Elephant Hugs - Visiting An Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Thailand
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
When We Were There: June 10, 2019
Destination: Elephant Rescue Park Resort
Location: Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai province. About 1 hour from Chiang Mai city.
Time: Half-Day Tour, 8:30am - 2pm.
Cost: 2,200 baht ($70 USD) per person. Includes pick-up/drop-off, lunch, waters, and uniforms.
A popular activity for travelers in Thailand is to spend quality time with elephants. The elephant or “chang” in Thai, is the national animal you see printed on everything from souvenirs and accessories to beer labels. The Asian Elephant is to Thailand what the Bald Eagle is to the United States as far as symbolism goes, but elephants are still commonly used in Asia for manual labor and tourism. If you’re an animal lover and responsible traveler, when visiting Thailand you’ll want to do your research and find sanctuaries that rescue elephants, provide them with veterinary needs and give them a safe retirement home.
“The Asian Elephant is to Thailand what the Bald Eagle is to the United States as far as symbolism goes.”
You can easily spend hours online searching for a reputable and legitimate elephant sanctuary. For every 5 great reviews there’s 1 that will shock and frighten you and maybe even deter you away for fear of not having a good time, wasting your money or supporting the wrong people. Maybe you are reading this for that exact reason, and we’re glad you stumbled on this blog because a lot of that stress we did already, and we ended up finding a great company so read on!
A tip on research: TripAdvisor and Google seem to be where most people leave reviews for excursions, sites and activities. Things change quickly, especially post COVID-19, so even though we’re sharing our version of a special and memorable experience, that doesn’t mean it will be the same for everyone. Make sure you read recent reviews and only go somewhere that doesn’t advertise or offer elephant riding. If you see something questionable, don’t be afraid to ask. For example, the mahouts (elephant caretakers) carry large machetes on their belts and one Australian woman on our tour mentioned it to me with suspicion in her voice. I asked our guide what it was for and he explained that sometimes when the elephants are grazing in the jungle they will try to take down a branch or leaf and it pulls the whole tree down. So in effort to save the tree and keep the property nice, they will cut down the branch for the elephant.
At the time of our research, the number one company on Trip Advisor was Elephant Rescue Park (elephantrescuepark.com). The price compared to other companies in Chiang Mai province is on the higher end - a couple hundred baht more - but I took this and the hundreds of positive reviews as a good sign. When I called to book the tour a very friendly staff member who spoke excellent English answered and provided all of the necessary information about the tour. If you don’t have an international phone, you can email, WhatsApp or complete a booking form online to sign up. Low season in Thailand is June-October and we were able to sign up a couple days before the tour. I imagine in high season you’ll want to secure a spot a week or so in advance.
We opted to drive our scooter to the sanctuary instead of getting picked up by the taxi van service. The 50 minute ride was beautiful and on the way back we were on our own time schedule and stopped at some waterfalls (read Adam’s article on one of our favorite waterfalls in Chiang Mai). We arrived at Elephant Rescue Park about 15-20 minutes before everyone else and were greeted by friendly staff and told to hang out and wait for the group (about 16 of us in total). For the first 30 minutes we were briefed about the sanctuary, their mission, and the agenda for the day. We also got to hear stories about a few of the elephants and what their lives were like before arriving at the sanctuary. I’m usually wary of group tours as they aren’t really my thing but I have to say the program ran very smoothly and the other guests were all very respectful and fun to be around. There was a father and daughter from Australia, a few couples from Spain and two brothers from Switzerland. Adam and I were token Americans (the way we like it). Side note: from our experience in SE Asia, tours that are eco-friendly, sustainable and responsible, automatically attract cool people.
After our morning briefing, we changed into pajama-like uniforms. I’m glad they advised me on the phone to bring a bathing suit, socks and a change of clothes. The rubber boots they gave us were an early indicator of how dirty and wet we would get. Once we were in our maroon pajamas, boots and straw hats, we went outside for a group photo. Sometimes these photoshoots can get a bit tiresome but you just have to grin and bear it because it’s how business is often done in SE Asia.
