Chiang Mai is Thailand’s cultural epicenter with nomadic hill tribes, glistening golden temples, and its famed elephants. High on most travelers bucket list is an experience with these gentle giants, unfortunately, however, animal tourism often exploits and harms elephants for the entertainment of trusting and unsuspecting tourists.
Here is a guide to help you navigate the murky waters of animal tourism in Chiang Mai so that you can enjoy spending your money and time with free happy elephants. In this post I will talk about ethical tourism, elephant cruelty, how to spot it, and The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary - an ethical option to see them up close and personal.
Ethical Tourism: what is it?
Ethical tourism is essentially responsible tourism. It means thinking about the negative consequences of your presence as a tourist and encourages you to avoid participating activities that have negative consequences to the environment, local people, local economy and to wild life.
Why is it important?
Ethical tourism is so important because elephants go through a life time of pain and hurt just so tourists can have a ride and take a few photos.
To make elephants obedient, they go through a process of Phajann otherwise known as the crush. The crush involves separating calves from their mothers and enclosing them in a tiny coffin like structures. They are then subjected to beatings with bull hooks, bamboo sticks spiked with nails, starved, deprived of sleep and caged for up to six years.
The reality is that if you interact with an elephant in any capacity which isn't just looking, it has gone through this process. If you can ride them, watch them preform circus tricks or get their faces painted, they have been through the crush.
The elephants don't stop suffering after the process has finished. Elephants spines aren't designed to support any weight, and so having humans on top of them causes damage to their back. They are often still kept in small enclosed environments, chained, under fed, under watered and separated from other elephants.
Ethical Animal Tourism in Thailand
Luckily for the elephant lovers out there, there is still a way for you to experience these gentle giants without harming them. The answer is sanctuaries.
As Thailand has come under increased pressure to change its ways, more and more sanctuaries have been established. Sanctuaries look after rescued elephants from tourist attractions and are your only ethical option to see elephants up close and personal.
But make sure you still keep an eye out because, in an attempt to appeal to tourists who are now more educated on the ethical treatment of animals, some elephant attractions have re-branded themselves as 'sanctuaries' or 'conservation centers' while still making their elephants entertain tourists.
So, where can you go where you know your money is going to help them?
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project that protects and nurtures rescued elephants.
The elephants here have been rescued from circus acts and harmful tourist attractions to live out their days free and happy. They are never chained up, they are fed masses amounts of food, are left to roam freely around the sanctuary and most importantly they get to be surrounded by other elephants. Unlike in their previous homes, these elephants are spoiled, and the best bit is you get to do some of the spoiling! Delicious treats, mud baths, playing in rivers are all daily occurrences for these lucky few.
What makes the experience so amazing for the visitors is that the elephants love your attention. Because elephants are social animals, they live in family groups with deep bonds, and these ones have been around humans since birth, they enjoy the company of people - unlike wild elephants.
They want to interact with you, play with you, and more than anything, they want the bananas and sugar cane you are hiding behind your back. They are friendly and playful, below you can see me getting slobber all over my face by this calf.
Your general itinerary:
Whether you choose a half day or full day, the Jungle Sanctuary will send a little truck to pick you up at your accommodation in Chiang Mai. Jump in to the back of the truck and meet the other elephant lovers heading to the sanctuary. You might as well get friendly with them because you're about to spend an hour and a half travelling together. The truck was definitely not built with comfort in mind, so bring a jumper to sit on unless you don't mind a numb bum.
The drive down takes you out of the city, through the country side, and into the jungle on an absolutely beautiful drive. There will be moments you need to hold on tight for fear of being flung out the back. And more than once I didn't think we were going to make it up the hill, but that's all part of the fun, right?
When you arrive at the sanctuary the first thing that happens is that you learn about the elephants, their story, their routine, how to feed them, how to interact with them, which is really important. A definite red flag if you visit somewhere and this doesn't happen.
You then go down in to the sanctuary, to meet the free roaming elephants, to feed them some delicious snacks that the sanctuary will provide - banana's and sugar cane. After that you walk with them to a "mud spa" essentially a big muddy puddle to cover them in mud and watch them play and waddle around in it.
Once they are covered trunk to toe in mud its time to walk along the shallow river until you get to the little falls to wash them off with buckets and brushes. Don't forget your swimsuits because you'll be in the water with them.
After bath time, you'll head back to the area you started in to dry off and enjoy a traditional Thai buffet. You'll also get to make some more snacks for the elephants and get to go down to visit them one last time before you have to jump back in to the truck you swore wasn't going to make it here in the first place.
Price: 1,700 Bhat per person for half day
2,400 Bhat per person for full day
What to Bring: Hat - Swim Suit - Sunscreen - Insect Repellent - Towel - Trainers - Change of Clothes - Camera
How to spot unethical animal treatment and what to do if you see it
The animals are chained.
They are kept in small enclosures.
You can go on rides.
They looked drugged
If the elephants are swaying, pacing and bobbing their heads is a sign of serious psychological stress.
Torn or irregular ears can be signs of punishment using a bull hook.
Abscesses on their knees can be an indication that they have been made to lie on hard surfaces for a long time.
If you think you have seen elephants, or any animal for that matter, being mistreated talk to the management, leave a negative review, tell your travel agent, tour operator and/or hotel. The more pressure on the industry to change and look after its elephants the more likely it is to happen.