Visiting an elephant camp is an extremely popular part of most tourist visits to Thailand, and why not? A chance to see elephants and ride them is a unique and attractive experience. However, there is a dark side to this industry and doing a simple search or reading attraction reviews will bring to light the harsh and abusive conditions a lot of these elephants undergo.
In order to be “trained” for tourist camps and tricks, these elephants are often taken as babies, tied up, beaten, and starved in order to break their spirit. Further, an elephant’s spine is not meant to support the weight of a human, and so riding them is painful for them (and this is done all day, back to back at riding camps). After the tourists have come and gone, they are chained up and not free to roam like they would in the wild. It’s really deplorable.
We wanted to see elephants in a positive way, in an environment where they were taken care of properly and rescued from situations like this, and luckily there are several sanctuary camps in Thailand that offer this. We came across Lanna Kingdom Elephant Sanctuary and ultimately decided to book a tour with them. Their mission is to rescue elephants from the circus and tourist riding camps and offer opportunities to feed, bathe, and see these wonderful beings up close. They also offered smaller group sizes than some other sanctuaries, and that appealed to us as well.
Our half day tour started with a van pickup from our hotel in Chiang Mai. There was only one other couple on the tour with us that day. We drove a while, outside of the city, to get to the sanctuary. On the way we were introduced to our tour guide and were told what we’d be doing for the day and had time to ask questions. Once at the sanctuary, we immediately noticed the elephants, and baby Lanna ran up to us right away! She is a curious and energetic little girl!
We were given clothes to change into, a hat, and crocs to wear (we would be getting muddy later and it’s convenient they provide the clothes to get dirty in, and showers to clean up in afterwards).
Once in our mahout outfits, we were officially introduced to the elephants, and learned some background information on them. There were three elephants when we went in January 2017. One female elephant was rescued from a logging camp, where elephants are used for dragging trees. Another female elephant was rescued from a tourist camp, where they are ridden all day. And then there was baby Lanna, whose spirit was still giddy and light (she was rescued before the industry got to her).
We got to feed them and take photos with them and then went over to the hut where our guide told us more about the camp, Mr. Pop (the owner of the sanctuary and how he started rescuing elephants), and about elephant abuse in Thailand.
We then prepared a food mixture and hand fed it to them. That was certainly an experience! Elephant slober is something I never thought I’d have on my hands!! After feeding them their “vitamins” for the day, we took them over to the mud bath area and lathered them up in mud. This was to bring their body temperature down and help protect against parasites/bugs. We then took them to the small pond and rinsed them off. We were given a scrub brush and bucket to get all the mud off. Baby Lanna was rolling around and swimming in the water, she was so cute to watch!
This whole time, the mahouts took photos of us with our cameras so that we could focus on the elephants and still have our experiences captured! This was so nice and we were very thankful for all the pictures they took!
Included in the tour was lunch! We got to enjoy a pad thai meal over views of the elephants and rice paddy behind us. Once we finished lunch, we said our goodbyes to the elephants with a last feeding and were driven back to the hotel.
I have some mixed feelings of the tour. Although baby Lanna was a bundle of joy, the other elephants honestly seemed broken, which is understandable. I can’t imagine what they went through in their past; they were just rescued a few months before we went (Lanna Kingdom is a newer sanctuary). I wonder if they ever get their spirit back. You know the saying, an elephant never forgets…
During the rinsing time, I focused on one girl, rinsing her off gently, petting her. Looking into her eyes, I saw despair. It made me question the ethics of what we were doing. Even though we were feeding them, petting, and “taking care” of them, they have to do this every day, twice a day. Twice a day having tourists hug on them, pet them, and splash them with water. I understand the need to raise money for the sanctuary, and I truly applaud them for rescuing these amazing creatures, (plus, feeding them can’t be cheap, they eat 300lbs a day!), however I do wish it was less interaction and more observation.
Either way, tourists will visit elephants in Thailand. I just hope they can do it in a way that benefits the elephants and doesn’t feed into the abuse. I’m thankful there are sanctuaries at all in Thailand, and I hope you will consider going to a sanctuary vs elephant training camp or circus.
Have you had a similar experience? Any thoughts? Please share them below!