Visiting the Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai

We’ve all got a bucket list right?

Well getting to meet and play with elephants in their natural habitat has been on ours for a long time and after our less than perfect experience meeting tigers at Tiger Kingdom we couldn’t think of a better time to tick it off.

There are plenty of companies in Thailand offering the chance to get up close and personal with these beautiful creatures but they are not all supporters of eco elephant tourism. We wanted to avoid supporting organisations that treat elephants badly and the easiest way to do this is to opt for a company that doesn’t allow elephant riding.

The reason for this is that to make an elephant docile enough to safely give tourists rides on their back they are first put through an excruciating training method known as elephant crushing. This entails their trainers using a combination of both food and sleep deprivation plus physical violence to break the elephants’ spirit which eventually makes them submissive to humans.

It was really important to us that we only spent time with elephants that are treated well and that’s why we chose the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

The clue is in the name with this fantastic company which is run by locals in a beautiful village in the heart of the jungle. They know all too well how badly elephants can be treated and that’s why all of the elephants in their village have been rescued from their previous lives of captivity. They have a total of seven elephants and all roam free through the jungle but willingly return to the village because they know they will be fed and played with there.

Getting there

The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary provides a very helpful pick up and drop off service at no extra cost which is a major bonus. They collected us from our apartment at 8:30am (just like they said the would) in an open truck which was not quite what we were expecting!

The Karen Village is a good 90 minutes drive away and we knew from previous experience that these trucks don’t make for a very comfortable travelling experience. As expected the driver managed to fill it up with the full quota of 8 passengers which meant that the entire journey was spent face to face with a stranger which also left no leg room (especially when you factor in the large gas canister we were also transporting!).

Though none of us were hugely comfortable it did give us a great opportunity to make friends early on in the day and we were pleased that everyone in our group were really lovely.

As we got closer to the village the thought behind the vehicle choice became painfully obvious, and I mean painfully. The road between the village and civilisation is a long, windy, narrow and treacherous dirt road with a sheer drop either side. Not only is this utterly terrifying, you will find that you are thrown around all over the place within the truck and you really do have to hold on for dear life.

I really wish there had been some warning about this beforehand because although Glen and I were fine (despite possibly needing a chiropractor), we had two older ladies on board who really could have done without the trauma. I would say if you are not in good physical health you should skip the tour because your whole body really does get a good pounding on this road.

Arrival

View over mahout landscape

Not a bad view over the village.

Though we were all a bit shaken (literally) when we arrived, the journey from hell was forgotten as soon as we disembarked the truck and got our first glimpse of the stunning scenery. This village truly is beautiful and the views over the jungle are astounding. Straight away we felt really lucky to be able to get a glimpse of something that seemed so private.

We were immediately joined by our guide, Robert, who is a village local. He took the time to introduce himself and ask our names (three times) before inviting us to use the toilet which was surprisingly clean and had toilet paper (luxury!). We were all offered free bottled water before he began to lead us down through the jungle to the main camp area.

Landscape walking in mahout village

Trekking in the hills to see the elephants

Again if you are not in good health this trip is not for you as the walk is steep and involves climbing over a wooden gate. Our two older ladies were absolute troopers who just got on with it and managed well enough, and when one of them did struggle with the walk the lovely Robert made her a walking stick to lean on which seemed to really speed her up.

The Elephants

Claire feeding mum elephant

Giving mum some sugar cane snacks

We couldn’t believe it when we rounded the corner and standing right in front of us was a huge elephant! Robert walked straight past her and so we felt confident enough to do the same but it was definitely a little scary! I don’t know what I had expected to see but a huge elephant roaming free just seemed bizarre initially. We had nothing to worry about though, she made no threatening movements at all and seemed quite content to have us all staring at her in awe. Mind you, at 12 months pregnant (of 22 months) she probably couldn’t be bothered to trample us!

At this point we were all allocated a funky top to wear over our own, presumably because the elephants can be quite dirty, and then we were led a little further into the jungle where we met another three beautiful elephants.

Little baby elephant Peter who is just 15 months old and is very naughty wanted to make friends immediately and made short work of our water bottles – stealing them from our hands, opening them and drinking the contents! It was very funny to watch but the guide had to quickly take the bottle away before Peter ate it and instead taught us how to feed the water to the elephants ourselves. This involved holding their trunk up and pouring all the water in. The elephant will hold the water until you are finished and then will simply put his trunk into his mouth and drink it. Amazing!