The first activity of the day was the banana train. We all lined up and got to work unloading several large baskets of bananas. In our briefing we were taught the technique of placing a banana in the lower part of the elephant’s trunk, near the end where their “lips” are. Despite being told exactly what to do, it took some practice. Elephant trunks are incredibly strong and when holding a tasty treat you are a target. The more confident we became in feeding them the more the elephants seemed to respect the process and stopped trying to grab at the bananas not meant for them. After several courses of bananas, we took them on a walk through the jungle. The mahouts are always around and they lead the way making sure we don’t get too close to the back of the elephant. Occasionally, an elephant left the herd, looking for something to eat. It’s amazing to see these large and majestic animals navigate up and down steep paths like they were ballerinas and not 4,000 kilos.
On our walk, the mahouts encouraged us to pet the elephants and get to know them. The Asian Elephant is one of the most intelligent animals on the planet and they can recognize a person just based on how they smell. They are sensitive and protective and they do love affection. Petting an elephant takes a bit of coaching. If you pet an elephant like a dog or cat they don’t feel it through their thick skin. It feels more like a fly that needs to be swatted away. So you have to be a bit more aggressive - think deep tissue massage, or slap on the ass over a gentle caress.
After our walk through the jungle the elephants went to bathe, and get some shade. Side note: elephants need a certain amount of shade and water every day in order for their skin not to dry out. That is another thing to think about when looking for an elephant tour in Thailand or anywhere else for that matter. If the elephants are outside all day entertaining and giving rides, it means they are not being well cared for. So while our elephants were taking a break, our group went back to the main house for some lunch. I was impressed by the spread of signature Thai dishes like fried rice, pad thai, morning glory and everything was vegetarian because after all, elephants ARE vegetarians…
After lunch was elephant bath time. There is a small man-made lake on the property and we were each given a scrub brush and bucket and told to get in and join the elephants. We got to work throwing buckets of water on the elephants and scrubbing the mud off their skin. It was actually a lot harder than it looks but they love the feeling and were happy to show us exactly how much they appreciated it. Elephants like to have water fights! Seeing them play and splash around was so cool. There were many laughs coming from us, the mahouts and even the elephants.
We recommend this tour because you learn so much about elephants. What they need for survival, their likes and dislikes, their impressive memories (it’s a real thing) and much more. You also get to appreciate them, their size, their gentle nature and why it’s important to ensure their protection.
Months later in Koh Samui, Thailand, Adam and I went to a waterfall and around the entrance/parking lot there were a few elephants hanging out in the shade. We bought a 50 baht basket of bananas from the caretaker. Calling on our learned skills of elephant feeding we were able to bond once again with these beautiful, strong and devoted animals. Check out the short video here. Clearly we love elephants, hopefully you enjoyed reading about them as much as we enjoyed taking care of them for a day. ✌🏼🛵💚🍜
If you want the option of being hands free and worry-free you can pay 150 baht to the photographer who spends the day with you taking pictures and will send them to you via shared Google Drive folder after the tour. It took a couple days to receive the photos but the pictures were great. They do not take videos, so you’ll have to bring your own device for that. A nice farewell touch at the end of the day was when the guide presented everyone with a handmade picture frame as a way to say thank you for supporting them and the good work they do.
Later in our trip, we met an American woman from Georgia who did the overnight tour option at Elephant Rescue Park and she loved her experience. On the overnight tours you spend even more time with the elephants, caring for them and learning how to make the food they like. The bungalows on the property appeared to be nice and spacious and look out over the lake where the elephants take their bath every day. Later in Chiang Rai, I met a woman from the UK who spent a week volunteering at a sanctuary in Chiang Mai Province called Elephant Nature Park (elephantnaturepark.org). You should have more time in your trip and ability to spend more, but it sounded like an incredible experience and the organization is world famous. They offer 1 and 3 days or a week long option so if you’re really looking to understand elephants and devote time and love to these amazing animals I think this could be a great option as well.