We’ve just had the most amazing day with beautiful rescued elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It is definitely one of the highlights of our trip so far and its certainly made my heart feel so much better after seeing elephants in camps along the roads, walking up hills with tourists in metal carriages on their backs. Thankfully there are many sanctuaries in Chiang Mai that are rescuing elephants and giving them a happy and safe life where they don't have to give tourists rides and where they can eat, sleep, swim and roll in mud until their hearts are content.
Today we visited the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, about an hour and 40 minutes drive from Chiang Mai. It was so incredible and if you are heading to Chiang Mai then get on the phone or email and book! You can do a half day or a full day trip, and the sanctuary has six camps, one is only 30 minutes out of Chiang Mai. So even if you already have a full itinerary, you can find enough time to experience this and to support this kind way of generating tourism income, that will hopefully soon eradicate the need for some locals to earn their money through elephant riding, and their perception that this is what all tourists want.
Of course, it is still elephant tourism, that wont change. But the difference is that in elephant sanctuaries like this and others in Chiang Mai the elephants are not being ridden and are being loved instead.
We were picked up from the Shangri-La Hotel Chiang Mai at 8.10am by Dee, our driver/guide. We set off in a little truck much like a songthaew, but luckily for us we were the last to be picked up and so we rode in the cabin and not in the back.We learned that the full day visits are held at Camp 2, about one hour and forty minutes outside Chiang Mai. There are six elephants here and one is a small baby of around two years old. The very small baby elephants are in other locations that are visited by the half day tours.
After a 10 minute stop at the markets (there’s 7-11 across the road in case you need junk food) we set off again and soon arrived at the camp, turning off the road down a soggy dirt track that twisted and turned down the mountain before launching us into a beautiful semi cleared area on a riverside - the home of our six new elephant friends.
There were 26 of us in all, arriving in three trucks, and we wandered down to a platform where we were each given a colourful traditional Karon shirt to wear for the day. We then sat on cushions and listened to a chat about the elephants and the work of the sanctuary by Dee and his colleagues.
The land the sanctuary is on belongs to the local Karon people and the sanctuary leases it for 200,000 Thai baht per year. The elephants also belong to the Karon people who have had them for generations and used them for working in land clearing and other labour, and earnt money by leasing them out to the elephant ride camps.
Elephants eat a lot - each one ingests 300 kilos of food each day and drinks 120 litres of water. They only sleep for three hours a night and spend the rest of their time eating. The villages can’t afford to feed them and so these elephants end up in the camps, carrying tourists on their backs. Over time the sanctuary convinced the Karon villagers that they could make the same money from the elephants by letting the sanctuary look after them. Now the sanctuary has gown in three years from three elephants to 26. It provides all the food and care, and pays the villagers a percentage of its income as well as the rent from the land the sanctuary is on - and it employs local people, contributing even more money to the villages.
Dee, who grew up in a village that owned elephants and started working at the sanctuary after finishing university, explained: “Elephants are happy in the jungle. We don't want any working. Everyone has to help. Tell your friends. Many people come to Thailand and want to ride the elephant. Tell them this way is better.
“Many elephants are coming to camps now, and many camps changing to this kind, not riding. Before Karon people would put the elephants in the riding camp but now they have a choice. Many Karon people are moving their elephants from riding camp to sanctuary now.”
After our chat we washed our hands - to protect the elephants from any bug spray or sunscreen residue - and were all given bunches of small ripe bananas. We all practiced saying “bon bon” to the elephant to tell them we had bananas and get them to lift their trucks.
So with the sound of “bon bon’ from our little gang we walked down to the field below where the elephants were waiting in a line at the other end. Once we were all lined up the elephants began to walk over and came right over to us to take our bananas. Oh my gosh, so gentle, so soft and so calm. These elephants are just chilled and happy. We could get as many bananas as we wanted from a crate and so we just kept stocking up. Emmie was obsessed with the little baby and all the elephants got lots of cuddles and bananas from her.
We then walked up to where sugar cane branches had been delivered and took bunch each down to the elephants to eat.
It was just so much fun. The guides were always laughing and helping us and making everyone have a good time. Coupled with the amazingness of being near these awesome elephants - we were all on could nine. So more eating, more loving and more photos and it was time for lunch.
We had a good feed with rice, chicken, curry, noodles and fruit and biscuits before making the elephants ‘medicine’. Dee explained that since the elephants aren't roaming in the jungle their diet misses some foods they need to keep them pooing healthily and so we would make them little health balls to eat.
They mixed up tamarind, salt, and cooked rice and gave everyone a turn to pound it, while others grinded the raw rice and then added it to the mixture. It was then divvied up onto plates for everyone to take handfuls of and roll into balls. When the balls were made we set off to change into our cossies for the next stage of our adventure.
All in our cossies, we were given two balls of goodness each to feed to the elephants and we walked back down to the field and the elephants came over of their ‘medicine’ - they were so excited the baby ran to us, they love eating these balls. Once they were all eaten it was time for their mud bath - which turned into our mud bath too. Lots of laughing, the guides getting mud all over everyone while we rubbed mud onto the elephants backs and they rolled around it its squishy coolness. [Grrr these pics are stuck on the GoPro].
And then about 20 minutes later it time for the waterfalls. We wandered along through the muddy track beside the river, following the elephants with people still putting mud on each other and some of the girls having a wrestle in a muddy puddle. We made our way down the rocks and and into the river where the water flowed down huge rapids. We were given a bowl and a brush so we could splash water onto the elephants and scrub their skin.They loved it! Rolling around in the water, making little honks of happiness. It was awesome!!
Finally it was time to head home and following the elephants we made our way back where we jumped under a shower and changed. Some people went down for more snaps with the elephants before we set off for our vans and the ride back to our hotel.
An incredible experience and so highly recommended by us. It is so much better than riding elephants or looking at them in chained up in camps by the roadside. Yes this is still using elephants for tourism but it is not riding, it is caring for them and the money goes to feeding them giving them a safe place to live and supporting the local villages.
As Dee said:
“We show the elephants love every day. It didn't take long for them to feel happy because elephants are very smart. Now they know they can be happy and they are loved by us.”
Cost: We paid 6,600 baht for two adults and one child for a full day tour
Full Day Tour:
Adult : 2,400 Baht/ Person
Child < 10 years 1,800 Baht/ Person
Child < 3 years FREE
Half Day Tour
Adult : 1,700 Baht/ Person
Child < 10 years 1,500 Baht/ Person
Child < 3 years FREE
Check out the website for overnight and longer stays and volunteering programs.