Riding an elephant is a life time dream for many people. However, most people are unaware of the harm and abuse these elephants go through behind the scenes before and after these tours.
Why shouldn’t I ride an elephant?
As with all activities our family participates in, we research what we are going to do ahead of time as much as we can. When planing our trip to Thailand, we instantly thought of riding elephants in the jungle! However, we changed our minds once we found out how elephants are treated for tourism.
Avoid elephant riding toursAsian Elephants are an endangered species. There about 2500-4000 wild elephants left living in Thailand. There use to be over 100,000 living in Thailand alone! Wild elephants are still illegally captured to use for tourism, trade or pouching for ivory.
Because the demand for riding elephants is still high in Thailand, many companies still participate in this activity. These animals are huge and strong so what is wrong with riding them? Isn’t it just like riding a horse. WRONG!
Naturally, wild elephants won’t let humans ride on them and thus need to be tamed before they can be ridden. The taming process in Southeast Asia is very brutal and accomplished when the elephant is very young – the process is called “Phajaan” or “the crush”. First, the baby is taken from its mother, and confined to a very small space like a cage or a hole in the ground. Then the baby is beaten into submission with clubs and pierced with sharp hooks. After this process is done, bull-hooks are used by the keeper to ensure the elephant follows instructions. In addition to the brutal taming process, riding on an elephants back can cause serious harm to their spines.
What is being done to support the elephants?
Thanks to the increased efforts from tourists and third party organizations, more and more people are learning about the situation and have stopped promoting elephant riding. Additionally, More than 50 companies, including Costco Travel and TripAdvisor, refuse to offer elephant rides (see the full list here)!
Because of these increased efforts, companies that had offered elephant riding are being forced to shutdown. Additionally, more companies are making an effort to treat elephants ethically and save them from this torture. These companies have created “elephant sanctuaries” where they rescue these tamed elephants from the riding, logging, and other tourist attractions. (note: be cautious and research the different sanctuaries, as there are some that just call themselves sanctuaries when they are actually still inhumane)
Our Elephant experience
After some initial research, we visited the elephant jungle sanctuary in Chiang Mai. Most of their elephants are rescued from performances or logging. The money raised by allowing tourist to interact with elephants is primarily used for elephant rescue, food, veterinary care, infrastructure and land so they can continue to rescue elephants.
Getting to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
After researching the different options, we decided to sign up for a full day encounter. The camp is about 45 – 90 minutes outside of Chiang Mai (depending on your hotel), and the company provides transportation to their camp from your hotel free of charge. However, after reading reviews we learned that the ride isn’t in a bus or van… it’s on one of these!
Because we had smaller kids, and had rented a car, we asked if we could drive ourselves and they told us it wasn’t a problem. It took us about 45 minutes to get there, and we had air conditioning! It was also nice for naps on the way home.
Welcome and overview
When we arrived at the elephant jungle sanctuary we were given a short lesson about the elephants, how to act around them, a traditional Thai shirt, and some safety measures. Throughout the day, as questions came up, our guides they were happy to answer but they didn’t have quite the knowledge we thought they would.
Feeding our new friends
After the brief introduction, we were lead to a small family of elephants. On the way the guides provides us with bananas to feed the elephants, and explained how to feed them. When you get up close to these animals, you truly get to see how amazing they are. One thing to note, listen to the guide! Elephants do what they want to do when they want to do it. When the elephant wants to walk forward it will even if you are there!
The first thing you do when you get to the elephants is feed them bananas. During this time we got to pet them, interact with them and feed them. Aria was nervous (not surprising!) Alyssa and Kate were very brave. They had a blast running around feeding all the elephants especially baby Charlie! Kate was feeding one of the adults, she bent down to pick up a banana off the ground and at that same time the elephant stepped forward. Kate’s nose was grazed by the elephants foot, she got a pretty nasty abrasion. We are so lucky that it wasn’t even millimeter farther over or we would have been dealing with a broken nose. But now she tells everyone “I was kicked in the nose by an elephant!”
Baby Charlie was the most fun to play with. Charlie really wanted to play, he would run right into you or put his feet on your shoulders if you were sitting down. He searched your pockets for food. It was hysterical. Now when reading books at home, and Aria sees an elephant, she says “Baby Charlie my best friend” Baby Charlie was born in the sanctuary. His mother was pregnant when she was rescued from logging.
Lunch time & medicine ball making
After a couple of hours with the first family of elephants, it was time for lunch! It was a typical Thai lunch, fried rice and curry. The kids enjoyed running around playing with friends they made during the morning. Once lunch was finished, we learned how to make elephant medicine balls. The sanctuary gives these to the elephants once a day to help them digest their food. The guides invited the kids to help make the medicine; a mixed of rice, banana, ginger, and palm sugar.
Once we finished making the medicine balls, we took the medicine balls (about the size of a baseball) down to the elephants and feed them.
Elephant mud spa
Next, it was time to take the elephants for a therapeutic mud spa! The elephants love this, the mud keeps them cool. They immediately laid down and rolls around in the mud. We were able to get in the mud pit and rub mud all over their body. You have to be careful because if the elephant wants to roll, it will roll!
After the mud bath we lead the elephants down to the river for their bath (and to bath ourselves!). This was fun but a little scary as well. The river was rocky and hard to move quickly. The elephants stayed in the river for about 15 minutes while we scrubbed them and threw water on them. Then, all of a sudden, they got up and trampled out of there. Everyone had to scrambled out of the way. The kids stayed in the river about 10 more minutes playing. Once the elephants got out of the river they went back to the mud and started splashing mud on their backs with their trunk. We asked our guides why, they said it protects their skin from insect bites.
We loved our experience! It was one that I feel my kids will always remember. The guides were extremely helpful and accommodating with kids. Going to the elephant jungle sanctuary in Chiang Mai is something we would highly recommend for families. Below is a video of the highlights from our day!
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