Elephants and Thailand just sort of go together. Many tourist dream of having the perfect encounter with these beautiful animals, myself included! The Thai tourism industry is filled with experiences that allow you ride an elephant or see it perform circus tricks, but these activities aren’t the best for the animals’ welfare. Thankfully there are places like the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which promote the ethical treatment of these gentle giants and provide a home for those hurt by the harmful practice of elephant riding.
Why is elephant riding so terrible?
Elephant riding or trekking is an incredibly popular attraction in Thailand. Who wouldn’t want to take a ride through the jungle on the back of an elephant? I totally get it. I admit that I had no idea how terrible this practice was until I started researching my trip to Thailand. So why is it so terrible to ride an elephant?
Elephants are wild animals and would never let a human ride them in the wild.
In order to be tamed, young elephants go through a process called “the crush.” It involves the baby elephant being tortured into submission by beatings, starvation and sleep deprivation until it submits to the mahout. A quick Google search of this practice will leave you feeling rather sick.
Even if the elephants weren’t tortured into submission, they aren’t built to carry weight on their back. Their spine can deteriorate or break from carrying heavy loads.
Thankfully there are sanctuaries where elephants rescued from these practices can live out their days.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
When searching for an ethical alternative to elephant riding, I came across a video from travel vlogger Christian LeBlanc about his amazing experience at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. I loved that you were able to interact, feed and bathe the elephants without any riding. The elephants at the sanctuary were all rescued from tourist attractions in Thailand.
We booked our tour directly from their office in Chiang Mai and were promptly picked up at our guesthouse the morning of our excursion. The sanctuary is located about 2 hours from Chiang Mai old city, but the last half hour is very bumpy. If you get motion sick I suggest bringing some medicine.
When we arrived at the Karen village where the sanctuary is located, we were asked to change into traditional woven shirts. This apparently puts the elephants at ease. We then began our trek up the hill to meet the elephants.
Pro Tip: Make sure to pack some essentials like sunscreen, water and shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. You might want to pack a change of clothes as well since things might get a bit muddy.
Interacting with the Elephants
We trekked until we found some of the elephants eating in a clearing. The guides gave us some snacks for our new friends and taught us how to approach and feed the elephants. We got to bond over some bananas.
We even got to meet one of the pregnant elephants. She was almost done with her two-year pregnancy and was due to give birth in only a few months. You could feel the baby elephant moving around if you put your hand on her side!
My favorite elephant was Pituk, who was just over 1 year old when we met him! He had tons of personality and loved to play. He and his mother were rescued from an elephant show, when she was injured giving birth to him. Both now live happily at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary!
After had their fill of snack time, we headed down to the river for a mud bath!
Some of us got muddier than others…
Once they got sufficiently dirty, it was time to wash off in the river! We all climbed into the river, where the elephants splashed themselves and us to get rid of the mud. It was so fun to be able to swim with these beautiful animals!
Sadly, after our swim it was time to say goodbye. We waved goodbye to our new elephant friends before packing up for the ride back to Chiang Mai.
We really enjoyed our time at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and definitely recommend it to anyone searching for an ethical elephant experience in Thailand!
- The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary offers half day, full day and overnight stays. I recommend the full day, as you get more time to spend with the elephants.
- If that doesn’t seem like enough time you can join their week-long volunteer program!
- Costs ranges from 1,700 to 4,900 Baht depending on the length of the visit.
- You can book online at their website, at their office in Chiang Mai, or through many travel agents in the city. (If you do book online or at their office you get to keep the Karen shirt you wear with the elephants!)
- The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary keeps the groups small for the safety of the elephants, so the spots are often booked up. Book a few days in advance if possible, especially during high season!
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