When our boys were young, we often visited the Houston zoo. They have an elephant exhibit that we stopped to admire each time. The elephants were kept far from visitors and we didn’t get to interact with them. So, when we planned our Chiang Mai trip, visiting elephants was at the top of our list.
Elephants draw tourists to Thailand. Many of these animals have tough working lives. Elephants continue to work in the logging industry and are often used for giving tourists rides. This work is hard on their bodies and confines them to painful harnesses and small enclosures most of the day. As we read about the plight of these special animals, our plans took a turn.
Havens for Gentle Giants
Elephant sanctuaries are popping up across Thailand to provide haven for retired elephants and to offer an alternative to elephant-riding for tourists. Our family booked a half-day tour with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary our first day in Chiang Mai. The tour included a hike to a local village, feeding elephants, giving them a mud bath, and a swim in the river. Pretty amazing, huh? And at roughly $50.00/person USD, an affordable adventure too.
First, we hiked into the sanctuary. The views along the path were beautiful. When we arrived, we found ourselves atop a valley that sloped down to a river. Lush forests covered the hillsides and elephants freely grazed among them. Seeing elephants in a more native habitat brought me joy and anticipation for the day ahead.
The staff gave a short safety briefing. The briefing encouraged us not to pull the elephants’ ears or tails. No worries there; we like life just fine, thanks.
After a brief wait, we saw elephants cresting the hill to the feeding area.
Bananas by the bushel were handed out to us. When the bananas ran out, corn from the farmers’ fields was brought to finish the feast. We fed five elephants as we pet them and learned about each one from their caretakers.
You can see there are no restraints on the elephants. They responded to voice commands. One young male broke protocol in his pursuit of bananas and he was led away by a bucket of his choice food. Other than his hungry fervor, the elephants were calm and peaceful during our visit. Here are a few fun facts we learned:
- Elephants’ skin is tough and rough to the touch.
- Elephants sweat from their toenails.
- Asian elephants have smaller ears than their African counterparts.
- Their tails have bristly hairs on them.
Next, we headed to a mud pit to bathe the elephants. The mud coats the elephants’ skin, protecting them from the sun and insects. We had a fabulous time slopping through the pit and slathering mud on our new friends (and Chris).
Our final stop was the nearby river to swim. Here are some our favorite shots:
*Slideshow photo credit: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary staff. (They told us his name was Justin Bieber but we’re not so sure…)
Wrapping up our day
Outdoor showers and lunch in the village ended our adventure.
This was one of our favorite experiences so far. The animals were wonderful, the staff engaging and informative. When we left, we wished we had paid for a full-day program instead of the half-day one. This would have allowed us to hike with the elephants in the afternoon.
The children enjoyed this experience as much as their favorite activities of mountain hiking and shopping at local markets. It was such a rich experience some of us dropped off before we got back to the hotel. In our family, this is a rare occurrence!
If you visit Thailand, make sure Elephant Jungle Sanctuary makes your list!