Chiang in Thai means elephant. This means that Chiang Mai is quite obviously known as a city of elephants. When you visit it is very apparent that they are an enormous part of the tourist industry here, with virtually all of the tour operators and guesthouse a offering one kind of elephant experience or another. Sadly, many of these experiences included elephant rides. A practice that is still widely thought of as acceptable, and is also recommended in many well known guidebooks. However, elephants that give rides often live in appalling conditions and are horribly mistreated. We didn’t want to give our money to any business like this. But we did want to see elephants.
After some time researching online we discovered the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. An organisation which started three years ago with a mission of rescuing elephants from the horrible conditions many were forced to live in and allowing them to live out their lives peacefully. In huge lettering across the front of their website it said NO RIDING, after reading reviews and looking through all of the details of the organisation we felt that they would be perfect for us to see elephants with and booked.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is high in the jungle above Chiang Mai, so we were glad that they offered a pickup service. It was a two hour drive up some very steep hills in the back of a truck. We were pretty tired when we arrived simply from hanging on to the sides of the truck when we were speeding along the steep Thai roads! Glad to be out of the transport we went to sit in the main long hut that offered a space for everybody to sit and learn a little about the elephants before meeting them. We were told that at this part of the sanctuary (camp 2) there were 7 elephants ranging from a grandmother to a baby. We could hear them off in the distance and were desperate to meet them!
Before being able to meet the elephants we were told a little about the story of the Jungle Sanctuary. The first elephants they had were bought from a local hill tribe who had been renting then to tour operators for riding. The organisation then grew to being able to rescue more and more elephants until they needed to open another camp. They plan to continue expanding and hope to be able to build a wall around large section of jungle to allow the elephants to freely roam.
After learning this we were finally able to go and meet the elephants! We were given shirts to change into and pockets full of sugar cane to feed them. At the shout of one of the sanctuary workers they came lumbering over a hill towards us. The youngest bounded over and eagerly tried to snatch as much sugar cane as he possibly could! The elder ones patiently waited and calmly took theirs. Something that struck me was how gentle they all seemed, they looked relaxed around people – not in a forced way, I noted that there weren’t any ‘trainers’ hanging around with sticks to ‘discipline’ the elephants as you often hear about. Instead they seemed to be genuinely happily free roaming.
After about an hour of feeding the elephants and taking a huge amount of photos with them we went back to the long hut to learn a little more about the elephants. We were told that these elephants required help with their diet – so helped to make up some ‘medicine’ for them. This consisted of sticky rice, salt, tamarind and banana balls which we dutifully made and happily fed to them later.
We took a break for lunch at this point – the food had been piled high and we all stuffed ourselves with noodles and chicken. Turns out playing with elephants all morning works up quite an appetite!
Following lunch we were told that we would be taking a mud bath and a swim with the creatures. This was what most people seemed excited about – the elephants seemed so happy and playful it was hard not to be! We quickly changed into some swim shorts and went to get stuck in! Get stuck we did. There was a large muddy pool where the elephants were happily splashing around – throwing large clumps of dirt onto themselves and everyone around them. After lots of messing around in the pool we were all absolutely caked in mud! To fix this we were led by our guides to a nearby waterfall, the water was cold but with some encouragement we all jumped in to wash ourselves off, the elephants all excitedly joined us, happily splashing around. We stayed in the waterfall for around half an hour until the shivers got too hard to ignore and we headed back to dry off.
After we had dried it was time to say goodbye to the elephants, we gave them some final strokes and sugarcane and climbed back into the truck for the bumpy ride back. Driving down the mountain back into Chiang Mai we passed a line of elephants, heads stooped with seats chained to their backs. They were being taken back from another day being ridden by visitors to whichever park they belonged to. It wasn’t just the scars on their bodies that showed us their mistreatment but the darkness in their eyes. It was seeing this that made us reflect a little more on how important the work of the sanctuary was. The growing awareness of how these creatures are treated is so valuable – one hopes that eventually it will become the case that people will pay more to see and interact with happy and cared for elephants than to ride on sad and abused ones, hopefully eventually resulting in these places changing their practices and eventually doing away with rides all together.