Elephant Jungle Sanctuary - An Ethical Elephant Encounter
Before going to Thailand, I watched a lot (A LOT) of documentaries on elephant and tiger tourism in Thailand thanks to my lovely friend Kali who advised me NOT to ride elephants there. An elephant's back isn't built for carrying very much weight, let alone a metal or wooden seat that sits directly on their spine. Likewise, the ropes that attach the seat usually cause wounds where they rub and can even cut an elephant's neck, belly and under their tails where the ropes pass.
The worse torture however comes during the process of "breaking" the elephants. Sharp hooks are used to hit the elephant, which is usually chained up or within a wooden cage, until they submit to their mahout (the person who trains the elephant.) They are hit on the top of their heads, behind their ears, in their side, etc until they no longer have the instinct to think for themselves. It's torture. It's used on elephants that are ridden and trained for shows in Thailand. The Last Elephants in Thailand is one of the documentaries I watched. There are quite a few on YouTube about Thai elephants and Tiger temples (another inhumane tourist attraction in Thailand.)
While elephants are a symbol of Thailand, specifically the city of Chiang Mai, there are currently more Thai elephants in captivity than in the wild. Killing elephants for their tusks, using them in logging, destroying their habitat and making profits off of them for riding and shows are just some of the reasons why this is happening. While elephant sanctuary tourism isn’t perfect either, at least the elephants are kept in groups, are not chained up, appear trusting of their caretakers and are allowed to be playful and affectionate.
My advice for booking an elephant sanctuary visit in Chiang Mai
1. If you want to visit one of the more popular sanctuaries, like Elephant Nature Park, book far in advance. We visited our second choice, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, because no visits were available to Elephant Nature Park when we decided to book.
2. There are different options, from inexpensive half-day packages to full week experiences. We chose the half-day program because it was clear every morning in Chiang Mai and then rained in the afternoon. Likewise, there wasn’t much difference between the half-day and full-day programs, just an extra meal and the price.
3. While I really enjoyed the experience, there were some parts I didn’t enjoy. Keep reading to find out what they are.
Half-day visit to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
What I liked Before meeting the elephants, our Thai guide told us about the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary’s history and more specific information about elephants. He was very friendly, funny and easy to understand. I really enjoyed not only interacting with the elephants, but learning more about them as well. The sanctuary started very small: with only a handful of elephants at one camp. Now, there are 6 different camps, each with a group of elephants. Each month the sanctuary tries to buy an elephant from a riding camp, logging camp, etc. and retire it from it’s work. While we were there we met an elephant that had just come from a riding camp. The guide said that it usually takes a few days for the elephant to get used to the tourists because they are usually abused by people and mistrusting of them. The elephant acted more scared than the others and had a guide with it at all times.
The best part of the visit is of course getting to interact with the elephants. In our camp, number 6, there was a 4 month old elephant who running around and playing with another young elephant. It was incredible to see their joy as they ran after each other, trumpeted from their trunks and hid beneath the older elephants. We were warned that if they babies were running at us, to get out of the way because they have no control over their bodies yet. We were never told to watch out for the adult elephants in any way, and I never felt uneasy around them. You could tell that they were comfortable around people.
Feeding the elephants was really fun. We were given sugarcane to feed them. The elephants used their trunks to grab the sugar cane from our hands and pockets. Our guide also taught us a verbal command to get the elephants to raise their trunk so that we could put the sugar cane in the elephant’s mouth.
After meeting and feeding the elephants, we changed into our swimsuits, took off our shoes, and walked with the elephants to a huge mud bath. The guides showed us how to scoop up the mud and rub it on the elephants’ skin. Of course, this turned into a huge mud fight between the Thai guides and tourists.
After the mud application, we walked with the elephants to a river with a small waterfall. Here we took bowls and scooped up water to rinse off the mud. We washed off as well and had time to relax in the river before eating Pad Thai for lunch.
What I didn’t like We were told to wait in our hotel lobby between 7am and 7:30am for pick-up. We were staying at a guesthouse with no reception so we ended up waiting on the street. The van didn’t come for us until around 8am.
Part of your visit includes photographs taken by a photographer with a professional camera during the “mud bath” part of the visit. You are allowed to download them from the Facebook page. This is great for not destroying your own camera during the visit (like we did… RIP Yi Action Camera). However, someone failed to ever post the pictures from our particular camp, from our particular visit. I contacted the sanctuary via Facebook and twice by e-mail, yet the pictures must have been erased, so we never got them.
My favorite experience during our trip to Thailand was visiting the elephant sanctuary. I would highly recommend it. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below.
Happy travels! Videos from our elephant visit coming soon to my youtube channel Abroad 365!