We knew we wanted to experience some time with elephants while we were in Chaing Mai, Thailand. It was something that had been on our (especially Della’s) list for a long time. However, we had read a lot about elephant tourism and the pro and cons.
Choosing an Elephant Park
One of the biggest negatives we had heard about was some of poor practices that have traditionally been used in elephant tourism. Often elephants are ridden or trained to do shows for tourists. In recent years, there has been a lot of effort in educating tourists on the dangers some of these things cause for elephants. We had read several articles like this one by the blogger Nomadic Matt with the same theme: elephants have been treated poorly during training, so we were thinking hard about the place we would like to visit. Almost all of the articles mention the Elephant Nature Park as a place using proper practices.
But, as we arrived in Chiang Mai and saw the plethora of options available to us, we decided to do a little more research. The most highly rated elephant park offers elephant riding (without a seat), feeding, and bathing the elephants. After reading several lovely reviews of that park though, we came across this blog. It describes a counterpoint experience between two places and mentions that the most highly rated camp both chains its elephants and uses bull hooks on them. This turned us off. However, the description of Elephant Nature Park, while lovely, seemed a whole lot like an experience we had in Africa with actual wild elephants. We weren’t sure we needed to pay for that.
But finally, we found a brochure for the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and further research led us to this blog. We scoured the pictures and saw no chains or bull hooks. It also showed that the elephants were rescued by and living in a Karen village. Many of the students Della teaches are Karen refugees so we were excited to visit an active village in Thailand. That sealed the deal.
Visiting the Park
We were more than excited on our day to visit the elephants! We were picked up by Ken (maybe Chem) in the morning in a songthaew and drove the almost two hours up to the village. The majority of the road is highway, but the last hour or so were on curvy mountain roads. We were very happy when we arrived as we were on the verge of car sickness. We walked a short way through the currently dry rice fields to arrive in the village. We were given our uniform for the day: beautiful Karen shirts!
Our group consisted of 9 people plus our leader Ken. There were about 2 other groups of about the same number. Each group headed off to a different group of elephants. The first group we met was a male and female elephant, both retirees of logging. Ken explained that they were “boyfriend and girlfriend” and enjoyed spending time together. The female elephant was indeed pregnant and we were told she had one year left to come to term. We enjoyed feeding the elephants bananas and stroking their trunks. They were calm and friendly and we saw no chains or hooks. The mahouts used verbal commands when needed. Each elephant wore a bell, which we were told was how the mahouts locate them at night as they are never chained. Ken also pointed out many times that both the elephants seemed fat and happy. He showed us some remnants of their time as logging elephants though, as shown by their ragged ears.
Our next stop was to visit what we’ll call the Old Lady Elephant. She was very calm, but loved her bananas!
Our final feeding stop was really the most exciting. We met two momma elephants and their two babies. We can’t quite remember the ages, but we think the larger baby was more than a year and the smaller one was less. The larger baby was quite rambunctious and enjoyed shoving some of the mahouts around. We truly enjoyed interacting with these super cute creatures!
After feeding the elephants, we headed back to the main area of the village for lunch. It was delicious Karen food which we enjoyed while overlooking the river. With a little time to relax, Wayne headed down to take a swim (of course)!
The next part of the day consisted of the “mud spa.” The mahouts brought down Old Lady elephant and Momma elephant with the Big Baby. They were SO excited to enjoy the mud. It was a lot of fun to go into the mud and experience their glee! They would pick the mud up in their trunks and fling it all over themselves, catching us in the process sometimes. They rolled around and rubbed their faces on the mud wall. We were invited to help them by throwing mud on them and rubbing it on their bodies. We really enjoyed this, as did all of the other tourists. The only thing we worried about was that the elephants (particularly Momma and Big Baby) were so excited that they were practically running around. Without keeping watch and being ready, we could see an accident happening. The mahouts believed that the elephants would never have trampled the humans, but we were content to keep our space while they were moving and hope that future visitors will also be thoughtful about not getting themselves in dangerous situations. The elephants are clearly happy and well treated here, but we are concerned that this might change if there was an accident with one of them hurting a tourist.
After the elephants (and us) were thoroughly muddy, we headed down to the river. The elephants loved splashing and rolling in the water. We were given buckets and scrub brushes to help clean and cool them off. We never got on top of the elephants, and we kept our distance when they were so excited that they were rolling their big bodies around and climbing on top of one another.
At the end of the day, we cleaned the rest of the mud off in the river and headed back to camp. We were given the opportunity to buy Karen souvenirs before we headed out. Della bought a Karen bag and Wayne wanted a different kind of souvenir. He asked for and was sold an elephant bell!
Overall, we absolutely loved our experience here and everything we saw indicated that their elephants are happy and treated well. We hope that future visitors will show proper respect to the animals and make sure not to get in their way so that no accidents will happen!
The cost of the day was 2400 baht (about $73) per person (so quite a splurge!!), but when we booked through our guesthouse, they gave us a small discount.
The trip up and down took about 2 hours each way, so be prepared to spend a lot of time on the road.
Wear swim suits that you don’t mind getting muddy. The mud stained some of the white portions of Della’s suit.
Be careful and enjoy these amazing creatures!