Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
(Chiang Mai, Thailand) Tourism that includes elephants is often seen as cruel and not really animal-friendly. Often times the elephants are being mistreated and forced to perform unnatural acts to make the tourists happy.
Luckily, there are alternatives that are getting more popular and that focus more on the well-being of the elephants and showing them in their natural habitat. In Chiang Mai, there are a lot of elephant sanctuaries that are open for tourists. They offer either a half or a full day of visiting the elephant sanctuary and I have booked such a trip myself earlier this year.
I am Sebastian Jacobitz, a Documentary & Travel Photographer from Berlin, and had the pleasure to visit an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. All of the following images have been taken with the X100F, which I recommend using as a light travel camera. It is a small mirrorless camera for beginners that is easy to use and very versatile. Now, I want to share this awesome experience and recommend everyone who is interested in seeing elephants, visit such a sanctuary instead of a “traditional” elephant business.
With traditional, I mean, established tourist businesses that include elephant ridings, or force the elephants to entertain the tourists. It might not look very harmful, but compared to horses, elephants aren’t really built to carry the heavy weight on their backs. Even lighter adults can do some damage to their spine and a lot of elephants are developing some illnesses or injuries because of this mistreatment.
In addition to that, the elephants are also used for profit. This means they are only seen as a workforce that has to function. They only get a minimum amount of food and when not used for riding, their space is very limited. This isn’t a very animal-friendly form of tourism and especially for social animals like the elephants, do suffer.
So I am very glad, that these kinds of businesses are becoming less and less popular, while elephant sanctuaries are getting more attention. Elephant sanctuaries are often connected with an elephant hospital that they work closely. The elephants that are kept at a sanctuary are often taken from the traditional businesses but are too old to work anymore. Without any use for the business owners, they are abandoned in the woods.
The elephant sanctuaries care for these animals and work very hard to give them a rather natural life. I visited the Elephant Jungle Paradise Park (FB Page) near Chiang Mai. With a rating of 4.9 with over 500 visitors, I can only add my emphasis that I had a really great time with them and that I feel that the elephants are cared very well for.
The trip started in Chiang Mai in the morning. A driver that works for the elephant sanctuary collects all the visitors from their hotels or other accommodations and the drive to the sanctuary park takes around two hours. Most of the sanctuaries are located in the mountains, which is the place where the elephants are the most comfortable. The trip to the sanctuary was already an adventure in itself. Passing roads that are just being built and driving up to the mountain, we had a great view over the whole mountainside. As we got closer to the sanctuary, we could already see the crop fields near the road that was important for the catering of the elephants.
After arriving at the sanctuary at around 10 am, we got a short introduction to the behavior of the animals. Our first meeting with the elephants would be to feed them. In general, the elephants are allowed to walk where they want to and aren’t forced to do anything they aren’t willing to. This means, that there is always a risk involved that the visitors can be hurt. Although the elephants are very friendly, their pure weight already means that we have to be careful. A single slap with their ears can be quite hurtful.
In addition to the safety instructions, we also learned that elephants don’t like to have their feet or tail touched. Their eyesight is also not the best and that’s why they move rather slowly and are uncomfortable around strangers. To be more familiar with them, we wore traditional clothes.
The feeding was full of joy and everyone had a lot of fun. At first, the elephants were behind a wood fence, but slowly they made their way forward and became more curious. The elephant sanctuary also had a newborn which was a few months old and very playful. It tested its strength by pushing us around and while being very strong, it was also clumsy.
After the feeding, we went to the camp of the sanctuary and the elephants wandered into the woods. Every elephant has a personal keeper whom they are bonded with. In the base camp, we were served traditional Thai food and it didn’t only taste great but was very plentiful.
Afterward, we prepared some food for the elephants ourselves. Elephants spend pretty much every minute they are not sleeping with eating. This time, we didn’t feed them simple greens but prepared a mixture that should strengthen their immune system. Everyone was involved in forming these healthy balls that we would later give to the elephants.
Before we would feet them again, there was the highlight of the activity which involved a mud bath. Some elephants were already enjoying the mud bath while we joined them. There we rubbed their skin with the mud and had a lot of fun. The elephants would spray around the mud with their trunks and they really liked to spend time in the mud.
To clean ourselves, we left the mud bath and went to the waterfall. There we had a natural shower and after some time the elephants joined us and threw buckets of water at them.
The whole trip lasted from around 8am to maybe 4pm, when we were brought back from the sanctuary to the city of Chiang Mai again. If You want to take pictures there, I would recommend a small camera for hiking, as You will move a lot and the paths can be quite exhausting.
A full day visiting the elephant sanctuary does cost around $50. The money is not used for profit though but does support the growing and purchasing of food. A small fraction is used for the upkeep of the sanctuary itself and for the medical costs of treating the elephants.
All in all, it was one of the best experiences of traveling through Southeast Asia and it is great to see that there are new animal-friendly ways of enjoying some time with the elephants.
- Chiang Mai Travel Guide: Itinerary, Things to do and more
- Top 10 Best Hotels and Resorts in Chiang Mai, Thailand
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