I’ve had three elephant experiences in Thailand now. Two amazing and one not so good. The most important thing I’ve learnt from these is do not ride elephants in Thailand. Or anywhere!
My first elephant experience in Thailand wasn’t the best. Some friends and I were in Koh Phangan and found an elephant centre that offered 1 hour long elephant rides that were recommended by the Lonely Planet. Trusting the Lonely Planet’s judgement we went to the centre to ride the elephants.
Right from the get go I felt uncomfortable. The centre wasn’t very big and the huge elephant’s were all just stood there with big chains around their ankles. Once we mounted a pretty uncomfortable cage on the elephant’s back (if it’s uncomfortable for us to sit on, imagine what that plus two full grown people on an elephant’s back would feel like) the mahout (the person that looks after and trains the elephants) began to guide the elephant up a very steep hill. I noticed he was holding an elephant hook. If the elephant so much as stopped to eat then he would hit the elephant with the hook. Half way around the trip we were told we could get off to play in the waterfall. I couldn’t bring myself to get back on afterwards. I didn’t feel right. The elephant didn’t look happy and I didn’t want to contribute anymore to its unhappiness.
During my second trip to Thailand, I visited the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. This place was miles better than the trekking company in Koh Phangan. It’s more like a retirement home for elephants and they do a very good job educating you about the elephants in Thailand – including how so many of the elephants are mistreated. Elephants undergo very torturous processes before becoming subdued enough to allow tourists to ride them several times a day, everyday. The mahouts need to use hooks (and many, if not using hooks use nails) to control the elephants because that’s the only way they know how to.
During my most recent trip to Thailand, Harry and I found ourselves with some extra time Chiang Mai and so decided to go to an elephant sanctuary. We knew about the Elephant Nature Park but the man at the TTA office recommended a different centre – Chang Thai Heritage. It sounded very elephant friendly and due to it being open for less than one month still only had very small groups of visitors everyday. We liked the sound of an intimate elephant experience and opted to go there. We were definitely not disappointed.
We were picked up at around 8:30am from our hotel by a lovely gentleman named Tu. He was very friendly and chatty and made us feel comfortable straight away. We picked up one other visitor and continued on the hour long drive to the sanctuary.
Once we arrived, we changed into some mahout clothing, learnt about the three elephants (aged 3,4 and 5 if I remember correctly) they had on site and some commands that the elephants know. Chang Thai Heritage has taken in some unwanted baby elephants from other sites because they are still too young to work or carry tourists around on treks. This has allowed Chang Thai Heritage to train the elephants in a completely friendly and natural way. For example, we learnt the command for kiss. Elephants naturally suck water through their trunk. Through positive reinforcement, they have been able to train the elephants to “kiss” someone on demand.
One immediate difference I noticed about these elephants compared to the ones I first encountered in Koh Phangan was their expressions. The elephants here look so happy! It helps make everyone feel so comfortable and enjoy their surroundings.
Not only did we get to spend some quality time cuddling, feeding and kissing (!) the elephants, we also got to help prepare their food and make some of their medicine. All this while also getting to enjoy the beautiful surroundings of Northern Thailand!
We didn’t do all the feeding though. The wonderful staff at Chang Thai Heritage cooked a delicious lunch, using food from the local village market.
One of the highlights of the day was taking the elephants into the river for a bath. They’re only young so can get scared by the louder, older elephants on the other side of the river at the Elephant Nature Park, but they were very well behaved. We got to walk one elephant each up to the river and then get in with them and wash and scrub them. They were pretty cheeky too and decided we needed a clean of our own at some points!
Overall, we had a fantastic day with the elephants and staff at Chang Thai Heritage. I’d defitinely recommend a visit to anyone wanting an elephant-friendly elephant experience in Chiang Mai or Thailand.
Thanks again to all of the staff for a very memorable experience!