Elephant tourism is a hot topic in Thailand and we chose to go the route of not riding these beautiful animals at a sanctuary near Chiang Mai. Soon after checking into a nice backpacker hostel in the Old City, a whole variety of tours are presented to us. I’m not really a tour person but we mentioned elephants and our ever-eager hotelier nudges us towards a lesser-known camp that could use the support. We asked her at least five times if this is the bad kind of elephant sanctuary because if so, they can have someone else’s money. The next morning, a man named Ding Dong (DD) picked us up and took us along with five or six other people for a short drive away from the city. This is how one of the most amazing days in our lives began.
Check best prices on places to stay in Chiang Mai as your base for ethical elephant tourism and more!
A Thai Elephant Sanctuary Without the Riding
“Whenever elephants met men, elephants fared badly.” – Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel
Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai
You can book online through either the Elephant Nature Park or Elephant Retirement Park websites but in Chiang Mai, most hotels will want you to book directly through them. They’ll also offer a better deal and may have better intel. For example, whether or not the elephant sanctuary will be too busy when you plan to visit.
Background Info about Elephants
Before digging in and getting dirty, he gives us some background info about elephants and their place in Thailand. DD explained that elephants are a major symbol of Thai history and culture. However, these days their numbers continue to drop thanks to habitat destruction and a variety of other reasons. In 1989, the Thai government imposed a nationwide logging ban and created a surplus of unused animals. Desperate measures led to the boom in Thailand’s elephant tourism boom and eager visitors came calling. Numbers vary on just how many elephants there are in Thailand but DD noted about 3,500.
The Elephant Tourism Industry
Thankfully, the Elephant Retirement Park is one of only two in the Chiang Mai area that doesn’t offer rides. Some people might have different views on the elephant tourism industry, backed by anecdotes and testimonies from the camp owners themselves. The things we saw and heard on our day with the elephants convinced me that a life of riding is not in the best interests of these animals.
Revise that Bucket List
With so many elephant tourism parks throughout the country, it’s easy to get sucked into the bucket list topper that this has become. Nearly everywhere one looks in Chiang Mai, signs advertise a day out with them as a “truly educational experience.” Learn to control them and see how they live every day! Says one poster. It’s really hard to take sides on this because I know so many people who’ve ridden elephants. Honestly, I don’t think you can blame every tourist for doing this but DD said that there are countless riding camps because that’s what a large majority of visitors want. He hoped that more visitors like us will come and spread the word about this type of elephant experience.
Elephant Food Consumption
Being such massive creatures, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the numbers that DD threw out when talking about daily consumption. One full-grown elephant drinks 20 liters of water and eats 150–300 kilograms of food each day. I’m still trying to physically comprehend these figures. They taught us a few words that notify the elephants to open their mouths, hug, and kiss. All very valuable phrases and I quickly tried to remember them, because it was then time to go down and play with the elephants. We watched one of the staff who’s standing next to one and gripping a handful of sugarcane. He raised his hand, said “bohn,” and placed his food-filled hands into their enormous mouths. Then, it was our turn. Most of us cringed as the elephants grabbed their meal and slobbered all over our hands in the process.
Elephant Command Words
I stood there facing him with a handful of sugarcane and there he was with the appetite of 40 human beings. In my life, I never expected to be standing in front of a retired elephant with nothing more than a handful of sugarcane but they say dreams can come true. I said “bohn“ and his mouth opened, exposing a mouth similar to mine but just… bigger, much bigger. Timidly, I placed the sugarcane in his mouth and almost expected to lose my hand. It comes out fully intact but he wanted more food. Repeating the exercise until I ran out, the guides said “goht” and he gave me a massive hug with his trunk. I then heard “joop” and feel a huge suction against my cheek, as he gave me a huge kiss. That feeling is so hard to describe but afterward, I possessed so much love and warmth for this beautiful creature.
The Perfect Day
I didn’t want this day to end but if it did right then, I’d have still been a very happy person. DD reveals the rest of his plans as he brought out a pile of clothes with instructions for us to put them on. Elephants not only drink copious amounts of water but also depend on it to provide sanctuary from the powerful sun. After changing and getting ready, the group headed down and we could see a couple of elephants proceeding toward the water. There’s very little more than I can say other than this being one of the most wonderful experiences in my life. We got dirty and watched the elephants play in the water like any normal person would on a hot day.
Volleys of water went between the elephants and us. Occasionally, one trumpeted and reminded us and we all stopped for a second before realizing that it was all in fun. We moved to a nearby muddy spot for fresh coats to be applied to their skin as further protection from the sun and mosquitos. Generous helpings of mud flew around in all directions and sometimes, a few of us got carried away. The elephants shook things up and splashed mud on our faces. Another dip in the pool later and somehow, the day was almost over. We stood for pictures with our new friends and got a few more hugs and kisses. Before getting into the van to come home, one of the younger little giants stopped by and said goodbye to us all, with his ears and tail happily flopping around.
Our Thoughts and Yours, Too!
I’ll never brag that I knew better about the riding industry and elephant sanctuaries. People can decide whether or not they want to ride the elephants. All I can do is tell everyone about this experience and hope they’ll want more of the same. If you visit either and see that people are riding elephants, please let me know. I will definitely rethink whether or not this camp should be promoted.
Do you want to visit the Elephant Retirement Park? What are your thoughts on this place? Spread the Awareness! Share this post with your friends to show them there’s a good side to the elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. We’d also love to read your thoughts in the comments section below:)
This article was originally created on October 9, 2015. It has been maintained and updated (as of March 3, 2018) to reflect current viewpoints and travel trends.