Diary of a day spent with the elephants in one of Chiang Mai’s jungle conservations
Plus a comprehensive list of Chiang Mai’s best elephant tours in the end
The elephants made sure I would never forget that day. The scrapes and bruises all over my legs rendered me unable to do anything remotely physical for weeks afterwards, but it was all worth it. But don’t let me scare you off – it was my own misinformed actions that got me into the accident in the first place. And this is exactly why you’re doing the right thing: reading up on elephant experiences before you sign up for them.
Before the trip
We were a group of five in Chiang Mai, and everybody knows that the Northern Lanna Capital is famous for its elephantourism.
The guy holding the selfie stick up there co-founded a startup called TripGuru, a travel company connecting millennial travellers with authentic local adventures. It was through him that we found the tour we chose that day.
Our considerations mainly had to do with ethical treatment of animals, so we immediately crossed elephant riding tours off our list.
“…Elephants don’t have very strong backs. Experts claim that adult elephants can only support a maximum of around 150kgs on the middle of their back for up to four hours per day, but many of Thailand’s elephants work eight hour shifts, carrying two riders at a time. Metal seats, which tend to be used over lighter bamboo versions, add an extra 50kgs.” – Lonely Planet
We finally settled for the tour entitled “A Day With the Elephants in Thailand”. Our tour was done in English, but they had a Chinese option listed on the website.
Below was the proposed schedule, with my comments in pink:
- 08:00am – 08:30am: Pick up from your hotel or accommodation – Make sure you are ready on time. There were some problems with miscommunication and/or plain slacking off in terms of getting in the vehicle at the assigned time slot, which in turn caused a lot of unnecessary waiting. What the operator could have done was send a reminder about the time, but it’s also your responsibility to make sure you are on schedule.
- 08:30am: Drive approximately 1.5 hours outside of Chiang Mai through rural landscapes, agricultural areas, and forested hills. – This was actually not a pleasant drive because we were seated at the back of a 4×4 pickup (with 2 rows and covered, but not enclosed with a/c. I don’t know if it’s just me that’s fussy about this but I did not enjoy inhaling Chiang Mai’s pollution and vehicle exhaust from where I was seated. Again, I’m probably just being fussy.
- 10:00am: Arrive at the Karen village.
- Meet your guide and walk for 10-15 minutes through the village to the elephant sanctuary.
- Change into traditional Karen clothing.
- Enjoy an introductory lesson about elephant anatomy, history, and behaviour.
- We did not walk through a traditional Karen village as described. But we didn’t mind having heard that often it’s an inauthentic and touristy experience to do a ‘village tribe’ tour, which can make exhibits out of tribespeople and their strange practices (ie. wearing those brass neck coils)
- The main spokesperson or ‘head mahout’ introduced himself as being of half Karen, half Thai / Lanna descent. I’m not fully aware of the connotations but they take pride in their respective backgrounds and the heritage and identities that differentiate themselves from each other.
mahout |məˈhout| noun (in South and Southeast Asia) a person who works with, rides, and tends an elephant.
- 11:00am: Meet the elephants. Feed, interact, and play with the elephants in their natural home as you learn about their behaviour and history. Take photos with the elephants – This was an amazing experience. In that particular camp as well, there was a baby in residence, and he had a tricky time feeding himself on the normal grass and leaves the caretakers provide, because he was still very clumsy with his trunk. So he was extra excited to be fed bananas and sugarcane goodies, special treats that elephants adore.
The feeding part was where I injured myself. I was so overwhelmed by the baby elephant’s cuteness that I didn’t realise I was putting myself in danger by playing with it. Stupid, I know. It became excited and happy and basically tackled me to the ground, crushing me in the process. I had multiple flesh wounds all over my legs, which started to bleed profusely.
It was in no way the fault of the elephant sanctuary as I can see they love and care about the elephants. I didn’t complain at all, because I don’t want them to create a distance between elephants and humans just because I was being an idiot about it. They had earlier advised to take caution with the baby, who was not in full control of his own body yet at 1.5 years old and doesn’t realise his own strength, not to mention zero spatial awareness.
- 12:00pm: Enjoy a lunch of traditional Thai food and fresh fruit – The fruit (pineapple and watermelon) was delicious! There was more than enough to go around: veggies, rice, noodles, curry… I stuffed myself.
