Elephants are central to Thai culture, and if you’re coming to Chiang Mai hoping to encounter the beautiful Asian elephant, then you’ve come to the right place. Thailand itself has more than 70 elephant camps, most located in the north, and you’ll soon find that every guesthouse, travel agent, and tuk tuk driver seems to be peddling a different elephant experience. The abundance of choice however doesn’t guarantee a positive experience for the visitor — nor, importantly, for the elephant — so here is a little background information to keep in mind when making your decision on whether to see elephants, and where to see them, if so.
When Thailand banned logging in 1989, more than 2,000 elephants and their mahouts (elephant trainers) were left unemployed, prompting the Thai government to encourage ways of incorporating elephants into the growing tourist industry. Cue the baan chang, or elephant camps, where you can trek with elephants, watch them play soccer, ride them, see them paint, bathe them, feed them and participate in a variety of activities with them.
What many tourists never learn or realise is that many of the elephant camps around Chiang Mai have spotty welfare and smuggling records. Because of elephants’ low breeding rates in captivity, the population of wild elephants is dwindling, so they may be captured in Myanmar and smuggled into Thailand to work in the camps. And because elephants are expected to “earn their keep”, many elephants aren’t well fed or are trained with cruel hooks in order to perform glitzy shows that provide a profit for camp owners.
That said, there are ways to see these majestic animals while contributing to centres that prioritise their welfare. When choosing a camp to visit, avoid centres offering ‘elephant shows,’ as the training required for elephants to, say, play soccer can be quite cruel, and if possible, avoid riding elephants altogether, since often elephants are forced to carry tourists despite injuries or inadequate welfare conditions.
If you would like to see elephants in the flesh, here are three options to consider if you’re coming from Chiang Mai:
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
BLES is a couple of hours south of Chiang Mai (in fact, it’s closer to Sukhothai than to Chiang Mai), but it’s worth making the effort to get to. There are no shows of any kind and the sanctuary does everything it can to prioritise the wellbeing of the animals; visitors stay overnight in one of three traditional teak guesthouses, so numbers are kept very low. Elephants are free to roam around the expansive property and visitors can shadow them from a distance and watch what it’s like for elephants to be more or less elephants in the wild. Your experience will be hands on, as you learn to gather food and bathe the elephants. Founder Katherine Connor is passionate about sharing her wealth of knowledge. Meals are served overlooking a lake, and elephants may pop in and try to steal a rambutan or two. The fee of 5,000 baht per night, per guest, is pricey but absolutely worth the splurge. (304 Mu 5, Baan Na Ton Jan, Tambon Baan Tuek, Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai; www.blesele.org)
Elephant Nature Park
The most respected elephant camp in Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park is great for a day trip that’s both educational and fun, as you get to watch elephants roam freely in the countryside and learn each of their rescue stories. There are plenty of photo opportunities and chances to interact with the elephants, namely to feed and help scrub them during their daily bath. At 1,250 to 2,500 baht, it’s a midrange option that nonetheless allows you to contribute to a number of ENP’s rescue and conservation initiatives. If you end up loving it, they offer weekly volunteering opportunities — read about an experience here. (T: (053) 272 855; www.elephantnaturepark.org)
Thai Elephant Conservation Centre
The only government-owned elephant centre in Thailand, the Lampang-based TECC offers affordable and responsible visiting options for those on a backpacker budget, even if they do offer elephant shows, rides and other touristy gimmicks. Admission is 100 to 200 baht, making it a popular destination for Thai tourists and schools. Be sure to arrive early, as elephants are retired to the jungle for the night at around 15:30, and expect to pay extra for rides and shows (so by the same token, you can skip these). Check out the eight white elephants, property of the Thai king himself! (Km. 28-29 Lampang-Chiang Mai Highway, Hang Chat, Lampang; www.thailandelephant.org)
By Claudia Sosa
Last updated on 2nd March, 2014.