I have loved elephants ever since I can remember. They are one of the most intelligent, compassionate, and loyal animals. I’m also pretty sure the elephant is my spirit animal, seeing as they are matriarchal, extremely stubborn, and spend about 80% of their day eating. Yep, sounds about right.
So when I found out that I could spend an entire day with the elephants in Chiang Mai, it was quite possibly the best day of my life.
I immediately began doing research. I had heard about the inhumane treatment of elephants throughout Thailand, where elephants are abused with bullhooks and chained up for hours on end. I began reading about local elephant conservation farms, which rescue and care for elephants while providing them with a natural habitat where they can roam freely.
If I had more time, I would have spent a week or more volunteering at one of the elephant sanctuaries such as BLES or ENP. But since I only had one day, I decided to participate in the “Mahout for a Day” program, which focuses on educating tourists about elephant conservation while providing an unforgettable, up-close-and-personal experience with the elephants.
Spending the day in the shoes of a mahout, you will help exercise, feed, and bathe the elephants. These farms do not force elephants to do any kind of entertainment (playing soccer, painting, etc.) nor do they use the heavy trekking chairs strapped to the back of the elephant. Instead, you ride bareback on the back of the neck, behind the elephant’s ears. This is the most comfortable for the elephant and doesn’t bring them any harm.
After much research, my top two choices were Patara Elephant Farm and Thai Elephant Home. Patara Elephant Farm was booked for months in advance, so Thai Elephant Home it was! Below is what you can expect from a full day with the elephants.
When we first arrived, we changed into our mahout clothing and gathered together for a quick briefing. The owner, Joe, explained the farm’s mission of protecting and rehabilitating elephants. The elephants are rescued from terrible conditions and illegal logging camps. Each elephant develops a deep, close relationship with their mahout (trainer) and is treated with the upmost love, respect, and dignity. Joe also shared some fun elephant facts:
- Elephants have the longest pregnancy of all animals – 2 years from conception to birth. Power to you, sister!
- Elephants waving their tails and flapping their ears are happy elephants! If you see an elephant standing still with their ears open very wide, you should keep your distance.
- Elephants are extremely social animals. They sometimes hug each other by wrapping their trunks together in displays of affection.
- Elephants spend about 16 hours a day eating. Because of this, an elephant’s poo is basically just fiber. It doesn’t smell, and it’s an eco-friendly alternative for making paper. In fact, Thai Elephant Home gives each visitor a framed picture made from 100% recycled elephant poo paper!
Meeting the Mahouts & Elephant Pairing
Next, it was time to meet the elephants and their mahouts. We fed them sugar canes and bananas and learned several basic commands. Joe told us that each elephant would be paired with a different person based on age, build, gender, and personality.
Enter, Pak-Boong. She did her own thing the entire time and didn’t listen to anyone. Of course I instantly loved her.
It’s important that the elephants get enough exercise each day, so thus began our trek through the jungle. The mahouts strolled alongside while we each rode bareback on the neck of our elephant. The scenery was breathtaking and the experience was unforgettable – but relaxing, it was not. I clung for dear life the entire 2-ish hours of that journey. Pak-Boong would often veer off the path to go exploring on her own, or reach up unexpectedly to grab a branch of leaves for a snack. Her mahout was a younger, playful guy with a quick sense of humor, and you could tell that they were used to playing around together.
Lunch & Elephant Kisses
After an hour or so of riding through the jungle, we stopped at a clearing for lunch. We enjoyed a traditional Thai lunch of Pad Thai wrapped in a banana leave – honestly the best Pad Thai of my life. While we ate, the elephants roamed free and occasionally came over to our group to trade kisses for bananas.
After lunch, we crossed a clearing that led to a natural mud spa in the jungle. In fact, this is the only place in Thailand where you can find this type of black mud. The mud is great for their skin (and ours) and acts as a natural insect repellent.
Swimming with the Elephants
After the mud bath, we climbed back up onto our elephants and rode down to the river. This was probably the highlight of the journey. You could tell that this was the elephants’ favorite part of the day, as they seemed to love splashing around and spraying one another with water.
We wrapped up the day by saying goodbye to our elephants and visiting with one of the baby elephants that was only several months old.
If you’re considering a visit to Thailand and want to spend a day with the elephants, I recommend Patara Elephant Farm, Thai Elephant Home, Elephant Nature Park (ENP), or Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES).
4,900 – 5,800 baht or about $150 – $180 dollars
*includes transportation to and from, lunch, and a DVD of pictures and videos
Reserve at the sites above several weeks or months in advance
Swimsuit, sunblock, insect spray, and change of clothes