A Day in Chiang Mai with the Elephants
Having returned from a trip to Thailand in the Fall, I'd like to share my most memorable experience of the entire trip in its own article. Spending a day at an elephant sanctuary was hands down one of the best days of my life. If you're planning a trip yourself, this experience needs to be at the top of your list!
I'll be the first to admit it, one of the first things that came to mind when we started planning our trip to Thailand was riding elephants. Upon further research, it appears that not only is this bad for an elephant's back, but they just plain don't like it! Despite this, many of the elephant parks in Thailand are unwilling to stop this practice due to the assured loss in tourist revenue. Some have recognized the recent trend in Western culture to steer clear of elephant-riding parks and advertise themselves as a "non-riding elephant excursion". But the sad fact of it is, many of these places still mistreat them. They whip them or cut them on the legs to force them to get into mud pits or walk into villages when the elephants are too afraid. BUT, all hope is not lost.
Luckily we found Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai thanks to several travelers and friends. Elephants that come to ENP are in recovery from abusive pasts and are now enjoying life in a sanctuary. Guests to the park can choose from several different activities/excursions lasting from several hours to multiple days. We chose a full day trip called Elephant Highlands, and we couldn't have been happier. Here's how it worked:
ENP sent a shuttle to our guesthouse (Chiang Mai Boutique House). We provided this information online, but you can also walk to their local office if you're staying in old Chiang Mai as everything is fairly close. We picked up a few other travelers who also booked this trip and then we were off! The van was very comfortable and ENP played a mandatory safety video for us so we knew how to properly interact with the elephants. You know...like don't walk up behind them and slap them on the ass. I feel like this goes without saying, but obviously some idiots actually do this! The video also gave us some background on the park itself.
The trip from Chiang Mai-proper to the sanctuary took about an hour and a half. This included a stop at rest area where we filled up on coffee and took a quick breather before heading up the windy mountain path (pro tip: take a Dramamine before getting in the shuttle!). The view up the mountains was breathtaking with fruit orchards and farm houses dotting the path and chickens making a mad dash across the road every few hundred meters. We transferred from the van to an open-air pickup truck to make the final trek.
Meeting the Elephants
Your ride in the back of the truck leads you straight to the elephants. You round a corner near the top of the mountains and voila! There they are! We hopped out and started feeding them from big baskets of cut pineapple, watermelon and banana trees. I was a bit nervous at first that an elephant would knock me over and I'd be trampled (I suppose a little fear is healthy), but they were only interested in the food and I lost all worry very quickly.
After about a 30 minute meet, greet and feeding session, we went for a long stroll with the elephants along the trail. This was by far the coolest part for me, though it is a bit terrifying at first. ENP outfits you with a satchel filled with chopped pumpkin that you to feed the elephants as you walk along a trail on your way to lunch. The trail is about a mile long and wide enough for one car, but on one side is the mountain and on the other is a steep cliff. I felt doomed no matter which side I walked on as I imagined being either crushed to death or bumped off the edge of the world. However, I soon realized that despite elephants' poor sight, they are pretty respectful of your space and will heed your shove when you feel uncomfortably close to the edge.
Elephants eat for about 18 hours per day, so they were constantly hounding us for some of this pumpkin, but you will never tire of feeding these beautiful creatures!
Lunch, a Mud Bath and a Swim
Your long stroll will lead you to a covered picnic area where you're served a beautiful vegetarian buffet lunch. Take a breather and head back out on the trail with the elephants up to a mud pit. Here you remove the shoes and hop in to help the elephants get a little exfoliation. The elephants are provided more snacks while you slather them in mud.
Once again, I found myself getting worried that I was going to get stuck in the mud and crushed by an elephant. Clearly I have some issues I need to deal with...
After the mud bath you make your way up a grass hill to a beautiful overlook. This spot makes for a great photo-op as you can see the rolling farms for miles below and around you. It was a bit overcast for us, so we couldn't see far, but you could just imagine how amazing it would be on a clear day.
After the photo-op, we made our way down a steep trail (with the elephants! My anxiety!!) and into a man-made, elephant-size pool! We stripped down to our skivvies and hopped in the pool with our giant friends. There was a shallow section where we could gain our footing, and the elephants waded into the deeper center of the pool. While you could swim out into the middle with the elephants, I opted to stay in the waist-deep area so I could (safely) bathe the elephants whilst dumping water on them with my handy-dandy bucket.
After the elephant bath, us humans got to take a quick shower and change our clothes. I brought a romper to change into so I didn't have to wear my dirty, wet clothes on the ride home. Once we changed, we got to feed the elephants one last snack of mashed banana meatballs (without the meat!). One last photo-op with these gentle giants and we headed home, the same way we came.
Of all the things we did in Thailand, this was our absolute favorite! I would highly recommend using ENP for anyone wishing to have a similar experience with the elephants. I'm sure any of the excursions they have are amazing, but we were more than happy with ours.
Would love to know your experiences with elephants in Thailand! Let me know in the comments!
about the author
Riley is an active duty US Army Captain and the Founder of Right and Up. She’s currently stationed in Washington, DC, with previous assignments at Fort Huachuca, Fort Bliss, Fort Riley and Fort Benning. You can typically find her eating embarrassingly large amounts of food in local restaurants, or exploring her military town with her husband, Sean and her dog, Gus. Connect with her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter!