Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm

For years we have dreamt of meeting the beautiful elephants of Asia, but after hearing many horror stories of bad treatment and awful conditions we were wary of doing more harm than good in seeking out this dream interaction. After much research, speaking to others who had visited many of the sanctuaries and so called “sanctuaries” we felt like we could make the most informed decision and contribute towards the rescue of these beautiful creatures at an amazing Elephant sanctuary Thailand

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A changing dream to visit these wonderful animals 

As annoyed as I get when I see people riding elephants I can also understand that many people are ignorant to the issues that I will go into more detail about below. But many years ago I remember having a dream of riding an elephant, I knew little of what that really meant but I was young and filled with the romantic idea of this traditional way of getting around South East Asia. However as time went on I learnt and became more aware of the lives and the plight of these beautiful animals and my dreams shifted from riding them to looking after them and visiting a place that would contribute to bettering their lives.

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In so many ways this is just another reason why I am glad we waited until we were older to go backpacking and why I believe that your later 20’s is the best time to travel as you are much aware of the world at this age.

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The importance in knowing why you shouldn’t ride them

Many people still head over to South East Asia with the dream of riding elephants, when confronted with the idea that this is harmful, unethical and torturous most of these people fail to see how riding such a large creature could cause them pain.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

The thing with riding elephants is that their vertebrae is designed in a different way to that of the horse or even the buffalo which is the Asian equivalent in the role they play in this part of the world. An elephant had additional spines coming off the top of their vertebrae meaning that this area is sensitive to weight and much more delicate than this huge animals first appear. Add the heavy metal frame to the mix and many elephants have to endure crippling back pain.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

But this is just the tip of the iceberg, most elephants have to endure years of mental and physical torture in order to be broken. Elephants aren’t a domesticated animal and don’t have the connection to humans as that of the horse, it needs to be taken as a baby, ripped away cruelly from its mother and its spirit broken in a process known as Phajaan, or “the crush”. These babies are confined to a cage and learn to obey the humans as their masters in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome type of behaviour. But elephants are also powerful and never forget, often these tortured animals will one day turn on the humans around them and crush them. 

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Selecting the right place that protects the elephants 

So after learning all about why we shouldn’t ride animals we also learnt that many of the so called sanctuaries in Chiang Mai and Thailand as a whole also still abuse their so called rescued animals. It felt like a real challenge to actually find somewhere that where we could interact with these amazing animals without harming them and actually contribute towards them having a better life. Many of the fake sanctuaries still chain their elephants up, still use the cruel hooks used to break them, still make them perform and keep them in the confined setting that cause mental problems for the elephants.

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Over the course of our research we came across two companies: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and Elephant Nature Park. Any other we felt uneasy visiting.

These places take animals from the trekking companies that ride elephants and also the logging industry that has decimated both the population of the Asian elephant and their natural environment. They keep them in large and protected areas, keep mothers and babies together and have a real passion for the welfare of these animals rather that just exploiting them for tourism. The money you pay here goes directly towards rescuing more elephants, improving their surroundings, feeding them and one day hopefully reintroducing them into the wild.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

Learning about these wonderful animals 

The first thing we did when we arrived in camp was to sit down whilst the elephants were wandering up to the feeding area. They introduced us to this small herd, showed us the differences between the Asian and African elephants and educated us as to their plight historically in this area.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

Importantly they also told us how to behave around the elephants, how to approach them and how to ensure that they are comfortable and never overwhelmed or afraid. It was important to their handlers, who have a personal relationship to their elephants, that they benefit from these interactions.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,
Here the elephants are not in a closed off area, they can come in and out as they choose, but for hand feeding by those not used to how excited they get it is safer and stops them getting overwhelmed!

Interacting with the elephants: Feeding and bathing

The best part of the day was finally getting to interact with these beautiful creatures. Initially we were a little scared of such huge and powerful animals but the more time we spent with them and the more we got to know their calm and friendly nature the more comfortable we felt. Feeding them palm leaves and bananas really got them excited and allowed us get up and close to them and see how their amazingly dextrous trunks work, fascinating really.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,
You have to hide your stack of bananas behind you or they’ll try and eat them all at one, however they are smart and often reach around you with their trunks and grab them!!

We then moved on to the mud bath where the elephants (and us) would be covered in the stuff! It is great for their skin and for social interaction with each other and to reenforce a positive and playful relationship with humans. What I also loved was that one of the babies who was a bit of a tearaway got a little fed up in there and they recognised this straight away and took him and his mum back up to the feeding area. The handlers have a real connection and understanding of these animals.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

The best bit of the day however was washing the elephants down in the river. Elephants love the water and love to be cooled down on a hot day. You should really see and hear the fun they were having in the water, throwing their trunks around in joy and the little ones making as much noise as they could. We all had a huge water fight and the elephants joined in once we were done washing the mud off them. It was such a pleasure to see how happy and content they are here too.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

Later on we also got to meet some of the senior members of the herd and fed them softer bananas in a special area reserved just for them and their changing needs. It was sad to think how many years of mistreatment they had endured especially the older ones, but it was so wonderful to see them live out the rest of their years here and also know that these babies would never go through what they did.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

How to visit the elephants for yourself

We booked our tour through our hostel and specified which camp we wanted to visit.

They offer several options including volunteering for longer, full day tours and half day.

We chose a half day due to money constraints but were pleasantly surprised by what we got for that and how long our experience lasted.

The trip included pick up and drop off as well as lunch.

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

Elephant sanctuary Thailand: Price for half day is: 1,700 ( £38.60 / $49.49)

www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

Have you ever visited an Elephant sanctuary Thailand?

Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm, ethical, volunteer, help, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, help, no riding, swim with elephants, rescue program, Chiang Mai, Thailand, elephant jungle sanctuary Chiang Mai, Why you shouldn't ride elephants, Elephant Sanctuary Thailand, Elephant trekking, Elephant in jungle, Chiang Mai elephant tour, Thailand Elephant,

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Visiting the beautiful elephants of Chiang Mai at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: Selecting the right place to do good rather than harm >

Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.
  • Hi Nic,

    Those mud baths looks fun! I spent a few minutes last month reading over 10 brochures for elephant havens outside of Chiang Mai, when in the Old City. Almost all stressed no riding or at the least, no basket riding. Good to see awareness is expanding in this regard. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Ryan

    • Cheers Ryan. Yeah so glad more people are on board with not riding and realising the harm it does. Still a long way to go though.

  • I did use to be an ignorant tourist and took an elephant ride many years ago when I was in Asia for the first time. However, I’ve learned a lot since then and I would never do it again.

    • We all live and learn and can’t change the past, but being honest and open to new ideas is the best way to change things.

  • I have to confess I have done a elephant ride in Laos but I had no idea of these practices. I think I would have thought twice had I known

    • Thanks for being honest, as we said years ago that would have probably been us. But its good to know we can spread the word and change peoples opinions, we can’t change what we did in the past but we can in the future!

  • Danik Bates

    At last a decent post about elephants in Asia and why we shouldnt ride them! I hate reading other travel blogs where the bloggers are shown on backs of elephants with their arms up in the air. That really cheeses me off. I am so glad there is a sanctuary like this, I havent been to Chang Mai yet but would totally consider visiting this place. I wouldnt dare dream of riding an elephant, what a horrible thought. 🙁 Fantastic post guys and love the honesty (and your right, wait until late 20’s and you are more aware of what is the world is like, I learnt that as well).

    • Cheers Danik, yeah you still see so much of it and so many people are still defending it too, mostly because of how big the animals are. You guys will love it up there when you do visit, so much to do, but this was a highlight for us.

  • Jenna

    I’ve heard a lot of great things about the Elephant sanctuary Thailand and it’s nice to hear another positive experience! Always so sad to see people riding elephants. I never knew that much detailed info about the structure of their backs so thanks for sharing and providing another reason to not ride them! Looks like a great day with adorable animals!

