Have you ever wondered how people get the opportunity to spend their days with elephants? Curious on how they do it, or even where they do it?
Before we let you in on the secret, I want to mention a few things that are important about elephants. First, elephants are big dogs and they will love you forever if you give them food. Second, don’t ever, EVER, choose to ride an elephant. Just because Mongolian warlords did it while conquering Asia doesn’t mean you should. Elephants are not meant for us to ride, and I am sure they do not want us riding them either. Asian elephants have an upwards arched spine, so riding them can be painful for the elephant and even injure them. Third, elephants are dangerously clumsy. If you get too close and they don’t see you, you could get injured or killed. They are very large and very heavy, and there are many ways for them to injure you. Stepping on you is likely but squishing you between another object or elephant is just as likely. Truth is, they can’t really feel you because of the thickness of their skin, so when it’s too late, it’s too late. Overall, just beware of your surroundings and don’t expect them to move out of the way for you.
Okay, you’re getting anxious and want to know more about getting your own opportunity. There are many facilities all over the world and most are perfectly fine and have good intentions. Even when plenty of love and food are provided to these giants, sometimes that isn’t enough. A large factor is space for them to roam without the constricting boarders or fences. If they are happy, they won’t run away.
Having four locations across the country, the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is one that I would strongly encourage participating in. Yes, I did say participate, because you don’t just visit the elephants, you are immersed with them and get to know their needs and daily activities. Which is probably one of the best ways to spend your time ethically with elephants.
I would strongly recommend the Chiang Mai location. Our wonderful time at this foundation allowed us to experience not only the company of the elephants, but help the people that are fighting so hard to protect them in our world.
Below you can find the links to each of the locations supported by the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
We were lucky enough to make a reservation with the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We did a lot of research and found this was the perfect fit and one of the better experiences out there. When making our reservation we had a couple different options for our tour, either morning or afternoon tours, full day tour or even overnight. Then there were other simpler ones that ranged from meeting elephants for a short while or taking longer walks with them.
The option we chose was a full day adventure. We wanted to make sure we had just enough time to get a full experience with elephants while staying on track with our itinerary for there rest of the trip.
We visited Chiang Mai on a Saturday and Sunday, which means the sanctuary is open to the weekends. We spent one whole day in the city exploring various temples and culture and another whole day with the sanctuary. Sunday morning came around and we got up early and packed our bags for the day. The items in our bags included bathing suits, sunscreen, water bottles, extra clothes, bug spray and hats. We had to make sure we were completely packed because by the time we got back to the Airbnb it would be past our check-out period. The Sanctuary includes a pick-up and drop-off service when you book your reservation, as long as you are staying in Chiang Mai or a reasonable distance for them.
They pick you up early around 8:00 – 8:30 am (understand that there is traffic, so they could be early, or they could be late, but its usually pretty close to the time they provide). The ride to the sanctuary is approximately an hour and half, and they include a pit stop at a rest area with bathrooms, a couple of food places, and a convenience store.
As we got closer to the sanctuary you could start to see where the other camps within were set up, our camp was number 6. When you arrive, everyone will be dropped off and greeted by the staff, they will ask you to pick up a Karen and place your belongings over with the lockers. So, for your own comfort, we had all our bags plus our camera bag with numerous expensive items, all just placed in a pile with other people’s stuff during the day. We made sure to not be oblivious about it, but your stuff was pretty safe there. The staff are not ones to take what’s not theirs. Fellow group members on the other hand, just as safe as anywhere else in the world, so don’t be naïve. If you are still a bit hesitant, bring a small pad lock with you and you can lock your bags up in the lockers provided.
After everyone puts their Karens on, which are traditional Thai clothing, introductions will begin between all the staff and all the visitors. Yes, you will be introducing yourself to the group. During the introductions they taught us the history of the Asian Elephant, their behaviors and their anatomy. This included why we should not ride them, how much food they need and why (fun fact, elephants don’t have stomachs!), and how to keep them happy and active (this includes what not to do when you are socializing with them).
During the introduction lessons, we were taught how to properly feed them, which in all honesty was one of the funniest demonstrations I’ve seen in a long time. Elephants there are fed two ways, by their trunks which is assumed by many, and directly in their mouths, which is terrifying by many.
Option 1 – holding your hand out with a banana and they will grab it with their trunk. For those who don’t know, it’s like a big thick piece of wet leather. Weirdest thing in my head to explain but that’s as close as I can get. You will find that it doesn’t take long for them to get excited about bananas, they literally go bananas for bananas!
