Reminiscing about last year’s unforgettable elephant bonding day near Chiang Mai.
Many people have only seen elephants in zoos or read about them in books. Elephants are only native to Africa and Asia, which leaves quite a few continents without these peaceful giants roaming around. To those living on these lacking continents, the concept of the world’s largest land mammals seems baffling and intriguing. That’s why many travelers who visit Africa or Asia make it a priority to explore the natural habitats of elephants, to see these mysterious creatures up close.
When I visited Thailand with my best friend last year, seeing elephants was a top priority of ours. This was the only activity we booked prior to our trip, as we were so excited about this opportunity. We had ten days in Chiang Mai in the north of the country, so we spent some time researching the various companies that offer full day excursions away from the city and into the elephant’s territory.
The two most reputable and ethical companies we found were Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and Elephant Nature Park. It only takes a few minutes of research to determine that riding elephants is a bad decision. Unlike horses, elephants’ bodies are not suitable for holding heavy loads. Their spines are designed to carry immense weight beneath them, not above them. Riding elephants is only one of the many ways that humans have exploited these creatures for their own financial gain, in addition to poaching and entertainment use. Any company that allows you to ride the elephants probably does not treat their animals with care and respect, so stay away from those companies.
That being said, the two companies I mentioned above emphasize the well-being and freedom of the animals. We chose Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which offers full day tours for 2,400 baht, or just over 70 USD. The package included transport to and from our hostel, a healthy buffet lunch, snacks and drinks, informative guides, and all the activities for the day.
The drive to the sanctuary was incredibly bumpy and the roads only got narrower and curvier as we journeyed into the mountains. But once we arrived the nausea from the drive shifted into excitement as we caught glimpses of the giant animals roaming through the woods.
Everyone put on traditional knitted shirts and spent the first hour or so feeding, photographing, and observing the beautiful beasts. We fed them bananas and sugar cane, and my goodness these elephants LOVED their food. They spend basically the whole day eating to satisfy their massive appetites: Asian elephants eat about 150kg of food a day.
The sanctuary had about eight elephants that day, all of them female except the four-month old baby. He was feisty and clumsy; it was absolutely adorable watching him trip over his clunky feet and head-butt people and flail his little trunk around. At one point he climbed onto a small rock beside the river and the elephant trainers tried to convince him to jump into the water. After contemplating it for about ten minutes he decided he was too scared and ran away.
Though these creatures could crush any of us tourists in a second, they were all so peaceful and calm. They didn’t mind if you slowly walked right up to them and stroked their leathery, prickly skin, and there was a weird sense of serenity and understanding when you stared into their eyes. While they seemed so majestic while slowly wandering around on land, they still acted like goofy, fun-loving animals in the water. They rolled around and threw their trunks in the air, clearly having the time of their lives frolicking in the river on this hot day.
The best part of the day was giving the elephants a mud bath. Apparently this helps soothe their rough skin in the heat, so we were encouraged to grab handfuls of wet, cool mud and rub it into their wrinkles. Because the water was cloudy and muddy, it was slightly terrifying sharing a small pool with eight ginormous creatures. As they rolled around freely, I could feel their tree trunk sized legs swinging around under the water and their trunks spraying muddy water in my face so I couldn’t see. The guides told us to stand near their backs so we didn’t get smashed by their feet, and luckily everyone left the mud bath happy and unscathed.
We also learned so much about the elephants and their behaviors, like how females are pregnant for two whole years and how their flapping ears mean they’re either happy or trying to stay cool. They also throw dirt on their backs to stay cool and have deep connections with the others in their herd. We watched one of the guides begin making a digestive medicine for the elephants using fruits, herbs, and sour tamarind, though the elephants sensed food and started devouring the medicine before it was finished.
This day was magical, and an experience I will never forget. I feel so lucky to have seen some of this earth’s most fascinating creatures up close in their natural habitat. Asian elephants are so beautiful and appear to have all the wisdom in the world, so it’s a shame that they are endangered because of humans’ greedy and inconsiderate actions. Hopefully more travelers will choose ethical tour companies and visit sanctuaries rather than circuses, because elephants deserve respect and admiration.