Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited!
When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t avoid elephants. They were everywhere: on the billowy pants sold to every tourist, on the Chang beers (chang = elephant), seen as statues in most of the temples, and the living ones as a tourist attraction. In the past, it was likely elephant riding that drew in most of the tourists, but the sentiments have changed and most of the elephant tourism now is surrounding that sanctuaries that house and protect rescued elephants, letting them live their lives free from abuse. There are still places offering elephant riding, but I think that as more and more tourists have expressed their displeasure with this sort of activity, the tour agencies have shifted away from offering this. (This is not the case in Laos where I saw many tour companies advertising elephant riding and even saw some people riding elephants at Tad Sae waterfalls)
I knew I wanted to visit some elephant sanctuary but wasn’t sure which to choose. Now that the sanctuary tourism is more popular, there is the risk that faux sanctuaries will pop up, offering tourists what seems like a responsible activity but is, in fact, more of the same old abusive tourism. Do your research!
The 3 sanctuaries that kept coming up were Elephant Nature Park, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, and Lanna Kingdom. I ended up choosing Elephant Nature Park which offers a wide variety of half day, full day, and overnight visiting options. I selected the Elephant Wellness program which took place in a village outside of the park. From what I understand, visiting the park offers limited interaction with the elephants. Choosing one of the “Saddle Off” programs enables you to see a small group of elephants and interact more with them as they do their typical daily routine.
For elephants, their routine is mostly about eating. They eat A LOT.
Our program was pretty simple – we learned about the park through a video playing on our bus ride from Chiang Mai to the park. Once we arrived, we spent most of the morning feeding the elephants bananas and sugar cane before taking them on a walk. There were just 3 elephants at the location and we got to know each of their personalities that day! Hiking with the elephants was really incredible – they are quite good climbers and they are so quiet as they walk despite their size.
I was in awe.
I was also trying not to fall over as we hiked side-by-side with the elephants on a narrow path, all the time feeding them more bananas out of our bags. And of course, trying to take selfies with the elephants when we could.
After our hike, we had lunch (which was delicious) and then it was time to feed the elephants even more food. We learned how to make them vitamin rice balls (which we then also fed to them). But the most exciting part of the day was when we bathed the elephants.
First, we made them “soap” by smashing some fibrous pieces of wood (okay I don’t actually know what it was but it was some sort of plant!). We then walked with the 3 elephants down toward the small pond where they bathe – they knew the routine and were so excited to go down to the water and cool off (it was quite hot that day).
The elephants were so gentle, they eased into the water and suddenly didn’t seem so imposing as we were able to stand around them and start scrubbing them with the “soap” we had made.
I was in awe again of these beautiful, gentle creatures. Our entire group seemed to be falling in love with them – we were all mesmerized by their kind nature and their intelligence.
And then suddenly, they stood up. Rising from the water, I was reminded again of how imposing these elephants are. How big and strong, yet gentle they are. I watched as they strode quietly out of the water and back to where we would yet again feed them more snacks. They were incredible.
After bath time/snack time, these ladies were done with us. They wandered off to go hang out together and left us to clean up from the day. Everyone in our group was so happy, so joyful after spending a day with these lovely animals. It was one of the most memorable parts of my Southeast Asia trip so far and I was so glad I had decided to spend my day with these amazing elephants.
If you go to Thailand, I’d highly recommend visiting one of the sanctuaries and spending some time with the elephants. It is truly incredible!
I just hope that when the tourists are gone, these lovely creatures are treated well. I had seen the elephants tortured and chained in Kerala, India where they were supposed to entertain tourists with rides and baths etc. No matter how well we wish for them, they are wild and deserve to be left alone.
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I totally agree. The program I did was actually in an area where the locals are taking care of the elephants – they are not part of the park. The program is intended to help them learn to take care of the elephants and also serves as an opportunity for tourists to participate. So, I hope that this sets up the elephants for a caring future.
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