Options 2 – The more interestingly terrifying way is to feed them directly in their mouth. Before you start over thinking, yes, they have tusks and they are very short and not sharp. They don’t have teeth so don’t think you will lose a hand when feeding them by the mouth. For myself I was eager to just get the love of the elephant, so I went right in. BON! BON! This is what you say to get them to open their mouth so you can feed them! To feed the elephants by the mouth you need to let them know what your intentions are, they are trained to understand verbal cues to lift their trunk and receive food. These verbal cues can be used by the staff to check their mouths or other needs, you will only be feeding them.
During the first impressions with them and feeding them, they are lined up behind a wooded fence (it only has one side, they are not confined). After the fist several hundred bananas are gone, you will be allowed to move around the fence and socialize with them more. Make sure you do not hug their trunks or stand behind them. You can touch their heads, their trunks and their front shoulders. When they flap their ears that’s when they are happy. If you see an elephant marching towards you with flapping ears, don’t get excited. Chances are (close to 99.99999%) there is a big pile of food behind you, which means you are practically invisible to them and they will run you over. Just ask Rain, she got all excited until she realized it wasn’t slowing down and caused her to jump out of the way! They act like giant dogs with the behavior of toddlers.
Once the socializing hour is over, you will be provided lunch and some human social time. Meet some of the other guests, and maybe you will end up making new friends! We were delighted to meet a bunch of Taiwanese kids that were extremely nice! They were also in our transport truck to and from the sanctuary, so we got to hang with them for a long while. The lunch provided will be a traditional Thai meal, and in our case is Rain and I’s favorite Thai food ever! Yellow Curry Chicken with Pineapple, Onion, Pepper, Carrot, all over rice. YUM. We might be included a recipe for you all later!
After lunch is settled, the schedule said we would be doing a mud spa and river walking, however that was pushed to the end because we had the opportunity to meet Charlie. Charlie is a 6-month new born elephant that resembled a literal giant baby. He is hilarious and super adorable. He ran around with his mom nearby, separate from the rest of the group. We all came prepared with plenty of bananas hoping to steal his love. Although he loves bananas he just wanted to play. This was funny to see, because when they play they love to push each other around, so he would run into us and try to push us around. You think it’s easy? Try pushing a 500 lb elephant back. It took 4 people to do it with one gentleman being rather strong himself.
Baby elephants rock and to prove it, here is me being the big spoon to our cuddle puddle.
After all the fun and games with Charlie we all walked back to the main part of the camp to change into our bathing suits. Next on our list was to take the elephants to the mud pit for a nice relaxing mud spa or so we thought… After we all got changed (in the private bathrooms that are on site), we all worked our way to where we ate lunch. Before we take the elephants swimming they need their daily medicine ball. This required the strength of two men and a woman to smash together a group of herbal ingredients into a ball. Each elephant got two or three medicine balls, which had to be fed directly in their mouth. BON! BON! Otherwise their trunk would squish them and they would fall apart.
The mud spa was probably the dirtiest I’ve ever been, willingly. We were basically having a splash fight with the elephants in mud that came up past my knees. That wasn’t the deepest either, an elephant there averages 9-10 feet high, with them rolling around I was definitely taller. This lasted about 10 minutes, we had to scrub each of the elephants with big slabs of mud. Yes, they loved it. Imagine 20 people with 5 (at the time) elephants rolling around in mud and throwing it everywhere. Yeah it got pretty dirty.
Once all the elephants were confirmed “scrubbed and lathered” we marched them towards the river to scrub and wash off the mud. It was a beautiful little river, which was also about the same water level as the mud, so we were able to stand and reach the height of the elephants. This part lasted about 35-45 minutes, as it was the most fun we all had as a group. What turned into multiple splash fights with the elephants, turned into multiple splash fights with the rest of the group haha!
To wrap up the day, after the splash fight had a ceasefire and all the casualties were recovered, the group regathered back at the top of the camp to begin our goodbyes. Thankfully, they had plenty of bottled waters for us because we were exhausted from all the fun activities. After we changed back into our dry clothes and gathered all our belongings we made our last rounds with goodbyes to the staff and of course the elephants.
One thing to take back from this was, not only did the staff say goodbye to each of us individually, but Mr. K (one of the kindest souls I have ever met) gave his personal thanks to all of us for helping them with their mission to save the elephants. Each person was hugged and thanked, and I believe that goes a long way for foundations like this. You know it’s not just for the money, these people give all that money towards providing the elephants with all the things the world has taken away from them.
If you’re feeling the love before you leave, be sure to check out their little gift stand too, all the money goes directly to the sanctuary without any middle man, so you know that the elephants will be getting it. The gifts include various figurines, some you may find within the city, however these come from a special place. Other various gifts are available such as Thai patterned cooking aprons (which of course Rain had to buy)
We hope that after you read this, it will inspire you to look into making a memory with these wonderful people and elephants. There wasn’t anything we’d take back from this moment in our lives, every second there was a truly amazing moment, and we are glad we get to share it with you all!