The elephant is a revered creature in Thailand. So much so it’s the national symbol. But in many places, these beautiful creatures are forced to do circus tricks, beg on the street, and give rides to people despite their well-being. So we couldn’t have been happier when we stumbled across the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, which promotes responsible tourism and the ethical treatment of elephants. Here you can feed them, give them a mud bath, and wash the elephants – with no elephant riding!
Why No Elephant Riding?
Highly advertised through pamphlets and billboards, it’s hard to escape the lure of elephant trekking in Thailand. Something so popular couldn’t be all that bad, could it? Riding an elephant is just like riding a horse, right?
Before coming to Thailand, we admit not knowing what elephants go through in the logging and tourism businesses. Like many other tourists, we simply were unaware of what happened behind closed doors and assumed that training an elephant to do labor, tricks, or to be ridable was similar to training a horse. It didn’t take long for us to be turned off by the idea of elephant riding for two major reasons:
- Unlike horses, elephants are not anatomically made for riding. Their spine can easily accrue damage or even become broken from the weight of people riding them, whether bareback or on a howdah (saddle).
- Young elephants to be used in logging and tourism industries are forced into submission via a brutal act called “the crush.” Once the elephant submits, it is often subjected to pain and fear tactics for the rest of its captive life.
Matthew from The Expert Vagabond has written a wonderful article about Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand. He describes his own attitude change from “I couldn’t wait to get my photo riding on top of a massive elephant!” to now helping others make a more informed decision about riding elephants.
We encourage others to do the same!
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
We first heard of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary through our friends, Vince and Linda, when they shared with us their positive and responsible experience with the elephants. We loved the idea of feeding, giving mud baths, and washing elephants, without riding them. No bamboo racks on their backs, no stabbing with sharp bull hooks, no endless miles of trekking on sore feet!
We began our day at the ThaPae Backpacker Guesthouse at 8 am, which organizes the tour. The guesthouse served us a free hot breakfast and then had us in an air-conditioned van and off to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary by 8:45 am. Rambo, our driver, was a comical guy and brother to the man who is the elephants’ lead caretaker.
|TIP: We recommend packing sunblock, bug spray, hat, hand wipes, and a change of clothes. Wear a t-shirt and shorts, a bathing suit (under your clothes), and comfortable walking shoes that you are willing to get muddy (preferably not flip-flops).|
The total trip from Chiang Mai’s Old City to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is about two hours. The first hour and a half is on a country highway. We stopped halfway through at a local market. It was an opportunity to use the bathroom and purchase any forgotten items such as sun block, bug spray, hats, or snacks.
For the last half hour of the drive, we transferred to a four-wheel drive truck that took us and about a dozen large bags of bananas up the mountainside. It was quite the adventure as we all tried holding on in the back of the bouncing truck. Kudos to our driver, Rambo, who expertly navigated the dirt roads!
Once we arrived at the Karen hill tribe village, we each grabbed a bag of bananas and began the descent to a smaller group of houses further in the hills.
|NOTE: A certain level of fitness is required to take part at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. The Karen hill tribe village is about a half mile hike up and down several hills from the drop off point. Each visitor is asked to help carry a (heavy) bag of bananas with which to later feed the elephants. Further climbing up a second steep hill by foot is required to meet the elephants.|
The narrow path took us down a long steep hill, across picturesque rice fields, and a homemade wooden bridge. We went a little farther through some brush and came upon a second smaller hill tribe village.
Here we met Robert, the man behind the elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
Robert, the Man Behind the Elephants
Robert is a small framed, happy-go-lucky man who leads the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. He lives with several other families, along with his wife and young twin sons, in a small village of thatched-roof houses, fire-stoked stovetops, and beautiful mountain views. This is also the home of the elephants.
After trekking up the hillside to his village, we were allowed to rest and had a chance to hear his story about the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
It was moving to hear from a man who had years of elephant trekking experience but admittedly felt it was wrong. He saw how the elephants were mistreated, poorly fed, and unhappy. He eventually left that profession and helped to create a home for several rescued elephants on about 50 acres of land, far away from the demands of riding, street begging, and tricks.
