Many people travel to Thailand to see elephants. But many people don't think about visiting in a responsible way. Elephants are often abused for the amusement of tourists to ride, but you can make a difference and visit an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai instead.
As someone who once rode an elephant before we knew better, we can attest that visiting an elephant sanctuary is a far more enriching and fulfilling than getting on their backs and walking in circles. Luckily, today, many companies and tourists are taking a stand and adding responsible travel to their itineraries. Instead of riding and exploiting elephants, people are joining the movement to create a nurturing experience for wildlife that supports the local economy. Read about our Best Travel Tips after years of Full Time Travel
Cathay Pacific Airways from Hong Kong to Chiang Mai
We had a short time to plan our trip to Chiang Mai. It was a last minute adventure taken with Cathay Pacific to showcase their new direct routes through Hong Kong from Canada. We had the choice of visiting one of their 40 Asian destinations that fly from the convenient hub of Hong Kong to including 22 cities in Mainland China. We chose Chiang Mai, Thailand. It had been years since we visited Thailand's north. With the Lantern Festival going on and the chance to visit one of the new elephant sanctuaries around Chiang Mai, it was at the top of our list.
Finding an Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
Many of our friends had told us about Save the Elephant Foundation, which is probably the most popular elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, but unfortunately, it was booked out months in advance and we couldn't get a visit in. Even though the Save the Elephant Foundation was sold out, we did some more research and quickly found a couple more places that opened up and we chose to go with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. As more tourists become educated about the abuse and sad conditions of riding camps, less tourists are interested in riding elephants. People want to see elephants living a happy and full life.
Beware the tour companies that say they don't ride. Many told us “no problem, you don't have to ride” but they were a riding camp, so it was all a scam. The elephants were still used for tourist riding and they just wanted to send us out there anyway. Make sure there is no riding or circus tricks forced upon the elephants.
At 7:00 am a songthaew arrived at our resort, the luxurious Ratilanna Riverside Resort and Spa to transport us 50 km outside of Chiang Mai. Everyone in our truck told us how they didn't want to ride the elephants, and instead chose the elephant sanctuary to see elephants in a happy and natural environment.
Once we arrived, we were instructed to put on a shirt to not only protect our clothing when we interact with the elephants, but to also make the elephants more comfortable. By wearing shirts that the elephants recognize, they are more relaxed. They don't know you, but they recognize the shirts.
Read more about elephant sanctuaries at The Importance of Responsible Tourism in Thailand
Karen People and the Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
Before meeting the elephants, a guide came out to explain the operation and how the facility works. He told us that the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary employs people from the Karen tribe giving them a better quality of life.
He also explained how elephants came to be there. Before tourism, the Karen people owned elephants to use for logging. After logging stopped, they still owned the elephants, but didn't have the money to take care of them. If they set the elephants loose, they would cause destruction eating crops, tromping through villages and wreaking havoc on their neighbours. These elephants were often killed.
Most people decided to lease their elephants to riding camps. The camps paid them a hefty price to take the elephants off their hands easing the expensive burden of having to take care of the elephant.
Sadly, most riding tours don't take good care of the elephants, abusing them with spikes and hooks, chaining them down and limiting their food. We were told that an elephant eats 500 kg of food per day, but these camps would often only feed them 200kg.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary has been slowly buying back the riding elephants that were mistreated and abused and giving them a sanctuary to live out their days in peace. It is taking time to stop the elephant riding camps because many elephants are leased for five years at a time. They have to wait for the leases to come due before they can approach the families to see if they would like to sell the elephant to the sanctuary.
Obviously most say yes as they too want the elephants to have a quality of life.
I do want to reiterate that these are not wild elephants. They are elephants that have already been broken and used for work and they will not be going back into the wild.
But these sanctuaries are giving the elephants a chance to relax from walking in circles with tourists on their backs and they do have a freedom that they never had. I have read some reviews where people complain that the elephants are not able to roam freely, but this is difficult. The Human Elephant conflict in Asia is a tenuous problem. Elephants are losing their habitats and villages don't have the fences or facilities to protect them from elephants charging through their homes. To simply put some 4000 elephants back into the wild is not feasible. This is the next best thing.
What we love about this sanctuary is that it is run by the Karen people. The guides are from the area and work in conjunction with the sanctuary to ensure a better quality of life for the elephant.
- Of the 4000 elephants in captivity in Thailand, 70-80 percent of them are used for tourist riding, logging or circus training. It is a miserable existence for these intelligent and gentle animals.
- An elephant costs $60,000 USD to buy and they cost $600 per month to care for.
- Tourist dollars go to taking care of the elephants, buying more elephants and upgrading the facility.
- The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary currently has 35 elephants spread throughout six camps.
- Tourists can visit the camp for a half a day which is what we did. But they can also volunteer for seven days learning about the Asian Elephant and the day to day life of the Karen People.
Elephants in Asia have a tricky relationship with locals. Learn more where we write about it at the Human Elephant Conflict
Our Visit to the Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
Once we had our briefing, the elephants came sauntering into camp where we had the chance to feed them. We were given and endless supply of sugar cane, watermelons and bananas. The elephants didn't seem too hungry at all. They enjoy receiving the treats, but it was nice to see that they weren't starving. Once they had their fill, they'd wander off to the next person.
After about an hour of interacting with four elephants plus two babies, the guides brought out huge bundles of palm leaves for the elephants to munch on while we all got ready to head down to the stream to give the elephants a bath.
The bath started in the mud hole where we rubbed the elephants down with mud. Our guides told us that the mud helps protect them from sun and bugs and they love rolling around in it. From what I saw, it seemed like they enjoyed every minute of it. I could be wrong, but they certainly weren't itching to get out of there.
Want to help the elephant? Visit the Born Free Foundation to learn about and donate to projects.
After the mud bath, we all went over to the river where we rinsed off the elephants and frolicked in the cool water. The elephants seemed to enjoy this even more. Once we were all done, they walked leisurely out of the water and moved along on their way. After the experience, Dave and I felt content knowing that our money went to a good cause and that the elephants seem to be living a good life.
I know that it is not normal for elephants to be in captivity or to interact with humans. In a perfect world, they will live freely on a nature preserve where they wouldn't have any interaction with humans. But Thailand has a long way to go. Elephants have been poached and captured for decades and this is a good start to promoting responsible tourism. Rescuing abused and mistreated elephants from logging and riding camps is the first start to a very long process. There are still thousands to be rescued. Show the Thai companies you care and stop riding elephants now. Choose an elephant sanctuary in Chaing Mai or anywhere in Thailand instead.
Our trip to Chiang Mai was made possible by Cathay Pacific, but all thoughts and opinions are our own. To book flights to Chiang Mai direct from Hong Kong visit Cathay Pacific Airways.
Cathay Pacific offers 10 direct flights weekly from Toronto to Hong Kong and 14 flights weekly between Vancouver and Hong Kong. The convenient hub of Hong Kong, connects to over 40 destinations in Asia and over 22 cities in Mainland China. Check out all their routes here
For accommodation in Chiang Mai, check out the Ratilanna Riverside Resort and Spa