If we think of Thailand one of the first things that probably pops into your mind is elephants, which are an icon of the country. This animals play a massive role in Thai culture and Buddhism. Unfortunately these beautiful animals have been used for tourism and in consequence tortured and taken out of their natural habitat.
Elephant activities are so touristic that some people travel to Thailand just to see them and to finally get, no matter how, a photo with an elephant. It’s easy to ignore that you are hurting the animals, so it’s important to read and inform yourself before doing any activity with animals. Let’s be responsible travelers.
These are some of the activities that hurt elephants, please do not practice them: trekking with elephants, elephants shows, pay to see how an elephant paints, pay to get a photo with an elephant, elephant rides.
Performing any of these activities is to simply contribute and increase their abuse. Why? Because for elephants to obey a technique called “Phajaan” is used. This technique basically consists in “crushing an elephant’s spirit”. Elephants are separated from their mothers at 4 years old, they are isolated and beaten by men until the elephant is so terrified that he is completely submissive to them. It’s something really horrible and the only way to stop with the abuse of these animals is to be a responsible traveler.
- Some history
For thousands of years, elephants were used in Thailand as means of transportation, even in wars. Thai people used elephants to work, they would carry food, logs and any heavy stuff. Deforestation resulted into their habitat destruction causing Asian elephants to be endangered. In 1989 logging was prohibited, and elephants owners either sold their animals or put them to work in tourism, in search of new sources of income. Elephants were move to the city, to provide tourists with rides. This is completely traumatic and unnatural for the animal. I mean, why is an elephant in the city carrying people or performing tricks? This is not natural.
The only responsible and ethical alternative to see elephants in Thailand is to visit a sanctuary. The most common city for doing this is Chiang Mai, in the North of the country. Unfortunately you should also be skeptical about sanctuaries since many of them are fake still chain their elephants and keep them safe just to make money. The truth is I wasn’t even sure of visiting Chiang Mai and an elephant sanctuary, but it turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Chiang Mai
The sanctuary I visited is Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai. All the elephants in the sanctuary were rescued from abuse and now live in the Sanctuary where they are provided with food, health and a new life. I chose to visit this sanctuary after reading many opinions on blogs I trust and I made there was no riding involved. Other recommended sanctuary is Elephant Nature Park, it is the most popular sanctuary in Chiang Mai so you need to book your place in advance.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Prices: All the visits include meals, water and transfers to and from the sanctuary to your accommodation in Chiang Mai. Half day visit ($50 USD), full day visit ($72 USD), one day walk ($100 USD) and overnight visit ($150 USD). The money raised from visits is used to pay for food, veterinary care, and infrastructure. You can book your visit at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary website or at some tourist offices in Chiang Mai.
I did the half-day visit. Around 7 am we were picked up from our hotel in Chiang Mai, we picked up other visitors and arrived to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary about an hour and a half later.
Upon arrival, we had an informative talk where they explained us about the sanctuary, the history of elephants in Thailand, which elephants were in the sanctuary, how to behave around the elephants, etc. They also explained us why we shouldn’t ride them: even though elephants are large creatures, their vertebral columns were not designed to carry weight. Their vertebrae is different from the horses. It doesn’t matter if you ride them with no chairs: riding is harmful and tortuous.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary works with the Karen people, an ethnicity from the southern Myanmar. Karen people live in areas in which are typically natural elephant habitats so visitors are given traditional Karen clothes so the elephants feel familiar.
After being informed and dressed in traditional karen clothes, it was time for the first activity with elephants: feed them. At first, we were a bit scared because they are really huge and powerful animals! But after a minute we became used to them and realize how calm and beautiful creatures elephants are. For about an hour we spent time interacting with them, feeding them with bananas and learning from their behavior. We were lucky to see two baby elephants which were the cutest thing I’ve ever saw.
After feeding them it was time for the second activity: bathing them. To be honest, this activity felt a bit forced. Obviously elephants didn’t go themselves into the mud, they were encouraged to do so. It was something like telling a kid who doesn’t want to shower to take a shower. The handlers explained us how we had to bath them so elephants didn’t feel uncomfortable. First we covered the elephants and ourselves in mud, and then we wash them in a river. Elephants seemed to enjoy the water and to be cooled down on that hot day.
After the bath, we went back to the camp, used the outdoor showers and had lunch. Lunch was included in the visit and it consisted of a buffet lunch with typical Thai food, yummy curry and fresh fruit for dessert. Later, we spent some time in chatting with caregivers and other volunteers. Finally it was time to say goodbye to the elephants and go back to Chiang Mai.
- What to bring: You will be spending the whole day in the sun so don’t forget to bring sunscreen. It’s Thailand so you should also bring mosquito repellent, I’d find out Incognito anti-mosquito spray is awesome. You should also bring a swimsuit, towel, comfortable clothes and shoes. A wet clothes bag could also be really helpful.
Visiting an elephant sanctuary was an activity that I wasn’t sure about doing but ended up being the most beautiful experience in Thailand. If you love animals it is a truly unique activity where you learn a lot and see how mistreated elephants are now happy. I think Thai society is changing and slowly leaving behind the domestication methods that hurt the elephants. We, the tourists, have the most important role to put a definitive end to this. Do not ride elephants, do not practise any activity that is not ethical, do not contribute with animal torture. If you want to see elephants, visit a sanctuary. Read and investigate before your visit to find a place where elephants are loved, there are no chains or torture methods and there is no riding involved. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a great place to see how elephants can have a new happy life.
- Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: elephantjunglesanctuary.com / Facebook / Instagram
- Where to stay in Chiang Mai: see hotels list
- Other areas in Thailand where elephants can be seen: Chiang Rai, Kanchanaburi, Sukhothai, Petchaburi.
Have you ever visited an Elephant sanctuary? Where?
Click here to see all blog posts from Southeast Asia