My Awesome Trip to an Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Do you want to experience the joy of elephants first hand, but want to do it in a responsible environment? Then you don’t have to rely on doubtful tourism businesses that abuse their animals to perform tricks. In recent years there has been a new ecological and animal-friendly development that lets people experience the joy of elephants, without harming them.
As interested as I was in seeing elephants, I was also skeptical because there are endless stories about animal abuse. Even in businesses that wouldn’t mistreat their animals obviously, they would let tourists ride on the back of elephants, which does a lot of harm.
To take away the ending of the story, I just want to let you know, that visiting an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai was the highlight of my trip through Southeast Asia and definitely is a lifetime experience. In this article, I want to share this experience and want to encourage you to visit an elephant sanctuary yourself.
What is an Elephant Sanctuary
Before describing my tour and how I spent my day with the elephants, let me explain their business model and what you can expect there.
First off, the elephant sanctuary that I visited was run by volunteers and is not for profit. The tour costs are re-invested in the caretaking of the elephants. Most of the income is spent on the food, although they also produce some of the food themselves, they still have to buy additional food from external sources. Another big cost factor are the health expenditures and the elephant sanctuary works closely with a hospital, specifically for the treatment of elephants.
The elephants that are living in the elephant sanctuary are rescued from conventional tourism businesses and therefore require a lot of caretaking.
What can You experience in an Elephant Sanctuary
The elephants that are living in the sanctuary are pretty much free to do what they want. You just visit them and are a part of their daily life. That said, the elephants are easy to bribe with food and will follow their individual caretakers to the feeding spots.
If you imagine, that you might be unlucky and not see an elephant then this shouldn’t happen. Even though the elephants aren’t forced to do anything, there is a daily program and routine they follow. Be aware though, that the exact routine can depend on the mood of the elephants and if they don’t want to spend time with you and rather hide in the inner jungle, then this is respected.
A Day at the Elephant Sanctuary
So what did my day at the Elephant Jungle Paradise Sanctuary look like?
The specific experience can differ depending on which sanctuary you are visiting, but most of them have a similar program. In the morning I joined the car ride to the jungle and mountains of Chiang Mai as the first guest. The ride to the elephant sanctuary was an experience in itself. The sanctuary is located in the mountains of Chiang Mai and it took nearly two hours to get there. On our way, we also stopped at a local market.
On arrival, we were educated about the behaviors of the elephants and all the “Do’s & Dont’s”. In the end, the elephants are still wild animals and shouldn’t be provoked. With their large mass, they can also be harmful, even if they don’t intend to do so.
Then the first feeding started and the elephant joined us in an enclosure. They were standing behind a wooden fence, while their caretaker fed them. After getting comfortable around the elephants, we were allowed to feed them and get in closer contact with the elephants. It was one of the most joyful experience to feed the elephants, feel their trunks and see how they would devour the food.
Shortly after, the elephants left the fence and joined us, while we were feeding them. The highlight of the first meeting was the baby elephant which was only a few months old and very playful. Following the first introduction, we were provided with a traditional Thai lunch, which was not only great in taste but also plentiful. Again, I loved this trip for the fact that it pressent the authentic elephant life, instead of putting on some show.
Of course, when you book a day at the elephant sanctuary there is also the mud bath to look forward to. Yes, you are basically in a big puddle of mud and the elephants love to be there to get “clean” – by their definition! We scrubbed their backs and in return, they would “spit” at us with the mud. To get clean of the mud, we walked back to our base camp and showered at the waterfall. The elephants also joined us at the base camp and were cleaned in the river.
This concluded the day, which was so full of wonderful experiences, that it is difficult to describe it in words and I guess the pictures speak for themself.
Is it worth the money?
Visiting an elephant sanctuary is not exactly inexpensive, especially for the local price scales. My trip cost about $50 which is the standard for a full day at the elephant sanctuary. This money includes the transfer to and from the sanctuary to the city, the lunch and of course the time with the elephants.
Sure, a trip to a conventional elephant business might be less expensive, but keep in mind, that the $50 are needed in order to keep the sanctuary running and isn’t used for profit.
I would recommend this experience for everyone who is in the area of Chiang Mai. Even if you think that elephants are not one of your favorite animals, you will start loving them. Seeing them happily living their life at this sanctuary really left a lifelong impression and I wish that many tourists are able to experience the same and will support this animal-friendly form of tourism.
About The Author: Sebastian Jacobitz is a 29 Street & Documentary Photographer from Berlin and had the opportunity to travel through Southeast Asia for more than three months. Although I spent most of my time in Indonesia, the elephant sanctuary was one of the highlights of this travel.
On my photography blog, I share these experiences and try to inspire other photographers to enjoy photography as much as I do.