    • Thanks, yeah we did a lot of research to make sure we went to a good place. Its so sad to see people riding them but I do think many people just don’t realise, they obviously try to cover it up as it doesn’t look good.

  • Great advice! And you’re totally right: many people ignore how much pain they’re causing to elephants when riding them. And besides, feeding them or giving them a bath is definitely a much more interesting experience! 🙂

    • Thank you, we thought so too, to interact and enjoy their company anyway is so much more fun!

  • Suze

    I’ve learned so much reading this article, I never knew that some sanctuaries were fake ones who do more harm than good. I knew that it was bad to ride them but I didn’t know that was partly down to their spines. It must have been so rewarding to spend timime with these gentle giants

  • I hate seeing the elephant on the roads of Ayutthaya Thailand and how tourists ride and feed them! It’s okay to be fascinated by these creatures but I just hope people would be more knowledgeable regarding this issue.

    • I know, we visited down there and it made me so mad, it’s just awful and there were so many people still paying for it.

  • Veronika Tomanová

    HI! This is really meaningful post. Many people mistaken elephants for attractions in Thailand. I must say I did this mistake as well during my first visit, but later I learned why it is harmful. So hard you have chosen to play with the elephants instead of riding,

    • Yes, so many don’t realise and so many visit the wrong places too. Research is key when it comes to visiting anywhere that animals are involved.

  • Jennifer Dombrowski

    I’ve also been to an elephant sanctuary. That was before I went on safari and saw elephants in the wild.

    So here’s my take. First of all, captive elephants have been abused to obey the commands of their owners whether they are riden or not. So riding, when bareback, makes absolutely no difference. Chairs can cause harm because of the weight.

    These poor Asian elephants have a gigantic loss of habitat and unfortunately can’t just go back to the wild. I don’t know what the exact answer is as it takes so much money to care for these poor animals, but captive elephants in Asia need to stop all together. All that has happened with most of these sanctuaries is that the mahouts have seen a new way to make money and created a cycle of selling their elephants to sanctuaries, then perpetuating the cycle by going out to capture another and eventually sell that one too.

    Go on safari instead and stop creating elephant tourism with these captive elephants. Period.

    • You are right, most of the so called sanctuaries here are just a way for the Mahouts to make money. However most of them still just ride elephants here in the way they always have as it really isn’t seen as anything wrong at the moment, Elephants are still listed as a type of transport. However there are only two legitimate sanctuaries in Chiang Mai that actually look after and rescue these animals and as you said the cost for that is huge, tourists spending a few hours a day helping clean and feed them is what allows them to do rescue them in the first place. The problem is as you said a loss of habitat as well as a history of abuse for these elephants. Unfortunately most can’t be released into the wild. Firstly because there is still very much a threat from hunting and/ or being captured to take back into the trade they were rescued from. Then there is also the issue that they have been brought up in captivity and lack many skills they need for survival as well as many retaining mental scars from their abuse that make them dangerous to be in the wild. So for the time being this is the best solution and by visiting one of these two places you ensure funding for them to rescue and look after the animals. I hope that in the future laws can change and these amazing animals can be protected in Thailand and habitat protected too. The best solution would be an area of jungle as a dedicated reservation. I would absolutely love to do a safari in that situation, but it just doesn’t exist here. This is why doing your research and knowing all the facts is so important.

  • Laura Lynch

    I appreciate that you know what the animals go through and took that into consideration when you found a place to have this experience. I know a lot of people want this experience and won’t really take the time to consider the best place. I still don’t really think that elephants should be used for our entertainment, but like others have said, they can’t go back into the wild now. At least you’re educating people about it.

    • Thank you. Yes so many people don’t think or worst still just don’t care at all even if they do know what goes on, you see a lot of that too. Hopefully one day they can be released into some sort of protected reserve and we can visit them there, but for now this is the best way to help them.

  • awesome pictures and i think you had great fun with the big giant animal.