Chiang Mai, home of the elephants. Also home of the hundreds of elephant tours. Ride the elephants. Watch the elephants play football, pain, dance, so on and so on. If your visiting Chiang Mai you won’t be able to leave without seeing the elephants. However not all the elephant tours are ethical, infant a large portion are not. We visited a great sanctuary and I want to share the experience for anyone who can’t decide which tour is best for them.
Elephant ‘camps’ are not places I would recommend you visit. The are the ones offering elephant rides with the seats, elephant football, painting and all other tricks they are forced to do for your entertainment. Elephants here are often stolen from surrounding countries such as Myanmar at a young age. They are repeatedly beaten to learn the tricks. Although elephants are strong animals, they are not designed for riding, especially not two people at a time, a trainer and a heavy 50kg+ seat all day, everyday without nutrition. Trainers here also use awful hooks on sticks which they whack behind the elephants ears to manoeuvre them. Elephants are over worked in these camps, kept in poor conditions and often not given enough water. They have been known to collapse and die due to overheating.
There are places you can ride the elephants Mahout style (which is how the trainers ride them) However I am unsure on the ethical side of this and if in fact any of these camps actually care for the animals.
So what you are looking for is a sanctuary. A few agents have clocked on to this and many companies call their camps sanctuaries now, so be careful.
After some research we found there were two main sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (the tripadvisor reviews speak for themselves). We chose elephant jungle sanctuary because we were offered a great price from our hostel. The sanctuaries look after the elephants that are rescued from either poaching or the previously mentioned camps. Each elephant has its own trainer for life, and they are fed, bathed and cared for whilst having the opportunity to live in the jungle.
We were on a one day tour, which I think is plenty unless you are planning on staying and volunteering. You are picked up from your hostel around 8.30am and it’s a good couple hour drive to the location. The location is great, a couple of bamboo shacks, a river and rice paddy on one side (which they used to feed the elephants) and the jungle on another.
Upon arrival you are given traditional clothing and almost straight away you take a small 15 minute trek though the jungle to meet the elephants. There are five elephants at this sanctuary (although the company care for 40 in total and I believe it can vary which you visit). The larger and older males have been separated from the mother and one year old just for the safety of the baby. Here you get to spend some good time with the elephants, feeding them bananas before the smash their way through the bamboo trees and back into the jungle.
Another 15 minute walk and you are greeted by the mother and the very inquisitive baby. Sadly the baby had a few birthing issues and is blind in one eye, so he is very forward when looking for bananas.
After around an hour with the elephants you make your way back to camp for lunch. On the way you can visit the waterfall and have a dunk to cool off before you eat the buffet lunch. Lunch is great and you have a range of omelettes, noodles, veg, chicken wings, rice and fruit.
After lunch the guide shows you the medicine they feed the elephants daily and how to make it. From here it’s down to the river to bath the elephants. You are in around 3ft of water up close with the elephants as you splash water and scrub the mud off of them. From here it’s time for the mud bath. The elephants are given a daily mud bath to keep them cool from the sun and to stop insect bites. You spend around another hour washing the elephants and giving them a mud bath. Once the elephants leave you can clean off in the river before it’s time to leave.
Upon leaving you are greeted by the local tribe who are selling souvenirs. It’s up to you wether you buy something or not and they are not pushy at all. It’s great to support the locals though. It’s a short walk through a rice paddy back to the van and a two hour drive back to your hostel.
If you’re looking at visiting the elephants in Chiang Mai just remember that if people don’t stop funding the camps that these intelligent animals will continue to be abused. The camps only exist to fuel tourism so the less people that visit they should slowly fade out. It’s great to fund the sanctuary too and the more people visit they should start to replace the camps. Enjoy your trip!