Elephants are virtually synonymous with Thailand, and getting up close and personal with these gentle giants is one of those bucket list experiences that is likely to find its way on to any self-respecting Chiang Mai itinerary.
If you are looking for a day to remember for all the right reasons, however, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of doing your research. Unfortunately for these beautiful animals, not all elephant tourism in Thailand is ethical, with a large number of even so called ‘sanctuaries’ guilty of animal cruelty.
We did an enormous amount of research before picking our encounter, and we were delighted with our experience at Karen Elephant Serenity, a project which is affiliated with ethically renowned Elephant Nature Park.
Our visit to Karen Elephant Serenity
I make no hesitation in saying that our visit to Karen Elephant Serenity was the absolute highlight of our trip to Chiang Mai, and indeed, our entire Thailand trip (although the Yee Peng festival was a very close second).
Our day started at 8am when the air-conditioned minibus collected us from our accommodation, stopping to collect the remainder of the 12 strong group of the day’s visitors along the way.
The 90 minute journey was punctuated with a toilet stop half way and a video produced by elephant nature park in which Tom Oliver (that’s Lou Carpenter to the Neighbours Australian TV series fans of old out there!) gave us a little background to Elephant Nature Park and it’s offshoot projects, as well as some handy elephant visiting tips.
The latter were illustrated by his animated self being repeatedly thrown and kicked into the air by disgruntled elephants, much to the boy’s amusement.
When we were almost there, we had a slight change of transport from air-conditioned bus to…… a ute with planks across the back acting as bench seating!
This ride in itself was something of a highlight as we travelled off road through ditches, up and down hills and through the jungle, at times wondering whether the vehicle would manage the uphill sections with our travelling companions on board! Happily, we soon arrived at Karen Elephant Serenity.
We immediately spotted our new friends for the day, 8 month old baby Heng Heng, her mother and her aunt.
Although the elephants were stationed behind a wooden barrier, it soon became apparent that this had a front only; the elephants were able to exit from the back, or in Heng Heng’s case, directly through the railings, which was clearly much more fun!
After a quick hand wash to protect the trio from any sunscreen, insect repellent or other nasties on our hands, we were straight in there for a meet and greet.
Heng Heng quickly showed her mischievous side as she grabbed the strap of my vest top and pulled it down to see what I had on underneath!
The mahouts directed us to some buckets of bananas and sugar cane and we quickly learnt just how flexible those trunks are.
The adult elephants seemed to know exactly who had something tasty, favouring bananas over the sugar cane and collecting four or five at a time cleverly balanced in a crook in their trunks before sending them mouth-wards.
The mahouts and photographer encouraged the party to take turns in family groups to have their picture taken feeding the elephants; what ensued was a hilarious scene as eager trunks found themselves in unexpected places, bananas were thrown left right and centre and Heng Heng just grabbed whatever she could get her trunk around.
Once we all felt adequately acquainted (more than adequately in some cases!), it was time for a walk into the forest to enjoy watching the elephants just be elephants, eating what they fancied, rubbing themselves against tree trunks to relieve a niggling itch and throwing soil over themselves to keep cool.
We quickly learnt that, whilst the adult elephants for their sheer size were surprisingly gentle and graceful, Heng Heng, like any toddler, had no such decorum, rushing around as the mood took her, amid Sam’s cries of ‘charging baby!’
We managed to dodge the half tonne toddler on most occasions, although Ben is able to make the unusual claim that he has had his foot trodden on by an elephant!
As the elephants walked deeper into the jungle to continue their exploration, we made our way back to the huts to enjoy our delicious vegetarian lunch.
After eating, we learnt how to make some special nutritious food balls for the pregnant aunt and lactating mummy elephants using a foot powered giant pestle and mortar.
The adults were all happy enough to watch the boys work hard before forming the gooey paste into tennis ball sized portions for later.
In the afternoon, the real fun started as we joined the elephants in a man-made pool for a swim, a splash and a play where we used saucepans to throw water over the elephants.
It was clear that the elephants were having the time of their lives although it was a close call between them and the boys as to who had the most fun!
