One of the hardest dilemmas that travelers face when coming to Thailand is responsible tourism, usually centering around elephants. Before coming to Thailand, I heard that elephant riding, elephant painting, and any other unnatural acts by elephants should be completely out of the question.
It pained me a little walking through Bangkok and having elephant tours basically be the main offering for most tour agencies. Landing in Phuket and automatically being bombarded by offers to go to an elephant show, where I heard the elephants are chained up and made to perform, was even more frustrating.
I heard that Chiangmai was the place to go for responsible elephant tourism, with many places to help the elephants or even volunteer at an elephant sanctuary for weeks. It was hard to choose between the several offered by my hostel, so I contacted a few companies directly just to find out which one would be the best for me.
Chiangmai Elephant Land stood out because it was a full day spent with the elephants, and instead of riding them or making them do tricks for our entertainment, you got to feed them, clean them, and interact with them on a much more intimate level.
The day started off with a two hour ride into the mountains in the back of a songthaew, which might seem daunting, but that just meant that the elephants were in a much bigger, isolated space away from the cities. It was optimistic of me to think that the road was paved the entire way, and during rainy season, off roading through the mud was an adventure in itself. Make sure to put on your seatbelt.
Haha just kidding. You won’t have one.
That’s Thailand for you, and you’ll get there a bit shaken, but just fine.
A big mother elephant greeted us right as we pulled in, and even came to say hi to me as we were having our orientation and tea! We changed into the traditional mahout outfit, which I’ll admit wasn’t my style. It’s nice though because you don’t have to worry about getting your own clothes dirty when trekking through the jungle with the elephants.
It was an amazing experience being able to walk with these amazing creatures through an environment that wasn’t on a stage for show or dressed up and caged up. We had four elephants with us, two mothers and their two young kids. The two young calves were adorable but also complete punks in the most hilarious and cute way possible. It was a good sign because that mischievous attitude showed that they weren’t just trained to comply, like a lot of elephants are. The guides assured us that the elephants weren’t ever hit, and it definitely didn’t seem like the guides had anything but love for the animals.
While trekking through the jungle, the elephants went at their own pace, which is super relaxed. Like they move slow and they eat a lot. A lot a lot. There was never any pressure from the guides to rush the elephants along and the elephants definitely had a lot more freedom than what I would have expected. The little ones were so playful and would always wander off on their own little trail.
We hiked through the jungle with the elephants for around an hour, making a loop that ended up back at our little base. The jungle is pretty muddy and I slipped a couple of times, so wear shoes that you wouldn’t mind getting dirty. You’ll get back to base probably covered in mud, but brace yourself because you’re about to get even more covered in mud, after lunch of course.
It is a lunch fit for an elephant. The main course is giant plate of Pad Thai plus two extra platefuls of Pad Thai for anyone who is extra hungry. There is also chicken nuggets, egg rolls, grilled chicken, and hefty servings of pineapples, mangoes, and watermelon. Our group of ten hungry travelers barely finished half of what was offered. I’m sure you didn’t read this to hear about the food, but I love food, and this company did food right.
Okay, back to the part about getting covered in mud. You. Get. To. Give. The. Elephants. A. Mud. Bath.
Look at that face of happiness. It started raining right as we started bathing the elephants, and it was so much fun. Our guides started a mud fight and even though everyone was a bit hesitant to get in the mud with the elephants, everyone was having a blast by the end of it. This was a huge testament to the guides and how genuinely great people they were. They were always smiling, always joking around, and always loving to the elephants.
After the mud bath, which also happened to make our skin fell hella soft, we headed up a small stream to the coup de grace of our tour.
Bathing with the elephants under a waterfall. It was like a fairy tale. Like this stuff just doesn’t happen in real life. But it did, and it was glorious and it was amazing.
It was a day that I could not have imagined going any better. Despite the slips and fall and rain, it was a perfect day and it was an experience that I think everyone should have. Responsible, ethical, and sustainable elephant tourism is a great way for travelers and animal lovers to contribute in whatever way they can. Chiangmai Elephant Land is the place you need to go for an experience like this.
The guides were fantastic. The four elephants made for a much more intimate setting than having dozens of elephants. We were able to do things that definitely would not have been manageable with larger groups of people and elephants. The two hour ride to the sanctuary means that you are having this experience of a lifetime on a pristine, untouched ecosystem that makes for a better setting for both you and the elephants. I’m going to butcher these names so bad, but Boon-mi, Lychee, Com Dee, and Miguel (the elephants) will steal your heart by the end of it.
Visit Chiangmai ElephantLand’s website by clicking here!