As mentioned previously, one of the many things Thailand is known for is elephants. Unfortunately, much of Thailand does not treat its elephants well. Elephants in Thailand are often forced to do tricks to please tourists, tricks that were taught using punishment and negative reinforcement. This combined with a general lack of freedom (these elephants are often chained up when not working) often makes the elephants unhappy, even depressed.
Thankfully, because of negative backlash against this, there is a new type of elephant tourism in Thailand. This tourism involves visiting animals sanctuaries where tourists interact with elephants doing their daily routine, which basically involves eating, bathing, and playing (and sleeping, but tourists don’t interact with them while they sleep). No riding, no chains, no tricks, the result being much happier elephants.
Chiang Mai is at the forefront of this type of tourism, with several sanctuaries that specifically advertise: no riding, no chains, no tricks. The one small catch is that these outfits are more expensive, but for us it was worth it.
To get to the elephant sanctuaries, we first had to go to Chiang Mai. Population-wise, Chiang Mai is actually the second largest city in Thailand (not counting cities in greater-Bangkok) but even so, the city isn’t that large, come in 33 times smaller than Bangkok. This makes Bangkok by far the largest primate city in the world.
Chiang Mai was a charming town, but outside of the elephant sanctuaries, there wasn’t much here. The city did have a fantastic night market though, filled with tourists and food and shopping and souvenirs.
Speaking of food… the food in Chiang Mai was really good.
Alright, so Chiang Mai is nice, but we came for elephants. So lets go!
Inna and I went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, a sanctuary that houses more than sixty elephants in eight locations in the mountains near Chiang Mai. We visited one of these locations and met seven elephants, a grandma, two moms (who were also sisters), another elephant the same age as the moms, and three young ones.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary appealed to us because they take in elephants who were mistreated, giving them a good home. That is definitely something Inna and I don’t mind giving money to. As for the picture above, that’s a daughter between her mom (left) and aunt (right).
This is grandma, odd-shaped because she is pregnant. That’s not something you get to say very often…
The first portion of our day consisted of feeding the elephants, first sugarcane (treats) and then bamboo (real food). Elephants are big so they need to eat a lot; they actually spend 80% of their waking hours eating.
While feeding the elephants, we also got to take pictures with them. The elephants didn’t mind, they were all about the food and didn’t seem to care about us at all (this last fact was actually kind of disappointing, but oh well).
This little guy was the only male at this location, and you can tell he is male because for Asian elephants, only males have tusks. This is actually one of two major differences between African and Asian elephants, the other being that African elephants are larger. The reason there was only one male at this location is because once male elephants reach a certain age, they no longer get along, not even father and son. This means that sanctuaries can’t have more than one male at any location.
After eating, it was time for a drink. And just like eating, elephants drink a lot, as much as forty gallons per day. Also, did you know elephants used their trunk to drink, as shown above? I always assumed they stuck their head in the water, like every other non-primate mammal does.
The one thing about this place: it felt so much like a hippie commune. Not sure if it was the experience or the people we were experiencing it with, but it was weird. Not too weird though, and totally worth it to visit elephants!
After breaking for lunch, we reunited with the elephants, fed them some medicine (that we helped make), and then “helped” them bathe.
After the elephants’ bath, we had one ourselves.
Finally, to end the day, we all rinsed off.
After washing off it was time to go, but that male elephant wasn’t ready for us to leave just yet. He actually climbed a fence to spend more time with us; doing things like this is how he got his name: “Little Rascal*”.
* unfortunately, Inna and I can’t remember the exact name they gave him, but it was something like this
After corralling Little Rascal and taking him back to his family, it was officially time to go. In total, we only spent one day with these elephants, but that day that was so much fun. Elephants are amazing and you really feel it up close. Specifically, their intelligence: elephants are one of the smartest animals in the world and when they look at you you can feel their recognition, you can feel their brain processing, that they understand who you are and are even aware of their relationship to you.
Visiting these elephants was so great, if you ever go to Thailand, we highly recommend it.
Up next, we continued north, to one of Chiang Mai’s nearest cities: Chiang Rai!