What better way to celebrate a lovely cleansing bath than to dive straight into a big pool of mud? Well that’s exactly what our new friends did next!
This was clearly Heng Heng’s favourite part of the day as she put on her now familiar charge to get there as fast as her little wrinkly legs would carry her.
Most of the party sat this one out, but there was no stopping me and the boys getting right on in there!
If you’ve ever heard the expression ‘stuck in the mud’, it was never more apt than here; we quickly started sinking thigh high into the thick sloppy mud moving far less easily than our giant companions.
There was plenty of splashing, mud flinging and rolling about from both man and beast, and the elephants were definitely ready to leave before the boys!
Luckily, there were some basic showers in bamboo shacks back near the huts to clean away most of our adventure, although be warned, the mud does stain so don’t wear anything precious!
Appetites re-awakened by all that splashing, the elephants were ready to eat again and it was time to offer them the food balls we’d made after lunch.
This time, the food went straight from our hands to their mouths and we learnt that an elephant’s tongue is as soft as velvet, who knew?
It took Daniel a couple of attempts to be confident enough to get that close to such a big mouth but the elephants were surprisingly gently despite their enthusiasm.
Before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye, although we all agreed it was more of an ‘Arivedeci’ (until we meet again) than a final goodbye; we were all absolutely besotted with these gentle giants.
We honestly couldn’t have asked for a better day with the elephants.
Although there were only three elephants, the small group meant that we felt we had plenty of time interacting with them.
The animals appeared very happy and healthy, almost seeming to smile, and the loving connection between elephant and mahout was obvious.
There was plenty of space for the animals to roam, not a chain or weapon in sight and the day was very much on their terms.
Photographs were opportunistic and we were reminded to avoid using the flash when snapping our own memories to avoid damaging the elephant’s eyes.
The pictures taken during our visit were shared on the projects Facebook page the following day, free of charge, and the photographer was very happy to use visitor’s own devices to capture the moment.
The only optional additional charges on the day were for canned soft drinks and beer to have with your lunch (prices very comparable to anywhere else in Chiang Mai) and a very small range of reasonably priced elephant related souvenirs arranged near the sink with no hard sell whatsoever; we bought a small resin elephant each for 100 TBH to remind us of our wonderful day.
Choosing an ethical experience; the ugly truth behind elephant tourism
When we left Karen Elephant Serenity, we were really confident that our research into ethical projects had paid off and we were extremely pleased with our choice.
Whilst there are a number of other ethical projects in Chiang Mai, there are many more which do not have animal welfare as a high priority.
For a true animal lover, this could make your elephant experience the low point rather than the highlight of your trip, so it’s worth taking the time to make sure your tourist dollar is supporting the right project and you are not inadvertently contributing to animal cruelty.
Elephant tourism actually came about as a by-product of changes to industries where elephants had previously been part of the work force.
Historically, elephants have been used for haulage for centuries owing to their sheer size and strength, especially within the logging industry, rather ironically being instrumental to the destruction of their own habitat.
As logging was outlawed, this left hundreds of mahouts (elephant trainers) with large and hungry beasts requiring some 250Kg of food per day, out of a job and with no income to fund that appetite.
Equally, there is so little habitat remaining that releasing them back into the wild was simply not an option.
From this dilemma, elephant tourism was born, as mahouts realised there was money to be made from travellers engaging with their elephants.
Before long, elephants were painting pictures, kicking balls, dancing and performing all manner of tricks for the entertainment of paying customers.
Topping the lot in the popularity stakes, however, riding an elephant has become one of the most sought-after activities in Thailand and other Asian countries amongst foreign tourists as the ultimate ‘bucket list’ must do.
“So where’s the harm in that?” I hear you ask, after all, humans ride horses all the time, and elephants are much bigger. Well actually, there are some big differences; allow me to explain.
