We went to Woody's last week for a half-day tour, based on a recommendation by our hotel concierge. Things started out on the wrong foot right away. We were not given a set pickup time, only a pickup window (from 8:30 to 9 a.m.). Sure enough, the van (driven by a member of Woody's staff) only showed up around 9, so we wasted almost half an hour standing in the lobby waiting.
We then stopped at another hotel to pick up some other guests, who weren't there. The driver was completely confused and left us waiting in the van for over 20 minutes as he used his cell phone and approached random people coming out of the hotel to see if they were the ones he was looking for. Only after we insisted many times that we should leave (we couldn't afford any delays because we had a flight that afternoon and they were made well aware of that by our concierge at the time of booking) did the driver get back in the van and we started on our way.
Now this is where it gets unacceptably dangerous. The driver tried to make up for the lost time by driving like a madman throughout the one-hour drive down to Woody's elephant farm, weaving through traffic and speeding at upwards of 130 km/h through alternating stretches of divided highways and two-lane roads through villages. On top of that, there were no seatbelts for the passengers (only for the driver, of course), even though the van was ironically fitted with custom trimmings and speakers (I guess that's where the money for the seatbelts went).
Fortunately, we did get to the farm in one piece, even tough we were all rattled and sickened by the ride. When we reported the delay and the way the driver drove us there to the guide who was apparently in charge, he laughed it off, refused to lend us a phone (so we could make a local call to our hotel to discuss alternative transportation for the way back), and then got borderline threatening, saying that we were in his family's house and that if we didn't want to go on the tour we should get out.
Luckily, Woody himself showed up and was more polite and understanding. He apologized and said he would talk to the driver to make sure we had a safe ride back.
As for the experience itself in the farm, I had very mixed feelings. We did get to interact with the elephants, feeding them, riding them, and bathing them. But I couldn't shake the feeling those animals should be free in the wild, instead of (literally) shackled under captivity for our entertainment. The briefing we were given in the beginning was particularly disturbing. We were shown the "training tools" they used to train the elephants, and these were a machete and a stick with a metal hook on one end (somewhat akin to a small scythe). They tried to sell us the idea that these were necessary and that the elephants did not get hurt because they had very thick skin, but it was clear that the training method they employed was harsh negative reinforcement. And even though the staff tries to frame the whole experience as a conservationist effort and show themselves as friends and helpers of the elephants, I couldn't help but wonder if this kind of place isn't in fact doing more harm than good and if us tourists aren't encouraging more elephants to be captured in the wild and brought to places like this.
On the way back, the van driver did drive much more responsibly and within the speed limits -- evidently because of Woody's intervention. That does not, however, change the fact that they put their customers' lives at risk in vans with no seatbelts, driven by drivers with a very casual approach to driving and passenger safety. All in all, the dangerous and wreckless transportation and the questionable ethics of the experience made it an experience I wouldn't recommend.
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