Tips for Visiting Elephant Sanctuaries: Spending Time with Nature’s Gentle Giants
Elephants and Thailand are synonymous. Think of Thailand, think of elephants. Elephant pants. Elephant visits. Even Chang, one of Thailand’s favorite beers, means elephant in Thai. There are now some great centers that you can go spend time in. So, without further ado, here are our top tips for visiting elephant sanctuaries.
The last generation has grown up with pictures of people on the backs of elephants roaming through the jungle and exploring untouched rivers. This has become the experience that lots of people aim to replicate during their travels to Thailand. But it isn’t all that straightforward, especially if you are someone who wants to support the elephants in an ethical way rather than support exploitative captors.
Making the Right Choices
We’re going to come straight out and say it. Don’t ride the elephants. Just don’t do it. It won’t be a pleasant ride, thanks to the wooden seats and metal handles. It won’t allow you to take good photos. And, most importantly, the single and only reason you need, it leads to further enslavement and exploitation of these animals for profit.
We know that might have put something of a dampener on your plans but allow us to explain why. In recent years there was sweeping regulation over the logging industry in Thailand. This meant that elephants previously used as beasts of burden suddenly had limited use. Sensing a business opportunity, the majority of captors turned to tourism. It was, and continues to be, a profitable one. Thousands and thousands of foreign tourists are desperate for an elephant ride
The brutality comes in the training process. We won’t go into the details but suffice to say it is gruesome and happens at a very young age. Elephants don’t want people to ride them, their natural instinct is to throw people off. As you would if someone tried to climb onto your back… the method of training is referred to as Phajaan or crushing. The aim being to crush the young elephants spirit into a submissive state, usually through physical abuse and sleep deprivation.
So, if you choose to ride an elephant, whether it be for a short walk or a longer trek bear this in mind.
What can you do?
Elephant rides aren’t the only way to interact with elephants. In fact, the elephant sanctuaries that are springing up across the country are gaining more and more supporters and growing in popularity. They offer you the opportunity to spend time with the elephants and their caregivers and learn more about conservation.
During our time in Chiang Mai, we visited Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary. They offer a wide variety of packages where you can either visit for a day, two days, three days or more. You can even stay overnight in their accommodation if you’d like. These multi day packages aren’t cheap, but boy are they worth it.
You’ll get picked up from your hostel or a nearby meeting point before getting a ride out into the hills. From the moment you arrive you know you’re in a special place. The team that works there are incredibly knowledgeable and amazingly caring. The animals definitely rule the roost here and will happily help themselves to the food supplies if left unattended for long!
You’ll get to mud bath, wash, feed and spend time up close with the elephants. They are incredible creatures, with their own very distinct personalities ranging from the shy and curious to the brazen and attention seeking. You’ll fall in love, we assure you.
The accommodation was about 15 minutes’ walk from the elephant camp and was very basic. It was a large bamboo structure with its own balcony looking over the rolling hills and was perfect for sunset viewing. There was even a fridge full of cold beers with a tab system set up. The food cooked up by the team was unbelievably delicious, and fiery hot should you want it to be.
What to Expect
You’ll certainly get muddy and you’ll certainly get wet. Make sure to bring either an old t-shirt, vest or something like a rash vest to cover up plus swimwear. Other than that, you can expect to wear what the center leaders deem to be traditional clothing. These are kaftan style ponchos in amazingly lewd colors and yes you are expected to wear them! Embrace it and enjoy yourself.
We’d suggest that you ask as many questions that you can about the elephants. The staff in all of these sanctuaries are incredibly knowledgeable and are in it for the elephants rather than the money. This is your chance to connect with these incredible creatures and learn more about them.
Final Tip for Visiting Elephant Sanctuaries
The choice is up to you. Whilst we can only strongly suggest that you don’t ride the elephants many thousands will continue to do so. Remember that change starts when one person acts, and an elephant never forgets.
Want more of our Thailand travel tips? Click here to read about our guide to tipping in Thailand!