The anatomy of an elephant’s back is actually very poorly equipped to deal with carrying the weight of a passenger. The vertebrae (bones which make up the spine) have a long narrow bony protrusion (spinous process) which points upwards. This, along with the muscles protecting it, can easily be damaged by the weight of single human passengers, let alone the weight of a chair carrying two adults. (see image below from google images)
Additionally, the chairs frequently used to improve passenger comfort rub against the elephant’s skin causing blisters and sores which are not allowed to heal and can become infected. These wounds are painful for the animals.
The additional weight that they carry also causes damage to their feet, especially where they are ridden for long periods during the day, as many are.
If you’re already having second thoughts about that elephant ride, the story is about to get a lot worse.
Elephants are big animals; very big, and powerful too. So how can you tame this beast to perform tricks and safely carry tourists? The answer to that question makes for some very grim reading indeed.
The process of Phajaan, an ancient and accepted practice in Thailand, involves breaking the animal’s spirit to make them become obedient and submissive. The only word to accurately describe this barbaric practice is torture.
The young elephant is taken from its mother at around 2-3 years of age and confined in a tiny cage, or otherwise chained tightly so it cannot move. Here, over a period of several weeks, it is beaten with bamboo sticks, jabbed with bullhooks or sharp instruments and deprived of adequate food, water and sleep.
Slowly, the intelligent animal’s spirit is crushed as it experiences pain and despair and it becomes submissive to humans. This Youtube video shows the process; be warned, it’s quite graphic and upsetting.
Elephants have long memories, something Phajaan relies upon. They will always remember this torture and the sight or lightest touch by these weapons will remind them of fear and pain; they will obey.
Phajaan is nothing new, rumoured to have been around even before some of the earliest religions including Islam and Christianity.
It is a practice that has been passed through generations to enable wild elephants to be tamed and used for manual labour.
Even though the use of elephants for this purpose has reduced, with the growing tourist industry, the practice continues.
Now consider where those elephants came from. There are estimated to be around 3,800 elephants in captivity in Thailand at the time of writing, with the vast majority of these being involved in tourism. With elephant rides becoming ever more popular as travel becomes the norm and with images on social media fuelling the appetite for this unique experience, the demand for animals has grown.
Far from being an alternative means of income for the owners of elephants already domesticated from the wild, elephant tourism now offers an independent revenue stream in its own right.
As demand grows, more young animals are needed to maintain numbers and keep the money rolling in, and here the story takes another ugly turn.
Elephants are immensely loyal animals with family connections akin to human beings. When a baby elephant is taken from the wild, the rest of the herd will stop at almost nothing to save the infant, and more often than not, multiple elephants are slaughtered to obtain the prize, further compromising the wild population.
Where animals are not taken from the wild, they are bred in captivity instead, with no prospect of restoring the wild population.
Indeed, the Karen Elephant Serenity project we visited had a baby elephant and one of the adult females was also pregnant. The project lacks any male elephants, so clearly an introduction was made somewhere which suggests that even they are looking to increase their herd for tourism, although we didn’t have any welfare concerns.
Is the solution, therefore, for tourists to stop riding elephants altogether? Certainly, a lack of demand does remove the drive to provide, and as European tourists especially become better informed and more ethically conscious, their appetite for elephant rides is waning rather.
Some large names in the travel industry including STA and Intrepid Travel are amongst those to remove unethical animal tourism from their itineraries whilst Trip Advisor now refuses to promote or allow the selling of tickets to activities associated with animal cruelty through their website.
Sadly though, it’s not quite that simple.
Although many Western tourists are moving away from the ‘elephant ride’ experience in favour of animal welfare, apparently the same can’t be said for Chinese tourists who reportedly still favour riding.
Certain standards have been suggested for animal welfare to keep tourists happy whilst minimising the harm caused by riding elephants. Riding is permitted but is bare backed (no seat), for a maximum of 6 hours per day and with the elephant receiving plenty of food, water and shade during rest periods.
The problem is of course that whilst the animal is resting, it isn’t making money, thereby driving up the price of the experience.
Unfortunately, many tourists simply want the cheapest experience, and these more ethical ‘camps’ become unsustainable when boycotted by Western tourists and dismissed by Asian tourists, and often the elephants are sold to those with lower welfare standards.
