When going to Thailand, many tourists are excited to see elephants. Maybe even to have an elephant ride… But thankfully the education of the public on this matter is spreading quickly and most travellers know better now. Know that riding an elephant shouldn’t be an option. That even though elephants are such huge animals even a small weight on their back can seriously hurt them. Not even mentioning the practice used by the owners to “tame” the elephants. Like separating babies from the mothers, starving the elephants or using bull hooks to manipulate the animal…
But as I said, thankfully the times are changing. Instead of riding camps and elephant trick shows there are sanctuaries starting everywhere around the country, especially in northern Thailand. Places that are trying to help and show tourists how amazing these animals are.
But are the sanctuaries really better? When after all they are still a tourist attraction?
To be honest, I was a bit sceptical about this matter. Day after day there are new people arriving in the sanctuaries to see the elephants, feed them, play with them and take pictures. Is that so much better? Isn’t it too stressful for the elephants? And are the mahouts (elephant trainers) telling us the whole truth about how they take care of the animals in these camps?
Well, to know better I visited one of the sanctuaries myself. After some consideration I opted for the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai. I actually read about this sanctuary already before going to Thailand and liked it, but wasn’t sure if we should book. I wanted to know from locals if and where we should go. And then when I mentioned that I would like to visit a elephant sanctuary in our hostel (Thailandwow Guest House – the nicest and cleanliest hostel we’ve been to in Thailand), Khai the host and a few fellow travellers recommended the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. So we made a decision and booked a two day trip to the sanctuary with an overnight stay at one of the camps, so we could spend as much time as possible with the lovely giants.
How does the trip to sanctuary look like?
We were picked up by a truck (in northern Thailand much more common public transport than a minivan or tuk-tuk) in our hostel in the morning. Then after picking up a few more people around the town the car finally headed to the mountains. If there’s one thing for sure, that’s that Thai people don’t muck around with driving. They drive pretty fast, no matter if it’s a truck, tuk-tuk or a scooter, they like to speed through the streets and zig-zag through the traffic. But to be honest, it mostly feels safe. They seem to know what they’re doing.
So I tried not to seem too scared when the truck turned off the main road to the dirt and we were just shaking and jumping in the back. I know that the driver probably drove to the camp about a million times and knows every curve and bump. But I still felt much better when we finally stopped, arriving to the camp. And then in a short second I forgot everything about the ride when I looked down the hill and saw the gentle giants walking through the valley, calmly, not worrying about anything. Not that I haven’t seen elephants in my life (only in a zoo though). But already at first glance I would say that these guys looked happy. I couldn’t wait to get a bit closer to these amazing creatures.
But first we sat down with our guide who introduced the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and their goals and gave us all the safety instructions and behaviour tips when with the animals. And of course he explained the reasons why it isn’t good to ride an elephant. If you like animals, but still considering an elephant ride, please take your time and do some research before. I like for example the article on worldnomads.com – Why Elephant Riding Should Be Removed from Your List, where things are explained very clearly.
But importantly the guide explained few of my big questions. And that is why when saving the elephants from riding camps or circus shows they simply didn’t release them back to the nature? Why there are actually sanctuaries for tourists? Why the elephants might be still chained over night?
Unfortunately releasing elephants back to the nature is not as easy in Thailand as it sounds. These animals are not wild anymore and they are used for the human contact. Also in the past some of the released elephants ate or destroyed the crops of many farmers, causing a lot of harm to these people. Sadly that meant that some farmers took the “justice” into their own hands and killed those animals. So the sanctuaries should be a safe place for the rescued elephants to roam freely and get fed enough. With the money from the tourists helping this cause. It’s not a perfect situation, but it’s still much better than places which torture the animals to amuse their visitors.
But why are there still some elephants with their leg chained over night? Not all the sanctuaries own the land, so they cannot fence an area big enough for the animals to roam freely over night without getting in trouble with the local people. So for their own safety they have a long chain on one of their legs which allows them to walk around in the nature. This is definitely not the best practice, but I believe it’s still better than elephants chained all day and kept in small stables. But hopefully the sanctuaries will stand to their word and use the money from the visitors towards a better life for the elephants. Buying enough land and fencing it, so the elephants can act as naturally as possible.
