Thailand offers a lot of elephant adventures with elephant riding and elephant shows being the most popular. For me, this was never an option because I knew what the elephants have to go through to do this ‘job’. You can watch the documentary.
This is the reason why I wouldn’t ride an elephant, go to a ‘tiger farm’ or attend a Sea Life Park.
The Elephant Sanctuary has a mission “to provide as many elephants as possible with the good health, freedom, and happiness they truly deserve”. So, I thought I might want to support this kind of statement and enjoy the company of elephants.
Buying the tickets and arrival to the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary
The tickets are available through their website or numerous shops in Chiang Mai. I had to book mine from a shop due to some issues on the website. The price was the same; I took a full day tour with the elephants for about 70$ – by far the most expensive thing I’ve done in Thailand so far!
I was collected from my hotel at 8am. I was hoping the trip was to be made by a minivan so I could have a nap – but a converted 4-wheel-drive has arrived. We ended up being a group of 6. Soon we realised, why it wasn’t a minivan: we took some interesting jungle roads.
My minivan went to Camp 5, which featured a lovely waterfall.
What you do at the Elephant Sanctuary
After a short introduction about the elephants in general, and the stories of some of the elephants in the sanctuary, we got to feed them bananas. The elephants roamed around us freely, taking bananas with their trunks, or if you are brave enough, straight to the mouth.
There were 8 elephants in the camp I visited(Camp 5) – a year-old ‘baby elephant’, one 5-year-old, a few middle age ones and 2 older elephants, of 60 and 80 years old. Some were saved from hard work, while the history of the others wasn’t advertised.
The elephants were very protective of the baby, always surrounding her. I’ve asked the staff if baby’s parents were here – but no, her mother died and the rest of the story is unknown. There’s no information about the baby on the website.
At one point, our group of 12 people got scattered around the territory – so did the elephants. One of the elephants decided to play in a souvenir shop, being like an elephant in a china shop, literally. At that same time, someone approached the baby. The staff were trying to deal with the souvenir shop looter. Suddenly, the elephants started roaring and moving randomly! We all felt a bit unsafe there, trying to run to safety, not knowing where the ‘safety’ is, or how to behave in such situation. Luckily, it lasted for about a minute and no one got hurt, except one girl’s shoe that got a small souvenir on it.
After feeding the bananas, we got to prepare vitamins for the elephants, which included mixing some rice, tamarind and other healthy things and making them into the balls.
A buffet-style lunch for us was served in a small restaurant (included in the price).
After a half hour break, we got to swim with the elephants in the mud. That included throwing mud at each other, at the elephants, rubbing it into the elephants and each other. That was fun!
All covered in dirt, we moved to the river and watered the elephants and each other using some buckets. That was fun too!
Elephant Sanctuary – my honest opinion
Firstly, I thought that the Sanctuary was much larger in size. I imagined a huge territory, like a conservation area, where the elephants can do what they wish… This is the main shed and where all the feeding was going on:
Secondly, I soon realised that this is what these 8 elephants at this Camp 5 are doing all day, every day. Morning tour, full day tour, evening tour. Yes, they do get their bananas, vitamins, the mud baths and swimming in the river – but all, according to the schedule. Yes, they are not beaten. But to control them, the staff had to pull them by their tails, tug their ears, push them etc. The animals aren’t free.
Thirdly, if this really is for the good of animals, why don’t they let the ‘healed’ animals back to nature? Or maybe they will? Or maybe they did? For me, it eventually felt like another tourist attraction, riding the popular ‘ethical tourism’ trend.
It also felt a bit unsafe – especially the panic element I described above. The elephants are quite huge, and even in a safe environment, they can unintentionally hurt someone.
Finally… during the first hours, I felt like an elephant-introvert. I preferred to stay aside and was even considering to skip the second part of the tour and take a walk in the jungle. Doing this thing didn’t feel right, it’s a bit hard to explain. Although I did enjoy splashing in the mud and water!
Would I recommend it to a friend?
I guess if the friend loves elephants, that’s about the best way to spend time with them. You do get quite a bit of time – probably, 4 hours, – to spend almost 1:1 with them with unlimited touching, feeding etc.
If you’re not such a big fan of elephants, or you’re just unsure, like me – I would probably be taking a half-day.
I could be quite wrong with these conclusions, possibly the elephants live in a larger reserve and only those who volunteer to entertain tourists come here for the day… But I have a feeling it is what it is. A tourist attraction riding the ethical wave. This wave is possibly a good step towards further changes, and I would hope that Sanctuaries like this are only an intermediate step before the animals are set free, but not another ‘job for life’…