Chiang Mai Elephant Camps: The inside tips
A lot of people coming to Asia are thrilled about the thought of seeing some elephants, and maybe even take a ride on one as well. In the article below I will try to explain a little more about the controversies surrounding Elephant tourism in Thailand, and why it is better to visit a Chiang Mai elephant camp instead, or maybe find an Elephant sanctuary elsewhere.
Is it ethical to keep Elephants?
The first time I saw real Elephants in Thailand was when a friend took me to a show in Ayutthaya. She told me all about the star of the show, an older Elephant who was “very smart” and even “knows how to count”. Once we arrived under the tent, I saw a group of Elephants covered in paint, performing a bunch of tricks that included dancing, hula-hoops, and of course, “math”. The whole performance was tightly choreographed by the overseers who made sure the Elephants stayed in line with bullhooks.
The Thai I was with seemed to think nothing of it, and if you consider that Elephants have been a workhorse throughout Thai history it does make a lot more sense. Thai people are used to domesticated Elephants pulling logs and performing other heavy duty tasks. Making them earn some money covered in paint and with earsplitting music seems a logical next step.
Westerners however, have a more romantic outlook on these things and prefer to see Elephants in their natural habitat. Covering an Elephant in paint is a travesty to them, and a gross violation of animal welfare. A little more research will tell you that domesticating Elephants only works through some very negative reinforcement tactics. I am not going to post images here, but you are welcome to Google it yourself. This “training” is often compared to breaking the animals spirit, and will include sticks, chains, bullhooks, sleep deprivation, hunger and beatings.
The ugly truth is that only domesticated Elephants are suitable for riding, so if you are thinking about riding an elephant in Thailand, also please consider what the animal went through. The Thai tend to look at this differently, as riding Elephants is a part of their heritage and the first animal welfare law in the country was only instated in 2014. Mind you, enormous progress has been made since, and a lot of captive animals found a more peaceful life in an Elephant Sanctuary. What’s more, the Thai Government is proactively chasing down illegal poached animals by making regular DNA tests mandatory for elephant owners in the country.
I want to see Elephants! Where should I go?
Ha! I am glad you asked, because between ridiculous Elephants “shows” and “Elephant rides” there are other ways to see animals in their natural environment. There is no such thing as “Best Elephant Sanctuary”, but the various sanctuaries and conservation centers certainly make a case for themselves in Thailand.
Unfortunately, with the growing success of these sanctuaries, several scams have popped up as well in Thailand. Certain tour operators simply rename themselves as a “sanctuary” and hike up their prices accordingly. A very easy way to find out about a place before visiting is to check their reputation online. If you read more than four reviews on any of these sanctuaries and you will know what they are all about and how they treat the animals. I have never been to the Maesa Chiang Mai Elephant Camp, but when I read that the animals are made to paint, play soccer and perform other “tricks”, I already know this is not somewhere I’d like to be.
Why are there so many sanctuaries in Chiang Mai?
With more jungles in Northern Thailand, it is an ideal environment elephant retreats. And more and more Elephants are being phased out of the tourist industry or taken from their forestry duties. As a result, there is a growing demand for conservation centers. Thailand understands that the Asian Elephant is a threatened species, and with the Elephant being a national symbol, conservation is very important.
Properly set up, Elephant sanctuaries can financially support the Elephants and its caretakers and they attract a new kind of tourist as well, the conscious tourist who is concerned about sustainability and eco-tourism. Judging from personal experience, the staff employed at these sanctuaries are also different in the sense that they seem to be well-trained and receptive to the idea that the environment is something to be protected. In a country where you get a free plastic bag with anything that you buy, that is a novelty.
Book in advance
As you do your research on your preferred Elephant Sanctuary, you may come across the occasional warning, telling you to book in advance. This is a definitely a pro tip, because even outside of the high-season and regardless of some of the more audacious prices, there are waiting lists all year. For instance, the Patara Elephant Farm is easily booked out weeks in advance for instance. Considering the hefty prices at these places you need to plan this one well in advance.
Many people consider this the absolute highlight of their trip. They might be traveling with children, so they made sure they are going to spend some time washing Elephants and create memories for a lifetime. So you should plan, there’s nothing more to it.
What can you expect?
Having been to three sanctuaries myself, the program usually consists of a one-hour presentation where you will learn more about the Elephants, what they look like when they are happy, their conservation status, and what the rest of your day is going to look like.
