Elephants have long been one of my favourite animals and Thailand is notorious for being a great place to get up close and personal with them. So right from the start, this was at the top of our list of things we just had to do.
We tried to book a place at Elephant Nature Park a few weeks in advance but unfortunately it was closed over Thai New Year which lasted the whole of our time in Chiang Mai, as were lots of other elephant sanctuaries.
Therefore, we had no option but to leave it until we got there to try sift through all of the good and really really bad companies in the hope of still finding somewhere with happy elephants, at a reasonable price.
As luck would have it, on our first day in Bangkok we were walking round one of the many unbelievable temples when a lovely Thai lady (everyone is incredibly friendly in Thailand) started chatting to us. When we said we were heading to Chiang Mai that night she recommended Chang Sanctuary as a bit of a local gem and she even specified that her son is very interested in animal welfare and this is one of the few sanctuaries he will actually visit.
There is a tonne of controversy surrounding elephants in Thailand (and all animals) and there are heaps of companies offering elephant rides or that have chained up elephants that are malnourished and mistreated, which I would never ever support.
After doing a little research, we found that Chang Sanctuary has 4.5 stars on trip advisor and lots of positive reviews. We also spoke to a Thai lady in a booking office who said that it is known for condemning Elephant rides and having a Western approach to animal welfare.
We paid 3600 baht ( apx £90) each for a fully day tour, at their official office in Chiang Mai centre, and were very happy to do so if it meant that the animals were well looked after.
We were collected from our hotel early in the morning in a pick up truck with open sides, a standard method of transport in Thailand (which obviously doesn’t have seat belts or anything crazy like that). Unfortunately (or fortunately, because it ended up being a lot of fun) it was right in the midst of Thai New Year, where Thai locals and tourists basically have a mass five day water fight.
The journey there and back was therefore insanely fun as we were part of a huge water fight, having buckets of ice cold water thrown at us by every vehicle and pedestrian that we passed.
I will definitely be doing a full post on Thai New Year shortly as it really was the most unique and incredible celebration I’ve ever been a part of!
When we arrived at the sanctuary, which was about an hour and a half drive from the centre of Chiang Mai, through beautiful mountain scenery, we were given woven tops to wear as the elephants recognise the sight and scent of these. We looked hilarious in our ‘spiritual’ tops and the group (around 15 of us) bonded over how absolutely fabulous we looked.
The location of the sanctuary was beautiful and it was great to see more of the countryside and villages surrounding Chiang Mai.
We met our guides for the day and out of the four guys, two spoke good English and they were all very welcoming and sweet.
Our first task of the day was to learn about and make the elephants food before feeding it to them, plus a crazy amount of mini bananas.
It was actually really fun to make, although my arms were killing after 10 minutes straight of trying to mush some very stiff ingredients together. We then had to wrap this mushy mixture in a banana leaf to disguise it which was fun as it was just like wrapping presents and that’s one of my favourite things to do.
We then took our questionable looking parcels and our bananas down to meet the elephants and feed them.
This was the absolute highlight of the day for me and I’d been dreaming about this moment for years, however sad that sounds!
The elephants were such majestic, gentle giants and just being able to stroke them and feel the force of their trunks when they took a banana was a once in a lifetime experience and I had such a moment of total contentment.
I was very happy to see that the elephants weren’t chained up in any way and that they were free to move around and leave once they were full or had had enough of human contact (we’ve all been there).
One accidentally knocked a woman to the ground as it moved, just through the sheer strength of the animal, which shows that they were completely free (and the woman was absolutely fine FYI!).
After the feeding, we walked with the elephants down to a little lake to bathe them. First we went to a ‘mud bath’ and were able to get into the water with the elephants and play with them. This bit was pretty terrifying, I won’t lie! The water was too muddy to see where the elephants feet were and I was terrified of getting too close and having one break my foot – a cast on your leg is the last thing you could ever want for travelling Asia!
The guide told us not to take our cameras and phones in case they got ruined, and was taking lots of pictures on his camera which were supposedly going to be uploaded to their Facebook page. 3 months later… still no pictures! So I was glad we at least took some of our own at the beginning.
After this, we went to a clearer pool to wash the mud off the elephants and ourselves. At this point, there was an uncomfortable moment where one of the elephants didn’t want to go into the water. The guides were very forceful in their approach to forcing it into doing something that it didn’t want to and us, plus another English couple, were quite shocked by this behaviour and this is perhaps why I’m not sure that I would actually recommend this specific park. Although, I do still think that by Thai standards it’s very forward-thinking, so take that as you will.
After the lake baths we then took turns hosing the elephants down which they seemed to love, as you can see in the picture below!
You could tell that the sanctuary is a real family-run affair which appealed to me, helped along by the adorable little boy who served us our lovely traditional Thai lunch (which is included in the price).
We were then promised a village trek, ending in a ‘waterfall’.
The trek was more just a walk through a village and although the 38 degree heat made it almost unbearable, it was very interesting to see the way the locals live in the mountains. Our guide, who was born here himself, was full of interesting anecdotes about village life. For example, they only got the internet and a television 10 years ago!
The ‘waterfall’ was really just a pretty stream where local children were enjoying their New Year.
Regardless of the fact that there was no waterfall (supposedly due to it being dry season) it was a really lovely place to cool off and the Thai children are so friendly and welcoming and were engaging us all in games, which was actually really fun.
We then headed back to the sanctuary and had a little more time to play with the elephants, which were of course the absolute highlight of the day.
The elephants were such sweet creatures and they absolutely lived up to my lifelong expectations, if not exceeded them. I can’t describe how beautiful they are in real life and I just want to play with elephants every weekend now!
I definitely recommend that you do visit an elephant park if you’re going to Asia, it’d be such a shame to miss them in their natural environment. If you are then:
- Book way in advance for the best parks and be prepared to pay a bit more as it’s so worth it to keep the animals healthy and happy.
- Don’t go to any park which chains the elephants up or offers elephant rides (if you can’t see why that would be an issue, then please educate yourself via google!)
- Wear clothes and shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
And most importantly, don’t be afraid to get up close and personal and make the most of this amazing opportunity!