Peter the elephant grabbing bottle

Naughty Peter trying to steal Claire’s water bottle!

We spent a good 45 minutes getting to know the elephants and gained enough confidence to stroke and feed them, though I think we were all constantly aware how easily the situation could get out of control. These are very large wild animals after all.

One top tip that you should take in with you is to stay calm. Immediately after seeing you the elephants (especially Peter) will want to get up close and personal and whilst this is alarming at first, the best thing to do is just let them push you around a little. If you run, they will chase you and they will win! We hadn’t been told how to behave around the elephants beforehand but some basic tips would have really helped.

Peter playing with people

This is Peter. He’s naughty but so much fun!

Next up we moved again further into the jungle where we met Mr Perfect, the 5 legged elephant – the sole male elephant aptly named for his impressive genitalia which he proudly displays at all times.

This elephant is absolutely huge and we got the impression that he was less used to human contact as the guide kept signalling him to keep back from us which was quite a relief. Did I mention he is huge??

Elephant trunk taking food from hand

They’re so gentle when taking food from you!

A final trek inwards saw us meet the last two elephants – a mother and her tiny 5 month old baby. Mum was cautious and baby a little nervous and we so gave them a wide berth to avoid scaring them but it was amazing to get to see them and watch the baby feeding. Eventually they relaxed into the idea of company and we were able to give them a little cuddle and some food.

Mother and baby elephant

Obligatory shot of us with mother and baby

At no point were we hurried along. We spent as much time as we wanted to with each group of elephants before Robert led us on and we all enjoyed a little sing-a-long as we went “in the jungle the mighty jungle….” it really added to the fun and we couldn’t help feeling like we were in an episode of friends (or the X factor)!

Whilst we were fighting for our right to partaaay we were also tekking our way back to the main village where we found waiting a delicious lunch of rice, chicken, eggs and noodles for us to enjoy on a plank overlooking a waterfall. This was such a treat and I really could have stayed there all day.

Seven eleven in the jungle

7-11’s are on every corner. Coming to a jungle near you soon!

The village inhabitants had even created their own jungle 7-11 and though the drinks were hugely overpriced, we all bought something just so that we could contribute a little to the village that had welcomed us so well.

Getting down and dirty

After lunch the real fun began. We all changed into our swimwear before running with the elephants to a huge mud bath! Don’t think you’ll come away clean – the elephants will see to it that you are completely covered in mud as they suck it up into their trunks and throw it all over the place!

They are truly in their element here and loving every minute of it which is amazing to see. Peter immediately jumped in and started rolling around in the mud but when the huge older elephants did the same we all stared on in bewilderment. It’s amazing how something so huge can be so agile! Seeing the elephants so happy in their natural environment was hugely humbling and such an amazing experience.

With the help of the guides we all got a bit silly and had a huge group mud fight which of course the playful elephants loved. At one point we had to move out of the way as they got a little over excited but it wasn’t long before peace was restored.

Getting clean

Once we were all sufficiently covered head to toe in mud, we were taken to a natural water lake to get cleaned up. Swimming around in the beautiful clear water on what was a scorching day was heaven and when we were joined by three dirty elephants it became perfection.

We all doused them with water and scrubbed their skin to get them clean which they absolutely loved. They rolled around and splashed and even made their glorious trumpeting sound! It was such a surreal experience and one that we won’t forget any time soon.

Sadly we didn’t take any pictures as we were too busy getting muddy and wet so you’ll just have to imagine it!

Anyone still dirty after the elephant bath were able to make their way over to a nearby water fall to clean up and the locals had helpfully left out shampoo and soap (naturally made, of course) which was definitely needed!

We then all got changed into clean clothing and were given the opportunity to buy souvenirs from the locals which of course we all did. All the while the elephants were hovering around and it still amazes me how quickly we got used to having them just hanging around without worrying about our safety.

Once we’d all spent every bit of cash we’d bought with us on buying souvenirs we said a final goodbye to the elephants and jumped back into the truck for the painful descent down away from the beautiful, fascinating creatures and back to civilisation.

Overall this was one of the best experiences of our lives and we can’t recommend it highly enough.

Cost

A full day package (like we did) costs 2,400 baht / £48 per person but there are also 2 and three day packages which include an overnight stay in the village, unlimited time swimming around in the beautiful lakes and the opportunity to plant food for the elephants. You’ll also get a cooking lesson thrown in too!

Find out all the information you need on the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary website.

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