolete. Demolition of all the jetties was scheduled as the local authorities saw the whole area as urban slum and an obvious fire hazard. However conservative efforts were made, arguing that the jetties were historically rich and unique, an argument that was successful with the remaining jetties gaining UNESCO World heritage site status.

Today, the jetties are not anything special to look at. When people hear of a place brandishing the UNESCO world heritage site badge they immediately think of some gorgeous temples, or the remarkably well preserved ruins of an ancient civilisation. But not all UNESCO sites are pretty and the clan jetties certainly were not. Still, their interesting backstory and unique history certainly warrants a visit. Also, there isn't much else to do in George Town. The rest of the guided walk consists of a few colonial buildings and a peppering of street art. It was like Banksy passed by during his holiday. Around my hostel there was a bit of activity. A small stretch of bars that had just enough people to qualify as night life. Tempted as I was to go out for a few alcoholic beverages, I opted for an early night instead, as I was visiting the elephant sanctuary the next day.

The dark markets

Before I talk about my time at the elephant sanctuary, I must address the elephant in the room (pun absolutely intended) and discuss the controversy regarding animal tourism, particularly in this part of the world. I was well aware, as I think we all are now about the cruelty of the so called tiger temple. Going to Thailand and having your picture taken next to a tiger seemed harmless and cool to begin with. But it didn't take long for animal rights organisations and the internet to expose the cruel reality behind the temple. Various articles made there way around social media detailing how the tigers were constantly drugged and ill treated. In 2016, under mounting pressure local authorities raided the temple and discovered the corpses of 40 tiger cubs in an industrial freezer, along with tiger teeth, skins and amulets. Whilst the temple is now closed, animal exploitation continues elsewhere. Whilst in this corner of the world, it is not hard to find one of the many exotic pet markets. Here, native, non-domesticated animals are caged up, usually in hideously poor conditions and sold off to buyers from across the globe. Some are raised in captivity, however many are taken from the wild. A process so stressful for the animal that many die before they even make it to the markets stalls. These markets are not a small problem either, exotic animal trade is a multi-billion dollar business and the third largest black market in the world, behind guns and drugs.

There are few animals who are exploited as much in this part of the world than the elephant. One common activity advertised to tourists is elephant riding, also called elephant safaris or elephant trekking. This usually involves a convoy of elephants, each with a sofa mounted to their backs with scaffolding and rope. Paying tourists are then routinely carried along an average route through the jungle. Each elephant usually has a handler, a man who sits on the elephant's neck and wields a stick with a sharp hook on the end that he uses to occasionally stab the elephant in the back of the neck. They do this often enough that the wound never has time to heal. But the real cruelty begins way before the safaris. Elephants are not naturally docile enough to allow people to frequently ride on their backs so they must be mentally broken first by a hideous process known locally as Phajaan, or “the crush”. Here new born elephants are separated from their mothers and subjected to constant torture and beatings until the infants demonstrate no free will or personality. As a result of this practice, many tour companies now don't include or endorse elephant riding and instead offer visits to so called elephant sanctuaries. Which brings me to the Elephant Retirement Park. There were 3 elephant sanctuaries on Penang, but I only had time to visit the closest one, the so-called Elephant Retirement Park. Were these elephant sanctuaries really an example of cruelty-free animal tourism? Reviews on the internet generally seemed encouraging, but I wanted to find out for myself.

The elephant sanctuary

A minibus arrived at the break of dawn to collect me, driven by the world's most impatient minibus driver. We frantically zigzagged our way across George Town, stopping outside at what felt like every hotel and hostel in the area. Every time we stopped outside a hotel and the guest was not immediately present the driver would being to sigh loudly and restlessly shuffle in his seat. It was almost like he desperately needed the bathroom and the only one on the island was at the elephant sanctuary. After our bus was sufficiently full, we zoomed out of the city and towards the retirement park. The journey didn't take very long and we were the first group to arrive, which is unsurprising given our driver. I saw my first elephant through the right-side window as we drove in and immediately became very excited. An adult, stood in a pen, seemingly content with chewing on branches an leaves scattered on the floor. I quickly grabbed my camera and started taking photos. More people were arriving. The first thing everyone did was made a bee-line towards the elephant, a group soon formed huddling around the fence with everyone clambering to get that perfect elephant selfie.

After a short while we were then summoned to the welcome desk to sign-in and collect our complementary retirement park t-shirt or vest, available in some sizes. Afterwards we were given an introduction and brief history of the retirement park by an older looking local gentleman who I assumed was the owner or equivalent. He explained that we would have food first, a pad thai buffet, we would then feed and then bath with the elephants.

