And why it was one of the best days of this writer’s life.
If you’ve ever visited Chiang Mai, you might have gone on a day trip to – or at least seen the ubiquitous advertising for – elephant camps.
The camps are numerous but the tours usually centre around the same set of activities: Watching an elephant show, where you can watch the pachyderms perform an assortment of tricks (including painting a picture), as well as an elephant ride through the jungle.
This is NOT the way to interact with elephants.
Confession: I have been on one of these day trips to an elephant trekking camp. This was nine years ago, and I had absolutely no knowledge of the cruelty these elephants suffer on a daily basis.
It was only after a visit to the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary located a couple of hours away from Chiang Mai city, a few years ago that I learnt just what’s involved in the elephant tourism trade.
In short, there is a lot of cruelty involved that visitors to these camps do not see. For one, elephants used for rides are worked for hours on end without food or water. In their natural habitats, elephants actually eat all day to sustain their huge girths. In addition, because of the “seats” strapped to their backs, they are unable to cover themselves with sand and mud. These act as sunscreen for elephant and without it, they are prone to blisters and sunburns – just like we are.
Elephants are social creatures and a baby elephant can spend as long as 16 years by its mother’s side. In the elephant trekking industry, it’s not unusual for a baby elephant to be separated from its mother from as young as six months. The baby elephants will be trapped in tiny cages, then beaten and prodded using bull hooks to “break their spirit”, with the aim of making them as submissive as possible – all in the name of making them easier to train.
These are just a few examples of cruelty that these magnificent creatures are subject to and needless to say, you should avoid these elephant trekking camps at all costs.
Fortunately, there IS an ethical way to interact with elephants. Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand is an elephant rescue and rehab centre in Chiang Mai province providing food, shelter and a place for elephants to roam freely. These elephants are usually rescued from trekking camps, the illegal logging trade, or may even have been landmine victims.
Elephant Nature Park offers several programmes. You can choose either to visit the park itself to observe elephants feeding and bathing and learn more about the stories of rescued or orphaned elephants. Alternatively, you can opt for a more interactive experience – the Karen Elephant Experience – as my husband and I did on our recent visit to Chiang Mai.
This involves a 90 minute ride out of the city to a Karen village. As the location is pretty remote, it involved a change of vehicle mid-way through to a four-wheel drive that could handle the mud tracks on the way to the village. On the way, you’re given a safety briefing (don’t pull an elephant’s tail; don’t stand behind an elephant as it could kick and severely injure you, etc).
The group was kept small, at around 10 people. We spent the first hour or so walking alongside three elephants – two adults and a baby – in a jungle and observing them in their natural habitats, while feeding them cucumbers and bananas. Words cannot describe how much joy I felt touching and interacting with these majestic, gentle, intelligent animals.
Following a break for a vegetarian lunch, the group proceeded to watch the elephants take a mud bath and even joined in! It was a dirty affair but so much fun. Elephants take mud baths as this helps them cool off in the heat. Finally, we walked with the elephants to the river to help bathe and scrub them, and they playfully squirted water at us with their trunks.
And just like that, almost four hours had flown by, and it was time for us to make our way back to Chiang Mai city.
At 6, 000 baht (around $240) per person, the Karen Elephant Experience isn’t exactly cheap, but I felt that what I got in return was priceless. After all, it’s not every day that you get the chance to be up close and personal with elephants. Yes, they might be domesticated to a certain extent – they belong to the village, after all, but it’s within a cruelty-free setting, and the money from tourists helps the village in the upkeep of these creatures, which can add up to quite a lot due to how much they eat.
If you’re thinking of doing the same day trip on your visit to Chiang Mai, do try to book online in advance. No more than 12 people are allowed on each tour, and the spots fill up quickly.
Find out more about Elephant Nature Park and its tours here.
During our stay in Chiang Mai, we put up at The Rim Resort, which we booked through Roomorama, an online booking platform with over 300, 000 vacation rentals worldwide. The resort is conveniently located in the Old City close to Suan Dok Gate, and only a 10-minute taxi ride away from the airport. The hotel is decked out in a beautiful Lanna style, and the room was spacious and inviting. Personally, toilets are especially important when I travel, and the one at The Rim Resort certainly didn’t disappoint – lots of space with a bathtub and a shower area.
When my husband and I mentioned that we were there for our honeymoon, the staff also gave us a welcome cake and coupons for complimentary cocktails at the hotel’s adjoining restaurant The Canal. The cocktails were well made, potent, and super affordable (less than $8!) that we ended up ordering another round. I’d say The Canal is worth a visit for after-dinner drinks even if you’re not staying at The Rim.
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