Get an honest review of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Thailand as I break down it's positives, negatives, and ethicality.
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.
Even though elephants have historically been used for a variety of tasks like logging or pulling wagons, today they are mainly used in the tourism industry. Elephant rides aren’t the only form of elephant tourist entertainment, but let’s take it as an example. People in Thailand don’t ride elephants for any purpose. It’s not part of their culture or anything like that. Elephant rides exist solely because there’s a tourist demand for it. Because elephants live in Thailand and people are willing to pay for a ride, elephant ride tourist attractions exist. But for people to ride them is not only pointless, it’s harmful – it’s physically and emotionally damaging to elephants. Which are officially an endangered species, I might add!
There are some organizations doing good for elephants
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 opportunities to the surrounding communities. But I’ve got to be completely honest. I have mixed feelings about it.
I really thought it was an amazing experience at the time, but reflecting back on it months and years later, my opinions have changed slightly. I’ve decided that while I don’t think it’s necessarily harmful to elephants, I don’t believe it’s a 100% ethical experience either. The point of this post is to be as transparent as I can possibly be and go over what I considered to be the positives and negatives of the whole experience.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
If you want to have an elephant “experience” while you’re in Thailand, I think Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a 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 surrounding communities? Well what that means is that each individual sanctuary is run semi-independently by different families. You can think of it kind of like a franchise! So, this is also a great way to support local people and the local economy as well.
An overview of the sanctuary
The trip to the sanctuary
We had flown from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, which is where the sanctuary was located. Kinda. 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. (If you’re planning a trip to Chiang Mai be sure to check out my list of 10 Stunning Boutiques Hotels in Chiang Mai)! But we actually had an hour and a half journey to the sanctuary! He drove, all eleven of us, in a covered truck up the most magnificent and rural hills to his family’s home. (Yes! His family’s home was the site of the elephant sanctuary). 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.
The view on the way to the sanctuary
Arriving at the sanctuary
Everything seemed really natural when we finally arrived. Like I said, this property is where people actually live! There was just land, as far as you could see, with a few humble structures where the family resided. Which, is not what you’d expect a typical sanctuary to be, but I think that fact was comforting. I preferred to see lush greenery for miles as opposed to a Disney World-esque sign and a souvenir shop.
So we walked a bit, down rice paddies and across a few bridges before reaching the main base where we started off 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 and also an overview of our daily itinerary.
One of the bridges you need to cross to get to the sanctuary
We got free clothes!
Oh, and we also got these poncho-type things to wear (and keep) that are supposed to be the traditional clothing of the local Karen tribe. I have no idea if that’s actually true. But, they also mentioned 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? Which is like, eh, okay, but why can’t we just go and let the elephants decide for themselves if they wanna hang out with us? Why do we have to be fooling them?!
All of our outfits were unique in the colors and patterns!
Meeting and feeding the elephants
So we walked a little ways up a path, and just 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 mainly gave us food to feed the elephants.
These elephants were so eager to eat!
FUN FACT: Elephants consume up to 300 pounds of food a day! And it’s all plants.
These guys had never ending bags of bananas and sugar cane. I seriously have no idea where it came from. But they must have a massive supply to sustain the elephants’ huge appetites!
A sign of captivity?
I just also want to make note of the fact that all 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. I’m not necessarily saying that that isn’t true, or that it’s even a bad thing. What it is though, is a glaring symbol of how these elephants are ultimately captive creatures.
Here you can see the bell
A personal photographer
There was also a photographer who was 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! So, you can really look at this one of two ways. With any sort of travel experience, pics or it didn’t happen, right? It’s pretty awesome that we had a personal photographer capturing this whole experience for us, so that we didn’t have to. We could just enjoy it without worrying about needing to take photos! Because, let’s be honest – we all do that. But on the other hand, that whole concept is very artificial and touristy. Was this experience about us, or about the elephants? Was it about both? Does having a photographer matter at all? I don’t think the photographer was a bad thing.
Did the elephants have a routine?
So, we spent a while feeding massive amounts of bananas to these elephants and taking some really sweet pictures with them. From my perspective, it wasn’t like the elephants were forced into doing anything, but it was clear that they had been conditioned to follow a certain routine. I mean, these tours happen every day! Like, they knew to come to this clearing in the forest and expect food from us all. But on the other hand, there were points where they would just wander off to do their own thing. And while there was a “schedule,” if you will, it was pretty loose. It had to be!
A Thai buffet lunch
We wandered around the property (which is literally a real jungle forest, you guys), and then ended up back at the base for a yummy home-cooked Thai buffet! I really enjoyed this – it was such a privilege to be treated to an authentic Thai meal!
This was the “main base” where we started and ended the day, and also ate lunch
The elephant bath
After this, it was time for an elephant bath. And while I’ve had semi-mixed feelings about the experience in general, this particular activity is something I lean more negatively towards. It’s very blatant evidence that the elephants had been conditioned to a routine. They all came down (I think they were guided down, but I don’t remember exactly) and made themselves comfortable in the small pools of water. Then the guides brought out all of these plastic scrub brushes and buckets. We were actually going to give these elephants a bath.
The photos did not stop, even during the elephant bath!
What is even the point of a bath?
So, this isn’t just any bath. It’s a mud bath. We were told that the mud keeps the elephants cool and protects them from bugs! Which I don’t doubt at all – that makes complete sense. But whyyyy can’t they do that themselves. Elephants are pretty smart, I’m sure they are more than capable of taking basic care of themselves. But, I’m not an elephant so what do I know. Maybe they actually enjoy a little pampering!
The mud bath thing was fine, albeit a little awkward and uncomfortable. While we were putting mud on the elephants, the guides were putting mud onto us, too….. And while I try to be as free-spirited and spontaneous as I can possibly be, I don’t think I’ll ever be the type to enjoy THAT kind of uncomfortable spontaneity. Like, leave me out of your food fights, don’t throw snowballs at me, please don’t hurt me or make me dirty!!! But whatever.
Getting ready to head home
So after all of those shenanigans, we said goodbye to the elephants as they walked away to continue their evenings with a fresh coat of mud. A couple of the women who lived in the home had set out handmade jewelry and crafts for sale as everyone was packing up. 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.
After this bit of shopping and a dry change of clothes, we began the walk back to the truck that would take us home. Well, the hotel.
To sum it up, I don’t think Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is inherently good or bad. Because the unfortunate thing is that there is no good solution to the problem of elephant cruelty and exploitation. I suppose the best conclusion I can come to is that while the elephants at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary are still in some way captive, they are at least protected. Protected from the physical and mental abuse that comes with elephant riding and other cruel animal attractions. If they were left to fend for themselves in the wild, they would most likely be captured and forced into some sort of inhumane attraction.
Make sure to 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 Plantation!