ELEPHANT TOURISM IN THAILAND can be a controversial subject. While many places use the majestic animals more for entertainment, there are reputable sanctuaries where, rather than playing soccer with elephants, you can feed them, bathe them and learn more about their stories.
With a little bit of research, travelers can discern the right sanctuary to visit while in the northern regions of Thailand, including the area outside Chiang Mai. Whether or not one chooses to spend time at an elephant sanctuary, the city of Chiang Mai is a cultural hub, offering rich experiences and unbelievable cuisine around every turn and in each neighborhood.
One of the most respected elephant camps within an easy drive of Chiang Mai is Elephant Nature Park. Book early, as space is limited. I spent a morning at Baan Chang Elephant Park, also just outside of the city. Check with the Tourism Authority of Thailand on recommended sanctuaries.
A few tips for choosing one: Pick a place that does not train elephants to do tricks or separate young elephants from their mothers. There was a baby at the park on the day of my visit, and mother and child were kept together and separated from the other elephants in order to bond. Do not choose a sanctuary that allows you to ride on a chair placed atop the elephant’s back. The best way to ride an elephant, if you are doing so, is bareback and sitting on the neck. The chairs atop the elephant’s spine can crush the small bones that stick up and cause immense pain to the animal.
Sanctuaries with good reputations rescue elephants from illegal logging and hunting operations and provide excellent medical care. At these parks you will feed them, assist in bathing, learn more about the mahout/elephant connection and get a taste and experience of the culture surrounding Thai mahouts and elephants.
On my half-day experience I changed into a traditional mahout outfit; learned about the elephants’ eating habits; fed them bamboo and bananas; received more information about the provided medical care, rescue efforts and conservation in place at the park; met the new babies born just weeks before; took a jungle walk with the awe-inspiring creatures; watched them bathe; and enjoyed a traditional pad Thai lunch before departing. I left with an even greater respect for the beautiful animals, and the true bond formed between elephant and mahout.
Deciding to visit an elephant sanctuary is a personal decision, and one that should be made after research. Animal tourism has its many pitfalls, but if you choose a reputable sanctuary, you gain an invaluable, deeper understanding of the animals and the efforts made to save them.
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