In October 2014 we took the kids to Asia for a family holiday. Whilst in Kuala Lumpur we visited the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary. The sanctuary is approximately 90 mins from Kuala Lumpur. After reading reviews of the elephant sanctuary on Trip Advisor, I contacted Zali instead of going on a tour bus.
Update 2018 – Looking back at this experience now and knowing a bit more about elephant sanctuaries, I’m not so sure this is an ethically and sustainably sound sanctuary that I originally thought. I would do further research before returning.
Zali is a former employee of the elephant sanctuary and he provides a more authentic experience as you are required to be one of his workers for the day. Zali encourages only those that are prepared to get their hands dirty to spend the day with him, if you are looking for a tour to just visit elephants and take some photos then this is not the tour for you. The day that we went there was only our family of 5 and another lady and her granddaughter from Queensland. Ebony was 16 years old and Alannah enjoyed having an older kid to spend some time with.
Zali instructed us to meet him at Titiwangsa station at the end of the monorail line. This was very easy for us as our apartment was very close to a monorail station. We were met by Zali and another bus driver. As we are a family of 5 and unable to fit in one vehicle it cost us a little bit extra as we had to hire a minibus. The driver had a DVD player in the roof and put Tom & Jerry on for the kids, this was a godsend as it meant that I could take in the surroundings and Craig could sleep (as usual, he can sleep anywhere).
When we first arrived we went straight down to feed the elephants. About 30-40 kgs of papaya arrived on the back of a ute and was unloaded in front of the elephants pen. First we had to wash it all and Craig held the hose as we all went through and rinsed the papaya under it. Zali then gave all the adults a machete and showed us what size he wanted the papaya cut into. The kids sorted all the pieces into 5 different tubs for each elephant. After it was all cut in to pieces and sorted in to the boxes, each of us carried a box into the elephant enclosure and emptied it for the elephant to eat. Zali told us that the elephants know when its feeding time from the shadows on the ground, they get very impatient if they are not fed when they are expecting to be fed. Its amazing how clever these animals are, Zali was right, we were running a fraction late and the elephants started kicking the gates and make a hell of a racket until their fruit arrived.
Right about this time Alannah was hit with a mild sun stroke. She ran off to the side and nearly threw up. It was ridiculously hot and humid that day and I knew the kids hadn’t been drinking enough water. I got her to sit down for a while in the shade and drink a whole bottle of water. Luckily enough she was able to drink it with out getting sick. The others had joined us for some fruit and water so she had a good half hour to settle down. I cant explain how hot it was, it was stifling. I was really struggling in the sun and Craig had sweat dripping off him!
The job was to cut up a huge amount of sugarcane for the baby elephants. We were asked not to take any photos of the baby elephants and I am still not sure why they request this but I followed the rules and did not take any photos, it was difficult as they were so very cute. We pasted the sugar cane through the bars of their enclosures as we weren’t allowed to get too close to them as they had just arrived, weren’t yet trained and were too unpredictable, particularly as we had the kids close by. The kids were able to feed them but they had to move away from the enclosures as soon as they had thrown the sugar cane in.
We then went round the other side of the elephant enclosure and Zali gave us all a bag of peanuts each and then showed us how to feed them to the elephants. Alannah stayed in the shade for a while as she has still feeling a bit ill. Once she saw how much fun we were having she couldn’t help but join in. The elephants were eating peanuts out of our flat hands, the end of their trunks acts like a finger and when they pick up the peanuts they would slobber all over your hands! Sounds awesome hey! When we lifted our arms up behind our head, they would throw their trunks back and open their mouths for us to throw the peanuts in or place them on their tongues. It was a pretty amazing experience and one the kids wont forget in a hurry.
Once we’d emptied our peanut bags it was our turn to be fed. We were asked in our confirmation email whether there were any vegetarians, which there weren’t, as they would have catered for them also. The meal was basic and traditional and very nice. There was fruit, rice, omelettes, chicken and iced tea. We then had 30 mins to ourselves, there is a café onsite where you can purchase frozen treats which the kids loved. I think we actually knocked over a couple in the short 30 min period!
Next on the agenda was watching the elephants show us what they have learnt. The trainers bought the elephants out and lined them up in front of all the tourists. They told us what they do when the elephants arrive and how the trainer control them using their feet behind the elephants ears. I must admit at this stage I was struggling. I was wondering if this treatment of the elephants was ethical. I questioned Zali a few times about how they are treated and why they are in enclosures and he had a reasonable answer for every question. The elephants then come down to the timber fence line and the tourists were able to feed the elephants papaya that we had so lovingly (sweated over) prepared for them earlier!
The elephants then walked from the showing area down into the river. It was beautiful to see them rolling around in the water. I was very jealous at this stage, as I would have given my right arm to be in a nice cool relaxing pool with a mojito, right about then! We were the last to have the opportunity to get in the water and wash the elephants. The staff there took our camera and took a load of photos of us at different stages and captured some lovely candid shots of the kids whilst they were scrubbing the elephant. Keira, my little tree hugging hippy, was blown away by how close she was to the elephant and I think she would have stayed there all day! At the end, all the staff splash the tourists until they soaked, I had requested not to be splashed as I had failed to bring a change of clothes. Now there was method in my madness, I had earlier noticed that the elephants were pooping in the river and I did not fancy getting that water anywhere near my face. I was hoping I wasn’t going to pay for it later with the kids. Happy to report no issues there!
From here the tourist buses departed and I was thinking we would be following suit soon, not so lucky, time to work again…! The elephants have to have dinner. I am still astounded at how much elephants eat per day, it must cost the centre a fortune to feed them. Next up, sugar cane reeds again. The adult elephants eat the whole reeds, which we had to cut up with machetes and place in their enclosures with them. Some of the elephants required some clean up in their enclosures, so the kids with help from dad, got the spade out and scooped up the poop. Zali informed us the elephant poop doesn’t smell and I can confirm its not that bad at all!
By this time the sanctuary had closed and we were the last to leave. We still had to prepare the baby elephants dinner. They were also having sugar cane. They were given formula earlier in the day but we had missed that as the heat had bought forward their usual feeding time. Not to worry, we cut up their sugar cane and throw it in their enclosures. At the end Zali said it was time for us to met them.
Alannah and I went first and we were told to slowly walk up and stand at the gate of the enclosure. The baby elephant then slowly backed up to us. I was nervous as I just didn’t know what it was going to do. I could see its trunk sniffing and smelling the air around me. It then stuck its trunk through the fence and started touching me on the feet and up my leg. It was so hard not to move or laugh because its trunk was all slobbery on my toes! Alannah thought it was wonderful. We all had a go. I had to laugh as the elephant had his trunk right up Craig’s shorts! The kids were overwhelmed to be able to see the baby elephants but we were also able to touch it on the head once it approached us and had its trunk out as this is a sign of accepting us. Priceless experience.
You can tell that Zali has a huge amount of respect for the elephants and he explained to us a number of times how he is in the process of securing a large area of land to create an elephant sanctuary of his own. The way he would talk to the elephants and they would respond to him was truly unbelievable. He told the kids stories all day about the different elephants and the kids still tell the story of ‘Tiger Proof’, the elephant that survived a tiger attack but had her tail bitten off.
I think this experience with Zali is worth every penny. We paid $450 AUD for all 5 of us and $170AUD of that was for the hire of the bus and driver. If I ever return to Kuala Lumpur I will certainly look up Zali and if his new sanctuary is up and running I will visit again and see how he is going. His love for the elephants is undeniable and he does an awesome job bringing this to the attention of all those that visit. If you wish to visit Kuala Gandah with Zali you can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you been to Kuala Gandah in Malaysia, if so what was your experience like? I would love to hear your opinions, good and bad in the comments below.
While in Kuala Lumpur we stayed in an Airbnb and it was well located and clean and we found it a very economical option. We also did the KL Hop on hop off bus and visited Batu Caves. We are only ever passing through Kuala Lumpur, I keep saying we need to stay a while.
Happy travels peeps.