You are going to feed the animals, and be introduced to the different members of their little tribe. When you are in luck, a baby might be around which is awesome because they tend to behave like little puppies. Except they weigh several hundred kilograms. I’ve been bodychecked repeatedly by a 6-month year old youngster and it is funny and frightening at the same time.
I am no biologist, but these animals are funny and they exhibit different personalities. One baby will stay awfully close to its mother at all times, while another toddler will constantly run into crowd, bumping into slow Chinese tourists who are too busy recording the whole thing (this happened to me too).
If you made it out to a sanctuary with a freshwater lake or a running river, I believe you will have the best possible experience, as Elephants do tend to poop a lot. I’ve seen my share of women hysterically trying to avoid a floater the size of an American football. But what do you expect in a tiny pond or mudbath? The river washes everything away though, which is much better. On land, there is usually an older Mahout (caretaker) in charge of carrying off the turds, but it’s all in good fun. Let’s call it the circle of life.
There will be a lot of photo opportunities, and since you will be spending several hours with the animals you will have no trouble squeezing in a “private photoshoot” with one of your favorite animals. On top of that, most of these sanctuaries “get” social media so they are constantly making pictures of you, the elephants and you and the elephants together.
The top 3 Elephant Sanctuaries you should visit
At number 1, Elephant Nature Park is a very solid candidate. The offer day tours at around THB 2.500 and overnight tours for a little less than THB 6.000. I mention that last option as the camp is 60km outside of Chiang Mai and you may find it convenient to spend the night at the Elephant Nature Park.
Reservations are VERY important if you want to make it out this sanctuary, so please go to their website before you do anything else. From what I gather, the Elephant Nature Park will also accommodate people who haven’t managed to make a reservation on time with a different experience called the “Elephant Trails Tour”. Going with some of the reviews people share, this is a very interesting option for last-minute travelers.
A second recommendation goes out to “Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary”, located in Sukhothai between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary is more of a homestay than anything else, which means you should be prepared to spend the night here. This sanctuary has access to some very scenic environments and their Elephants get to live a normal and natural life outside of the city. The steady stream of guests keep this place in business and they deserve your visit. Check out their Facebook page to get an impression of the atmosphere in- and around the Sanctuary.
Our third and final recommendation goes to a relative new sanctuary down South; the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Well-connected with the Save Elephant Foundation, these guys tick all the right boxes. Located on the less crowded side of the island (North-east), you will be picked up from your hotel by reservation, and driven to the jungle camp they set up for the Elephants. Like all the other sanctuaries, you will be educated before you get to interact with the Elephants. There is no overnight option, and from what I’ve heard the only night shelters are for the Elephants. In our top 3 list, this is also the only Elephant Sanctuary that strictly plans for half-day visits only.
A quick talk with their main guide told me that they have two groups coming in per day, who make sure the Elephants get all the bananas, bamboo and watermelons that their big hearts desire. With the THB 2.500 per person, this camp manages to make enough money to sustain the operation throughout the rainy season and the low season. And it is absolutely worth it, as I won’t forget these guys anytime soon.
Note: A quick check-in with management revealed that Britney Spears visited this camp recently in between her two Bangkok concerts. And even though I am not a fan (of Britney), I can’t blame her. Anyone in Phuket should drop by, as the atmosphere is great and the staff knows and cares about their animals extremely well. For instance, one of their adopted and older Elephants is blind. After a closely monitored integration period, she seems to be fully accepted by the other animals in the herd
For all these animal sanctuaries in Thailand, the same things apply: Do your research, make your reservation in time, wear sturdy clothing and bring shorts or a bathing suit. Because you will have the possibility to jump in the water with the Elephants and play with them in the mud. If your sanctuary is in the jungle, and you plan on spending the night, an insect repellent is going to be your best friend once the sun goes down.
When you do your research to find the sanctuary that fits your traveling schedule best, you may come across pictures of people sitting in the back of an Elephants neck. Don’t immediately disqualify that sanctuary, as it is a fairly standard practice, especially when you play with them in the water.
Remember, this is NOT the same as strapping an entire wooden seating arrangement on the animal’s back. Once you’ve learned from your mahout how to distinguish a happy Elephant from an unhappy one, you will understand what is “okay” with these animals and what isn’t.
Pro tip: Break your banana in half before handing it to the nearest trunk. Also don’t bother peeling; elephants like them just fine with the skin.
More Thailand: Check out other amazing things you can do in Thailand
Sacha Albarda is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.