Let me walk you through our day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary - the good, the meh, and the answer to the question you're all wondering: is it an ethical experience?
So, we all know that riding elephants is bad, right? Right. But somehow, riding elephants is still a major tourist attraction around the world, especially in Thailand.
Historically, elephants have been used for a variety of tasks like logging or pulling wagons, but today, they are mainly used in the tourism industry. While elephant rides aren’t the only form of elephant tourist entertainment, they're probably the most popular. And they exist solely because there's a tourist demand for them. Because elephants live in Thailand and people are willing to pay for a ride, elephant ride tourist attractions exist. And while it might not be so obvious considering how common elephant riding is - it's harmful - it's physically and emotionally damaging to elephants. Which are officially an endangered species, I might add!
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
The good news is that there are organizations committed to ending this cruel practice. And they do so by rehabilitating elephants who would have otherwise been forced into that slavery. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which has locations in Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Pattaya, is one of those organizations. What’s pretty cool about this organization, in particular, is that it also provides economic opportunities to the local communities.
If you want to have an elephant “experience” while you’re in Thailand, I think Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a really good option. From everything I can tell, they treat the elephants very well and they seem to sincerely care about their well-being. Plus, the guides were very knowledgeable and really committed to educating us on everything related to elephants and their care. And that’s the other thing – remember I mentioned that the organization provides opportunities to the local communities? Well, what that means is that each individual sanctuary is run semi-independently by different families! So, this is also a great way to support local people and the local economy as well.
Getting to the sanctuary
Our guide, a member of the Karen tribe who affectionately referred to himself as “Jungle Boy,” picked us up from our hotel located in the center of Chiang Mai. (P.S. If you’re planning a trip to Chiang Mai be sure to check out my list of 10 Stunning Boutiques Hotels in Chiang Mai)! Then he drove all eleven of our group in a truck through the most magnificent and rural hills to the sanctuary (which is also his family's home)! The trip really was absolutely gorgeous, and so interesting. Like, this was Thailand. Not the bustling capital of Bangkok, or the famous beaches of Phuket. But instead, parts of the country way up in the mountains that most tourists will never get to see.
Arriving at the sanctuary
Everything seemed really natural when we finally arrived. There was just land, as far as you could see, with a few humble structures where the family resided. I think I was envisioning a Disney World-esque sign and a souvenir shop type of vibe, but I was so relieved this was not that. There were no fences, no gates - just jungle. Which is what you'd hope to see at an elephant sanctuary, right?!
We walked for a few minutes down rice paddies and across a few bridges before reaching the main base, where we began the day with an elephant lesson! We learned about the history of elephants in Thailand and how they were cared for at the sanctuary - pretty basic stuff. We also got an overview of our daily itinerary.
We got free clothes!
Oh, and we were also given these poncho-type things which are apparently the traditional clothing of the local Karen tribe (and yes, we got to keep them)! We were told that these were important – for the elephants. They said that the elephants would respond better to us and be more comfortable if we were wearing them. I guess because they were used to being around them so much!
Meeting and feeding the elephants
After we were given these outfits, we walked a little ways up a path, and all of a sudden right there in front of us were three gorgeous elephants – just hangin’ out! At this point, our driver and guide, “Jungle Boy,” was joined by two other people who provided us food to feed the elephants. I'm talking like, never-ending bags of bananas and sugar cane. I had no idea where it was all coming from. But we learned that elephants can consume up to 300 pounds of food a day, so there must have been a massive supply somewhere!
We noticed that all of the elephants had bells hanging around their necks. The reason, we were told, is so that they could be easily found if they happened to wander too far and get lost. That makes complete sense! And while the bells are a sign of captivity, they're certainly not chains, and the fact that they could potentially wander too far just goes to show how much freedom these elephants have!
A personal photographer
Included as part of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary experience was a photographer! There was a photographer snapping photos the wholeeee day. He took pictures of everybody, both candid and posed, and they were uploaded to a Facebook album later that night!
I thought it was pretty awesome having a personal photographer capturing these memories for us so that we didn't have to worry about it. It's super stressful trying to wrestle with being in the moment and making sure to take enough pictures so you're able to relive that moment! Because of the photographer, we didn't have to worry about that!
A Thai buffet lunch
After wandering around the property (which is literally a real jungle forest, you guys), we ended up back at the base for a yummy home-cooked Thai buffet! I really enjoyed this part – it was such a privilege to be treated to an authentic Thai meal!
The elephant bath
After this, it was time for an elephant bath. They all came down and made themselves comfortable in the small pools of water below the house. Then the guides brought out a bunch of plastic scrub brushes and buckets so that we could literally give the elephants a bath.
But this isn't just any bath - this is a mud bath. Apparently, the mud keeps the elephants cool and protects them from bugs! Fine and all, but this part of the day felt a little weird. It seemed a little bit forced and unnecessary. Maybe the elephants enjoy a little pampering (I wouldn't blame 'em), but this seemed like something they're more than capable of doing themselves, you know? Although, it did make for some great pictures.
I also wasn't super into the fact that we were getting mud tossed onto us while we were putting it on the elephants... I mean, I like to think I'm pretty free-spirited and spontaneous, but I draw the line at this sort of thing, lol.
Did the elephants have a routine?
It was pretty clear that the elephants had been conditioned to follow a certain routine, but they weren't forced into doing anything. They were never guided by a rope or a chain, and did in fact wander off a few times on their own. They seemed to know the schedule (I mean, these tours happen every day!) and followed it, albeit sometimes a bit loosely. Considering everything we did with the elephants was something they enjoyed (feeding and bathing - though bathing I'm still skeptical about), I'm not surprised they stuck around all day!
Getting ready to head home
As we were packing up to head out, a couple of the women who lived in the home had set out handmade jewelry and crafts for sale. I ended up purchasing the most beautiful pair of anklets EVER, for like $5, maybe $10 dollars? To this day they’re still some of my favorite pieces of jewelry. It felt good to support local artisans for sure, but I can also see how this type of “pressure” to buy would annoy some people. After all, it is pretty irrelevant to the entire experience.
To sum it up, I think Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a great organization. While the elephants at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary are still in some way captive, the unfortunate truth is that they kind of have to be. If they were left on their own in the wild, they would more than likely be captured and forced into some sort of inhumane attraction. But at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, they're protected from this sort of fate.
I'd definitely recommend anyone visiting Chiang Mai (or Phuket or Pattaya!) to consider a visit to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. And remember to please do your research before participating in any animal experience around the world!
If you’re heading to Chiang Mai and looking for another authentic and local experience, check out my post on visiting Araksa Tea Garden!