Having done very little research before arriving in Thailand, I relied on fellow travelers to pass along their own highlights. The #1 must-do activity recommended to me was visiting an Elephant Sanctuary. The photos people shared of their up-close encounters, the bonding they felt with the animals, and how extraordinary the experience was sounded amazing, but truth be told, I wasn't sure it was in my budget. In fact, it wasn't.
I continued exploring Thailand, with a take-it-as-it-comes attitude, and it worked pretty well in a backpacker-friendly country. Then I hit my second-to-last city, Chiang Mai where I had to work out what was worth the money, and what wasn't. Basically, it was all worth it.
After finally deciding to visit the elephants, I shopped around for pricing, availability, and ethical practices. While many people ride elephants in Thailand, I opted for an experience that protected them. Do your own research and find what speaks to you. I landed on The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, and loved every minute of it.
With 9 fellow passengers in my truck, the hour and a half drive up was a great way to get to know who I'd be spending the day with, while also getting a little tour of the lush, green country-side. Here's the whole group!
Because elephants have remarkable memories, we were given special shirts that all the guests in the past have worn to allow the elephants to visually recognize us with some level of familiarity. We each grabbed a bunch of bananas and were told to say "bon," essentially asking the elephant to raise its trunk to be fed.
The massive elephants gracefully barrelled towards us, ready to feast. They were intimidating at first, but after spending about an hour with them, we all gradually relaxed.
It seemed like they'd never stop sniffing around to sneakily grab the bananas out of our hands. Their trunks and bodies are quick and sly, making their movements often undetectable. If it weren't for the wooden bells around their necks, I would often have no idea if one was close behind me.
After the elephants were happily fed, the humans were fed some fried rice and other Thai treats that had been prepared for us in an outdoor hut. We had ample time to see and feed the elephants as they joined us on the hillside below.
And then it was time for a bath. A very muddy, disgusting bath. Wear your bathing suit, and prepare to get absolutely covered in mud, and other things... With brushes and teamwork, all of the elephants eventually get covered, and were then led to the stream to wash off (in the water below). It was a pretty special hands-on experience of bathing with such huge creatures...who then immediately covered their backs with fresh dirt to protect themselves from the sun.
Afterwards, we rinsed off in outdoor showers by the hut, put on our regular clothes, and hiked up the hill to the trucks. Be sure to wear shoes that won't slip, are good in the rain, and will allow you to go up and down the hillside with your bags and supplies.
When you're in a different country, it can be difficult to know what's worth the money. All I can say is that based on personal experience, spending a day with elephants without any fences or barriers, in addition to feeding, befriending, and bathing them is something I would never pass up.
Side note: Much of my information came from people I'd met at a hostel in Koh Samui. (While hostels aren't the most private or luxurious ways to sleep, finding the right one is so much fun for solo travelers. You meet lots of people, share ideas, and often find travel companions for a few days or more.)
Find a way to pay for what's important to you and make the most of your adventure while you're there. It's highly likely that the money for this will be spent in some less interesting way when you get back home, so use it for unique experiences you can't do anywhere else. After all, getting to a new country is often most of the expense anyway.