- 01:00pm: Walk with the elephants to the river. Bathe and brush the elephants – Although I did mention that the mahouts were very good with the elephants, one thing I didn’t like was how they were making the elephants do tricks like blow water through their trunks. This reminded me a bit of circus shows; I think they should actually be treated as persons, not as pets, because elephants are far more intelligent and intuitive than we take them for.
- 02:00pm: Join the elephants for a therapeutic mud spa. Swim in the river and take photos with the elephants
It was nice to see them enjoy their watering hole. Some elephants formed cliques, some went with their mothers away from the rest, etc. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to enjoy this so much since I was kind of in pain at this point, and didn’t want to get my wound too wet or dirty. In the mud bath, the elephants were also defecating where people were stepping and wading. I was trying my best not to think about where my feet were getting into contact with.
Also, again what I didn’t like was when the mahouts would make some elephants sit down just so that we could ‘pet’ them or give them baths. Not sure if I’m overreacting but anyway, personally I’d rather them just be left alone to do what they want naturally as much as possible and the humans just try to fit into that.
- 03:00pm: Change clothes and walk for 10-15 minutes through the Karen village – didn’t do this
- 03:30pm: Leave the Sanctuary and return to Chiang Mai
- 05:00pm: – 5:30pm: Drop off at your hotel or accommodation
And finally, some last notes about the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary:
- The place had a rudimentary bathroom, which thankfully did not smell bad.
- The tour leader informed me that they had insurance in the event of any accidents, and if I needed to go to the hospital or doctor for anything, I just needed to get in touch with them to claim reimbursements.
- They had a small first aid kit at the camp, which was helpful in cleaning the wounds. Damn, that alcohol though!
Elephant Tours in Chiang Mai
Below is a compilation / directory of elephant tours you can do in Chiang Mai. The tours vary according to schedule (full/half-day), itinerary (some include side trips to the Karen Hill Tribes, ATV rides, etc.)…
- A Day With the Elephants in Thailand – 69 USD / Per Person; includes a walk through the Karen village
- Full Day Elephant Day Care in Thailand – 71 USD / Per Person
- Enjoy riding elephants in Maetang, Thailand | Group Tour – 71 USD / Per Group [Max Number of Traveller(s): 2] [Disclaimer: ‘Riding elephants’ is a practice considered by many as a form of animal cruelty.]
- Pachyderm Adventures in Thailand – 128 USD / Per Group [Max Number of Traveller(s): 2]
- ATV Ride and Elephant Day Care in Thailand Morning Tour – 102 USD / Per Person
- Morning: Elephant Share Riding in the Morning in Thailand – 46 USD / Per Person [Disclaimer: ‘Riding elephants’ is a practice considered by many as a form of animal cruelty.]
- A Morning With the Elephants in Thailand – 49 USD / Per Person
- Morning Elephant Day Care in Thailand – 51 USD / Per Person
- Share Riding with the Elephants Afternoon Tour in Thailand – 46 USD / Per Person [Disclaimer: ‘Riding elephants’ is a practice considered by many as a form of animal cruelty.]
- An Afternoon With the Elephants in Thailand – 49 USD / Per Person
- Afternoon Elephant Day Care in Thailand -51 USD / Per Person
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
I’d like to thank X2 Vibe Chiang Mai Decem Hotel – a modern hotel in the new and hip area of town – for hosting me for one night. It’s just down the street from Nimmanahaeminda Road, the city’s foodie paradise home to all the up-and-coming restaurants and F&B concepts in the city. If you’re in a shopping mood, it’s a close walk to Maya mall and a slew of boutiques on the street. It’s also a stone’s throw away from the famous Buddhist temple of Wat Chet Yot.
X2 Vibe is a chain of lifestyle design hotels found in major destinations in Thailand, and soon Vietnam. The brand creates youthful, trendy hotels which maintain a design focus. Many of their properties have options for long stay, including 3-month, 6-month, and 1 year packages. X2 Vibe is part of the international lifestyle brand CrossTo (X2) covering a range of design and lifestyle related businesses from resorts, villas, and branded residences to cruises, spas, yachts, planes and cars.10/18 Moo2 Superhighway, Chiangmai-Lampang Rd., Chang Phueak, Chiangmai, 50300, Thailand email@example.com +66 53 214 828 www.x2vibe.com