In these ‘camps’, elephants are typically ridden for up to 12 hours per day with little rest, food or water. Baby elephants may be chained to their mothers, struggling to keep up and being repeatedly jabbed with sharp implements to keep them moving. Opportunities for the babies to rest or suckle are vanishingly rare.
When they’re not being ridden, these elephants are often chained up by the feet in small enclosures. If you consider that a wild adult elephant will typically roam around 25Km per day, you will appreciate that 8 square feet is pretty cramped.
Often, they are kept isolated from fellow elephants; as social animals with strong family bonds much like humans, this separation, along with the catalogue of cruelty they suffer at the hands of humans, can cause enormous psychological stress.
Often, this will manifest as the animal rocking back and forth, swaying from side to side or making repetitive head movements. These are NOT the signs of a happy elephant, and if you see this sort of behaviour anywhere that you go to visit elephants, you should walk away.
We saw this behaviour displayed by elephants chained by the roadside at tourist attractions in Pai (Northern Thailand). It certainly didn’t make for happy viewing.
Elephant tourism venues and Thai tour operators have cottoned on to the shift in attitude of Western tourists and more are now offering ‘Eco tours’ in place of the performing elephant gig they were offering previously.
Some have even taken elephant rides off the agenda and instead promote more of a natural experience where visitors walk with, bath and observe the elephants, much like we did.
Sounds good in theory, but you still have to be very choosy; the words ‘Eco’ and ‘Sanctuary’ are bandied about very liberally, and what you get may not be exactly as it seems.
Elephant sanctuaries are now popping up all over Thailand, but even the genuine ones aren’t without their own issues. A place where elephants who have suffered a life of abuse at the hands of humans can enjoy a peaceful retirement meandering through acres of jungle after being bought from their owners sounds ideal.
The problem, however, is that a mahout with money and no elephant will often buy another to fill the vacancy. He knows that he can sell the animal to a sanctuary for more than he paid for it, and so another is taken from the wild.
The solution comes as a compromise; instead of buying the elephants, some sanctuaries rent the elephant from the mahout and employ him at the sanctuary. The mahout earns a living, the elephant leads a happier life and the supply and demand cycle is broken.
Essentially, the question of ‘ethical elephant tourism’ is a tricky one, and there isn’t really a definite answer as to what constitutes ethical.
For us, riding was out of the question after our initial research, but actually researching this blog post after our visit has made me realise that the whole issue is much more complicated than you first realise.
Who to choose for ethical elephant tourism
When we did our research, (and there was a lot of it!), one name consistently came up as the best and most ethical; Elephant Nature Park.
Founded in 1995, Elephant Nature Park is a true sanctuary where more than 70 elephants who have been rescued from cruel tourism ventures and the illegal logging industry are allowed to live out their days in the jungle.
Visitors are invited to observe, walk with, feed and bathe the elephants whilst learning about them, but there is absolutely no riding of elephants here.
The founder, Lek Chailert, has been instrumental in campaigning against the practice of phajaan in Thailand as well as initiating the ‘saddle off!’ outreach project, leading to a number of smaller offshoot projects where ethical elephant tourism is practiced. asianelephantprojects.com
At Elephant Nature Park, you can choose from a half day, full day, overnight or even a 7 day volunteering experience. Visit the Elephant Nature Park website for more information and bookings.
In the end, we chose to visit Karen Elephant Serenity, one of the smaller ‘Saddle off!’ outreach projects.
The main factor which influenced our choice was that here, our three children would be allowed to participate with the bathing and mud bath, something which only adults are able to do now at Elephant Nature Park.
The Asian Elephant Projects website is very useful for sourcing an ethically sound elephant encounter as these projects are all affiliated with Elephant Nature Park.
It’s a good idea to cross reference your search with trip advisor reviews too which will give you a useful insight into other tourists perceptions of the place.
Our personal advice would be to avoid anywhere that offers elephant rides and to make sure that you do your research before you book.
If you pick an ethical experience, you are bound to fall in love with these beautiful animals and your visit will be a real highlight of your trip to Chiang Mai.