A big tourist attraction in Thailand is elephants. There are a ton of options available, where you can see an elephant up close and personal, though not all of them are good.
While in Thailand our group decided we wanted to go visit with some elephants. Our CEO did not go with us seeing as it’s not something the tour company could be a part of, just in case. Why? Because of the unethical treatment of elephants in certain areas. Specifically places where you ride elephants and the tour company couldn’t be associated with anything even slightly problematic in that regard, even if where we went didn’t include riding. After some research it was decided that we’d go to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and a tour was booked. We all got up early, piled into the back of a truck through the mountains, a long drive with a rest stop on hilly winding roads that left even those of us in the strongest dispositions nauseous.
Our guide from the sanctuary explained the differences between their sanctuary and other elephant places and a bit of history. Originally the hill-tribe of Thailand cared for the elephants and in return the elephants helped them with tasks. The elephants did what they liked best, eat, sleep and play. But sometimes the elephant would eat farmers foods, because what does an elephant know of the concept of property and the ownership of land? The farmers would find their crops destroyed or eaten and would lash out, hurting or killing the elephants. And as time went on and the economy changed the hill-tribe had to make a choice, either protect and care for the elephants full-time or do something that will earn them money to live. They couldn’t do both, so rich people came and said “We’ll care for the elephants for you” and they agreed. The elephants were taken and used for tourism. They were fed and cared for but they spent all day walking and carrying people. They walk a circuit with a tourist on their back and come back, drop off the tourist, pick up a new one and continue again and again and again. (Which isn’t good for their spines) Not what an elephant enjoys. So some of the elephants have been rescued and put in these sanctuaries where people care for them, the elephant sanctuary being a combined effort between the Karen hill-tribes and other locals.
The sanctuary we went to is a no ride sanctuary. Instead you don traditional clothing the elephants will recognize (so they’re not scared that your going to hurt or kidnap them like other people have done) and know that you’re going to do something it likes. You’re there to feed and bathe the elephant. Which is what we did. We donned the colorful albeit somewhat scratchy tunics, were armed with bananas and sugar cane and led off to meet with the large and peaceful creatures and their highly energetic and playful babies.
After feeding the elephants (and for a few people, playing with and getting knocked down by ramming running babies who head butted to play) they were led down to a mud pit, people changed into bathing suits and threw mud all over the elephants and then hiked with them to a river to wash off.
I however did not participate. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I made a terrible terrible choice of wearing flip-flops and very early on in our trip slid down into where the elephants were making a giant gash in my elbow that got caked in the red dirt. I spent a good chunk of time sitting in a hut while one of the guides cleaned my wound and bandaged me up. (Wear sensible shoes and bring a pair of flip flops for the elephant bath)
They also provided lunch and gave us souvenirs to take with us later and took pictures of all of us that they shared later on their Facebook page.
Our trip to the elephant sanctuary was a nice end point for my trip. We learned a lot about the work to protect elephants and care for them, the dangers of riding elephants, the jobs of mahout (elephant caretakers), and elephants in general. The sanctuary we went to has 9 different camps with about 30 rescued elephants, both Asian and African, though mostly Asian. You can book morning or afternoon half day visits. (1,700 baht), or you can stay for the whole day (2,400 baht), go for a walk with the elephants (you’ll learn how to make medicine for the elephants as well for 3,500 baht), or an overnight visit (4,900 baht). All of these include food, water, pick up and return to the place you’re staying and an English speaking guide, the overnight one includes staying with the Karen people and learning more about their village, farms, and culture.
After returning to our hotel and resting near the pool for a bit the tour got in red trucks and left to continue on down to Bangkok and then from there separating and continuing their travels or back home. I didn’t go with them. Instead I hugged and said goodbye and walked through Chang Mai until it was time to go to the airport and return to South Korea (where I promptly passed out and it took about 3-4 days to recover from my tour)