For the people of Thailand the elephant is seen as a national treasure. Much like the Chinese see the panda and the Spanish see the bull . For many years this animal has been adored and idolised not only for its strength but also its intelligence. As you travel around Thailand elephants are seen everywhere. Stone carved elephants are common at temples, shrines and outside hotels, whilst images of elephants are printed on every souvenir you can think of from T-shirts to trousers and jewellery.
There is even a legend in Thailand that the elephant is like marriage, the front legs symbolise the man and give direction whilst the rear legs symbolise the woman and are there for power. If that’s not enough, the elephant even gets a spot on the Royal Thai Navy’s flag. They really do love elephants here!
What are elephants used for nowadays?
Whilst elephants were used as a powerful fighting force for centuries during wars against the Burmese, they are now mainly used for the pleasure of tourists. When in Thailand you’ll see constant advertising for elephant rides and it has become one of the main ‘must do’ activities for many travellers.
Is elephant riding cruel?
After a bit of reading online you may be put off of riding an elephant. The stories of their poor treatment and cruel living conditions are enough to make any animal lover change their mind. Many claim that elephants are not comfortable being ridden, their backs cannot support the weight of one, and quite often two, riders. When passing these elephant camps in Phuket I often noticed how they were always tied up with no space to roam, they looked sad and would be ordered around by their trainer who always had a bull hook in hand. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a lot of mistreatment going on in Thailand.
How to see elephants the ethical way
Being an animal lover I didn’t want to contribute to the bad treatment of these elephants by paying to ride one. For this reason we decided to wait until we got to Chiang Mai to spend time with elephants. Whilst you’ll still find camps offering elephant rides, the majority of places around Chiang Mai are ethically run and your day with the elephants doesn’t involve anything they’ll find uncomfortable or unnatural.
The cost to spend the day with elephants is similar across the board at around 2,400 baht (£50 per person). This will usually include pick up from your hotel and a 1.5 hour drive into the jungle followed by meeting the elephants, feeding them, lunch and then getting very muddy as you help bathe then.
Firstly, I have to say there is no disputing that these elephants aren’t kept in their natural surroundings. Our access to their camp involved being dropped at the side of a road in the middle of the jungle and then led over a fence and down a steep muddy verge through thick forest, there was not a single path in sight!
Once we made it through, we were warmly greeted by the elephant’s trainers at their hut that overlooks miles of beautiful green scenery. To our left were 2 of the elephants, I was pleased to see they were not restrained and looked perfectly relaxed interacting with us. It didn’t take long until one of them kindly rubbed elephant trunk juice all down my arm. The equivalent of snot I assume.
Meeting the elephants
The first thing our hosts did was introduce us to the elephants. They were a family of 4; the youngest male was 15 whilst the grandmother was 45. They each had Thai names, which I’m afraid I instantly forgot. We learnt how what their typical day involves which sounded pretty good to me, sleep, eat, poop, eat, poop, bathe, eat, poop, sleep! Our trainers also warned us that the male was likely to mate with the female whilst we were there as for 4 days a month the female let’s him, and we just so happened to be visiting during those 4 days.
Feeding the elephants
To get to know the elephants better we started by feeding them. We were given hundreds of bananas and hand fed them one at a time. The whole banana, including skin was gone in seconds and it didn’t take long for us to run out. It was funny how one of the elephants refused to eat the green bananas, apparently she doesn’t like them. I don’t blame her 🙂
Walking the elephants
After filling them up on bananas we walked down to the river with the elephants. Without any warning, one of them blew water from its trunk all over a little kid. He started crying but soon found it funny 🙂 we then all got the chance to stand in the river with the elephants whilst they sprayed us. They had obviously been trained to do this but looked relaxed in doing so, they were probably laughing inside.
Then came lunch. I think most of these elephant day trips include lunch. It wasn’t anything special, just rice, vegetables, chicken and egg but was tasty all the same. I preferred the refreshing watermelon and pineapple we had for dessert mmm.
Bathing the elephants
This part was probably the most fun. We all changed into our swimwear and took the elephants down to the river. As I entered my feet sunk into thick sludgy mud and it wasn’t long until Nick had wiped mud all over me.
The elephants laid down around us and it was our job to give them the best mud bath they had ever had. They looked to enjoy it as we smeared mud all over their bodies. Once they were absolutely filthy, and we were all just as bad, we took them to a cleaner part of the river to wash them off with buckets. Whilst the elephants were sat down the trainers did give us a chance to get a few photos sitting on top. What they didn’t tell us was that the elephant was going to turn his trunk up and jet water right into our face!
The cleaning of the elephants turned into more of a water fight but we got the job done in the end and we had ourselves a super clean elephant family. That was until the male decided he wanted to mate for the 4th time of the day, fortunately we was out of the water at this point!
The trainers seemed to have a really good relationship with the elephants, you could tell they cared for them and loved their jobs. The elephants were relaxed and often flapped their ears (which apparently means their happy) during bathing and even when you stroked and talked to them.
Covered in mud we all set back off to the hut to wash off. Being in the middle of the jungle though there was only a jet of water to try and get the mud off with which meant we both left looking much browner than when we got there.
Chiang Mai’s grand canyon
On the way back our driver stopped off at Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon attraction. I’m not sure if this is usually part of the trip but it was an unexpected treat. This place was beautiful. We jumped off into the clear waters to cool down (and try and wash!) and had a quick swim before heading back. It was a perfect ending to a great day.
If you’re visiting Thailand I’d highly recommend seeing elephants the ethical way. Whilst you don’t get to ride them you do get more time with them in their natural environment and can truly interact and enjoy their company. Their such amazing creatures and despite their huge size I was shocked at how calm, gentle and relaxed they are.