Top 3 Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai
Northern Thailand is elephant country. In the past, the animals were trained and worked in the lumber industry and on public works. Now, these elephants and their descendants are retired and are given a better life in the elephant sanctuaries of the Chiang Mai region, while some tours still offer elephant riding. Some of these have been turned into real tourist factories; big operations that serve the many tourists that visit each day. PM Tours values the smaller sanctuaries that give the elephants all the room to move around and that only exposes them to small groups of visitors. PM Tours has a strict no-riding policy and only offers ethical elephant tours. Here is our top 3 of the best elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai.
What makes an elephant sanctuary?
The bottom line is the respect with which the animals are treated. At a real elephant sanctuary, nobody rides the elephants and the elephants are not forcebly made to do anything. They have freedom to move around and have plenty of room to do so. The elephants are cared for, and receive adequate medical treatment when they develop a health problem. Of course, there is no prodding, hitting or chaining up of the elephants.
#3: Happy Elephant Home
This sanctuary has a special place in our hearts because it's the first small elephant sanctuary PM Tours worked with, now more than three years ago. Happy Elephant Home currently has five elephants and only admits 15 visitors per group per day. We consider their fantastic guides Omo and Sandy our friends and can testify that for many of our visitors, they manage every time to turn a good experience into a great one.
Offering half day and full day programs, tours at this sanctuary offer a mud-bath with the elephants, which protects their skin against the sun. In the afternoon, you accompany them on a trek to the river through a beautiful valley. At the river, the animals love to take a swim and play in the water, and you can join them of course. Other activities include lessons on elephant behavior and health, making elephant medicine (such as large tamarind balls with herbs in them to help their digestion) and collecting sugar cane and corn, otherwise known as elephant candy (they love it!).
One of the perks of Happy Elephant Home is its a lovely farmhouse that has a swimming pool, so that you can take a refreshing dive during your visit.
Where: Mae Taeng Valley
What: half day (morning or afternoon) / full day programs
#2: Into the Wild Elephant Camp
Into the Wild is a newcomer, but they've already proven they have a great formula, both for the elephants and their visitors. They currently have five elephants that they have rescued from less ethical elephant tours in both Thailand and Myanmar, where they had to give rides and provide entertainment. Now, they are free to go where they want and live a happy life.
The guides at Into the Wild speak English well and are friendly and engaging. Good friends Pai and Siwa started the camp with a wealth of wilflife experience; Pai worked for the Thai Government for over 15 years in their tiger preservation projects and Siwa is a medical wildlife professional. They started the camp to give something back to the local community and their country.
The personal engagement of the people at Into the Wild shows in how they approach the visitor experience. It's important to them that people from outside Thailand understand the history and culture of elephants in their country, and how over time this has evolved and now underpins their philosophy of what makes an ethical elephant sanctuary. They are honest about the practical limits of running an elephant sanctuary and are open to engaging visitors in discussions on how and why they do things.
This shows in how visitors take part in a day at the camp: after the ride from Chiang Mai (about 1,5 hours, with a short break) and following a talk by and with Pai, the visitors get a chance to let the elephants get to know them by feeding them bananas. What follows is a trek into the forest, with the elephants following the calls of the guides. The elephants then are left to do what they want, such as eating jungle food (skills taught to them by the guides, as they never lived in the wild before) and digging up mud in the local stream to throw unto themselves. The animals return to the camp when they want to, and the visitors follow. Following a delicious lunch prepared by the camp staff, sometimes followed by a mud bath, the visitors can take a swim with the elephants in the refreshing mountain stream next to the camp.
The ethical engagement of Into the Wild Elephant Camp does not stop at the treatment of the animals, but extends to how they engage with the local hill tribes, which are some of the poorest communities in Thailand. Into the Wild has developed a model in which they not only help the community by committing to buying their crops to feed the elephants, but also actively employ them at the camp and use the camp as a community-building tool, exposing the tribal communities to each other, to foreign visitors and to new experiences. For example, they organise a summer camp where tribal kids can come meet each other while they learn about the elephants and other things outside their local isolated experience, such as foreign foods.
Where: Mae Wang National Park
What: half day (morning) / full day program
#1: Chiang Mai Elephant Land
At our favorite sanctuary, their five elephants are free to roam the jungle of Doi Inthanon National Park. In the morning, the elephants tend to return to the camp to get fed but if they've wandered particularly far, the mahouts search the wide area for the elephants and use food to 'lure'; them back to camp (mahout means elephant 'rider'; or 'keeper';, but in sanctuaries the meaning of 'caretaker'; is more appropriate).
As with all the sanctuaries in our top 3, the program includes a trek with the elephants, but what makes Elephant Land's location so special is that you walk through the amazing scenery around Thailand's highest mountain, Doi Inthanon. The highlight of the day comes when the elephants and visitors reach a beautiful waterfall, where everyone can have fun in the water and take a waterfall shower!
Besides the the guides' infectious enthusiasm and motivation to really care for the elephants, Elephant Land is our top sanctuary because it's a place where they truly do everything at the pace that the elephants set. It allows the animals the maximum amount of freedom that is practically achievable. A place where the elephant comes first and the visitor second is what we think is really what defines a great elephant sanctuary. This is why, without exception, every person that has booked a trip with us here has come back not just satisfied but amazed and truly happy with the experience.
Chiang Mai Elephant Land also sets itself apart because it offers a two day program that allows you to spend the night at the camp. This way you can enjoy a longer stay at the camp and experience the jungle as it comes alive with the sounds of its hidden nature. Besides more (water)play with the animals, the second day also features a trek around the Doi Inthanon area during which the guides teach a course on Thai herbs, ferns, wild vegetables and the traditional culture of the hill tribe people.
Where: Doi Inthanon National Park
What: full day / two day programs