No trip to northern Thailand is complete without elephants. The brochure stands at any and every hotel / hostel in Chiang Mai are full information about the different organisations offering ‘elephant safaris’ ranging from half a day to a couple of days.
Now, to be honest, I’m not really a fan of these animal safaris, and I picked up a whole bunch of these brochures for research purposes only. But then I spoke to a few people who had made this safari, and every one of them recommended the experience.
Elephants, by their very nature, are not accustomed to intimate human interaction. Now you may argue that elephants and humans have lived closely together in small villages across Asia and Africa, but what wild elephant is going to let you feed them by hand and hug their trunks?
So, with my barrage of brochures, I discerned that the safaris in Chiang Mai were broadly organised into two camps – one that let you ride the elephants, and the other that strictly do not. A quick Google search (I have come a long way from my previous adventures – read here), and it is apparent that the riding camp is the one you need to avoid like the plague. The only way you can make an animal that weighs a few thousand kilos allow a puny human to get on its back and command and steer it, is by torture. Apparently they catch them young, and then use hooks, chains and other methods of pain to to break the elephant’s soul into submission and subservience for the rest of their lives. Hell no.
I was fortunate in finding an organisation that had a bunch of small camps – mine had 6 elephants, 2 of which were babies. While I’m certain these elephants did go through some methods of disciplining, I hope and pray they weren’t as brutal as the riding camps; and on the face of it, these elephants did seem truly happy. Case in point:
The trip started with a 6:30 am pick up from my hostel, and after we picked up a few more people from neighbouring hostels, we quickly hit the highway for our ~2 hour ride to the elephant camp. The ride was, to say the least, puke inducing – and I was glad I had no food in my belly that morning. Once we got there, we had a quick briefing, were asked to wear a colourful elephant camp shirt(?), and handed a bunch of bananas to feed the elephants. We were even taught the elephant command for asking them to raise their trunks to feed them directly into their mouths! An elephant eats around 200 kilos of food everyday, and they kept pushing their trunks in front of every tourist asking for some bananas. They ate, and they ate, and they ate… then the mahouts brought in another large crate of bananas and sugarcane, and they ate that too. And when all of that was done, they were brought some corn / leaves, and they ate that as well; of course, posing for pictures and giving hugs while they did.
After this we were asked to change into our swimsuits and we made our way down to the river to give these cuties a mud bath!
And this was followed by a dip in clearer water to wash off both, the elephants and ourselves. At this point we were also greeted with some extra loud elephant farts!
After this we were fed a simple Thai lunch, and the elephants got their lunch too. At the end of that, we were given one last chance to click some pictures with the elephants. Obviously, the elephants got some more food at this point as well.
All in all, I rate the experience as amazing, and while I’m undecided on whether this trip was ethical / in the best interests of the elephants, I’m happy my money will be used to feed their bottomless bellies, and maybe, just maybe, even put a smile on their faces…