We were given a quick class and demonstration on making pad thai. A simple dish involving noodles, vegetables, meat, sugar, soy sauce and lots of heat. Whilst it was interesting, my attention kept drifting towards the elephants that were wandering around outside. We were then presented with a buffet table, loaded with copious amounts of delicious looking pad thai, fresh from the industrial sized wok. This gave me a dilemma. I am famously good at eating large quantities of food, especially if it is free. But I came here to see the elephants and every second spent eating was potential elephant time wasted. "Okay, we have one quick bowl of pad thai now, go take more photos of the elephants, then we will go find the best pad thai in George Town later" I proposed to myself, agreeably. I then inhaled a bowl and exited the seating area to be with the elephants. This turned out to be a good call as it was much quieter in the park and the ratio of humans to elephants was much more favourable. A few other hardcore elephant fanatics had also forgone the second helping of pad thai and I got some great photos of them interacting with the elephants one-on-one. They were probably some of my best photos of the day. It was a great 15-20 minutes worth of elephant time before we were rounded up again, some people hadn't even left the dinner table. We were moved to another seating area were bunches of bananas had been laid in rows for us to separate and put into sacs. These bananas were rough looking yellow and black, short stubby girthy little fingers that tore apart softly in the hands. The feeling was mildly satisfying. They were totally different from those rigid albino yellow things they sell back home in the UK. I can't eat bananas back home because the simple fact is bananas don't like to travel. Once you eat a banana in a country that grows them you can never go back.

The banana separation activity kept us busy for a short about of time. After everyone had finished we grabbed our banana laden sacs and went out to find some elephants to feed. We had been given specific instructions not to tease the elephants by offering and then pulling back the bananas, but I still witness one small kid do this repeatedly, which mildly infuriated me. I was hoping the elephant would make a fist with its trunk and punch the stupid kid in the face. But there were many other people offering bananas so the elephant quickly ignored the kid and begun to load up from someone else. After doing my rounds with the camera photographing people feeding the elephants, I grabbed one of my bananas and laid it out on my palm, arm extended towards the nearest elephant, I felt like I was making an offering to a mighty god, hoping they would choose my gift over the other devotees, and sure enough the elephant, a female I think, soon came towards me, sending out her trunk envoy to collect my offering. The tip of an elephants trunk has muscles that allows it to fold inwards forming a sort of fleshy delicate hand, like a dexterous leather mitten. She grasp the banana from my hand, her trunk then coiled around the banana as she withdrew it, like a retreating boa constrictor. As soon as the banana was safely deposited into the mouth, the trunk was sent up again to collect more, I was barely ready in time. She was an efficient banana eating machine, they all were. I felt like we were all gambling addicts, constantly feeding yellow coins into giant greedy grey slot machines. It wasn't long until she had cashed me out. My banana supply depleted. They certainly could eat a lot of bananas, which isn't all that surprising given their immense size. But what really amazed me was how gentle and dexterous their touch was. For such big animals, they were amazingly coordinated.

After the feeding, it was time for the mud bath. The muddy pond was at the bottom of a slope, below the main area of the park. Some elephants were already in the water. The signal to join them was given and we descended like an army storming a castle. I went around the shores of the pond first, taking photos before descending waist deep into the muddy chaos. The idea was to apply mud onto the elephants skin first, followed by a rinse and a scrub down using large brushes that were handed to us. It was an efficient process, with even the largest elephant being thoroughly mudded and scrubbed down within minutes. Many hands make light work. The older adult elephants seemed content with the process. Not particularity active in their movements, just allowing the many hands to do the work. The younger elephants were much more energetic and restless. They seemed to associate the mud bath with play time, often submerging themselves and rolling in the waist deep water. One of them nearly knocked me over.

Time to reflect

The whole process was exhausting and after a quick shower I was ready to return to George Town for a siesta. Later that afternoon, whilst lying on my hostel bed, waiting for the photos to upload onto my laptop. I begun to think about today's events and about elephant tourism. One question in particular crossed my mind. Was the elephant park ethnically correct? Or had I just financially endorsed animal cruelty? Like all those people who paid to visit the Tiger Temple without knowing the horrible backstory. My answer was, I don't think so. A few online sources I had found stated that excessive human contact was stressful for elephants, and there was certainly a lot of human contact at the retirement park, especially in the mud bath. Other reviews I had found read on the lines of "wild animals should be in the wild". But the thing you have to consider is that these are not wild animals. They have been brought up and live along side humans, semi-domesticated I suppose, for better or for worse. Some of these elephants have to endure terrible jobs, such as the previously discussed elephant safaris. With these in decline the elephants have to go somewhere and the parks that take them have financial commitments to support them. So having paying tourist come to feed and play with the elephant seems like a fair deal. The tourists are happy with the hands-on elephant experience and the park can afford to buy food and medicine for the elephants. I guess you could put the situation of a scale of opinions, like the following:

A friendly shelter for previously worked elephants, or a glorified petting zoo? Harmless educational fun that also keeps the elephants engaged or a necessary evil to keep the elephants off the proverbial streets? Those are the extends of the scales of judgement I can come up with and my opinion lies more towards the good than the bad on this occasion. I do think the elephant retirement park is a force for good. Whilst I don't think these elephants are fully retired as such, their job of being petted and fed by excited humans certainly doesn't seem like a bad job, especially when you consider the potential alternatives.

As for my experience, I had a fantastic time at the park. My camera was covered in mud and full of awesome photos, my body was exhausted and also covered in mud, my mind was excited and satisfied with today's events, overall a good day in Asia as a wandering backpacker. I owed myself a Pad Thai dinner and a few beers that evening. I had a long journey to Phuket tomorrow, I was keen not to think about it.