How does the day in the sanctuary continue?
After the introduction, you’ll be able to feed the elephants some sugar cane which apparently together with bananas is a special treat. Then you’ll help the mahouts to get some young bamboo which the elephants would snack on while you get your own lunch. I couldn’t believe how good the food in the sanctuary was regarding the conditions for the cooking. We could choose from a delicious buffet with different Thai meals, fresh fruits and vegetables.
After the lunch and little rest for the visitors as well as the elephants we learned how to make another treat for the elephants. Together we made balls out of cooked and raw rice, bananas and tamarind roots, providing the elephants with some extra nutrients. And of course there was time to feed these yummies to the elephants which they seemed to enjoy a lot.
Then the fun begins. Everyone changes to their swimmers and enjoys a mud bath together with the elephants. And even as this might seem like a super touristy thing to do I think the elephants actually enjoy it heaps. They spray their backs with the mud, lie in it covering their whole body and play around. However most fun in this case is probably had by the mahouts, when spreading the mud over the distracted naive visitors.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to wait till you enter your hotel bathroom to get it off. There is a much better way. Because not far from the camp (we visited camp 2 during the day) is a little waterfall with a few small lagoons where you can get the mud off. But more importantly to wash and scrub the elephants. Who would care about the mud when there is the possibility to bath with the elephants, right? Again, it might seem a bit stressful for the animals, doing all of this day after day. But only a few of the elephants joined the mud bath and the lagoon. So they don’t have to do this every day. And importantly they seemed to really love these activities.
After everyone is washed another feeding time for the elephants takes place. What lucky creatures. And that is how the day tour ends. Time for all of the visitors to get to the truck. While most of the people go all the way back to their hotels, the ones who decided to stay over night are getting off soon, changing trucks and continuing to a different camp.
Overnight stay in the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
Even though we enjoyed the day program, I have to say it felt pretty touristy. The company tries to fit as many “fun” things into the day as possible. So I couldn’t be happier that we chose to stay in the sanctuary over night. Because the most interesting part came for us when we left the day visitors behind and found ourselves in the mosquito nets, sleeping just a few metres from the elephants and their mahouts. That is what made it a once in a lifetime experience.
We stayed in camp 6 and we just loved it. The people there were so kind and nice. We were accommodated in a little hut with several beds and luckily for us we shared this space and the whole experience only with 3 other travellers.
In the evening all the mahouts were relaxed, the elephants were freely walking around amongst playing children and we watched everything with high spirits while our guide Jade was prepping an amazing green curry for dinner. I still can’t believe how nice the people in the camp were. After our dinner they invited us for their little party and shared their BBQ with us. One of the mahouts Bee just came back after helping in a new camp in Phuket and everyone was excited to see him. We drunk beer together and talked about everything from elephants, Thai culture, Bee’s sister current wedding to popular songs and bucket list destinations. I found out how many Thai people would love to see snow. I hope for these guys that their dream will come true one day.
Day Two in the sanctuary
After a good night sleep with the most soothing sounds of the nature we woke up early to catch a stunning sunrise over the camp before munching on a delicious breakfast from the open fire. Then we could join a new group of visitors to feed and cuddle the elephants. And finally put on comfy shoes and go for a walk to the last camp. On the way we stopped in a small Karen village and refreshed at two different waterfalls. As we cooled of in the water our guide was already waiting for us with another tasty meal. If there is one thing for certain on this trip, that’s that you won’t starve. And if you like Thai food as we do, you’ll find your taste buds in heaven.
From the second waterfall it was only few minutes to our last camp where we were greeted by the mahouts taking care of the oldest elephant in the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, beautiful 73 year old lady. We received a bunch of little sweet bananas and only the five of us enjoyed feeding these amazing giants for the last time before going back to Chiang Mai.
The final opinion on Elephant Sanctuaries In Thailand – Pros And Cons
There are definitely still some gaps that need to be filled and ways which could be improved regarding the ethical tourism and elephant sanctuaries. But I believe that Thailand is going in the right direction and the sanctuaries are improving every day, giving the animals a new hope.
I can’t properly describe my own experience with enough words, but it’s definitely something I’ll remember my whole life.
Are you staying in Thailand for a bit longer? Look at my other tips what to do.