Robert is hopeful that elephant tourism will gradually shift from irresponsible practices towards ones that are more responsible. He commends visitors who educate themselves about the poor treatment of elephants in the tourism industry and who stay away from companies offering silly elephant tricks and exhausting trekking.
Meeting the Elephants
Now for the exciting part! After donning our Karen hill tribe attire, we trekked up a short but steep hill to see the elephants. Our large group was split into three smaller groups that alternated equal time with each elephant.
As we reached the top of the steep hill, a small clearing opened up to their 29-year-old male.
This guy was big! And also happily munching on a mound of corn stalks. Robert had brought a large bag of bananas with him and started passing bunches of them around for us to feed the elephant.
We were in awe watching the elephant’s nose snake around for bananas and feeling the wet one-fingered snout as it grasped them from our hands. We were in for a surprise when we heard the deep inhales-exhales from his trunk as he reached for the bananas. That was something we weren’t expecting!
In addition to our guide, each elephant was assigned a mahout who stood aside and gave firm verbal commands to keep them in check. No bull hook was used. Believe us, we made sure to keep an eye out for them!
The way to behave around elephants reminded us a lot of how to behave around horses. Don’t stand behind them, watch out for where they step, and pay attention to their body language to see if they are curious, agitated, calm, etc. And when they’re relaxed, well, er, you’ll know!
Our second stop was with the young momma elephant and her one-year-old baby.
The baby stands about four and a half feet tall and weighs about 500 pounds. We wouldn’t have guessed it, but he preferred bananas that had already been peeled.
At one point, the little guy started leaning against everyone. At 500 lbs, we all stumbled away. Except for Chris. He was the only one strong enough play back. The baby even wrapped his trunk around him and started to nibble on him!
Our last stop was to see their pregnant female, deep in the jungle. This old girl is 54 years old and is halfway through her pregnancy. The gestation period is about two years, so she still has another year to go before giving birth.
After meeting the elephants, we hiked back down the hill and the three tour groups met back up and took a break for lunch. We enjoyed an ample buffet that included vegetarian options, fried chicken, and fresh-cut fruit.
Lunch is served on a great viewpoint overlooking the tiered rice paddies along the mountainside and the nearby river. We had a nice long break and eventually worked our way down to the river and small waterfall while the others relaxed on the overlook.
Mud Spa and Bathing with Elephants
The (messy) main event consists of everyone joining the elephants in a big ‘ol mud puddle and then going for a refreshing dip in the river afterwards.
As we were finishing up lunch, the mahouts gathered up the elephants and herded them down to the mud spa area, located just at the base of the steep hill. You could see the elephants’ excitement by the bounce in their step as they approached the muddy area for their daily dosing of fun. They went right in with no encouragement needed!
All four elephants got into the mud pit and started getting dirty. The baby elephant tried rubbing up against its mom but comically slipped around and fell over a few times. We threw handfuls of mud at the elephants and smeared it on their legs and bellies. It takes a lot to get them covered!
Don’t plan on staying clean. The guides had fun throwing mud at everyone, especially those who try to avoid getting dirty.
After everyone was good and muddy, we walked down a short trail to the river with the small waterfalls to rinse off. The elephants went right in, completely submerging themselves and lying on their sides with only their trunks poking out from the water’s surface. They were happy and trumpeting.
A word of warning – watch out for the elephant poop. It floats!
After we cleaned up, we had time to relax before heading back to Chiang Mai. The hill tribe’s women put out a display of handmade items, including bracelets, purses, scarves, shirts, and skirts. We bought a few things, which hopefully helped support the families who made them.
Although the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is only a few months old as of November 2014, it seems to be flourishing. As more information comes available about the treatment of elephants for trekking and circus purposes, visitors seem to actively seek places that focus more on wildlife conservation and sustainable tourism instead. We’re happy to have supported one of these organizations!
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Contact Information
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary offers one-, two-, and three-day tours, as well as volunteer opportunities.
Phone: (053) 273-415 or (053) 904-166
Cost: 2,400 baht per person for one day. Includes breakfast, lunch, and transportation.
Time: Depart at about 8:30 am and arrive back in Chiang Mai around 5:30 pm
In the event that Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is fully booked for the day and is unable to accommodate your group, an excellent and equally wonderful alternative is the Elephant Nature Park.