Our weeks spent in Chiang Mai were undoubtedly some of my favourite weeks of our entire six month trip.Not only does the Northern Thai capital have a whole load of things to see and do within the city (see my post on what we did here), there are also day-trips aplenty. Be it zip wiring through the jungle to hiring a motorbike and touring the countryside, or seeing tribal villages and having a go at local handicrafts; there's enough to keep you busy! While we mostly spent our time exploring the city and soaking up the culture we did go on a couple of excursions, the best being visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
Based about sixty kilometres outside of Chiang Mai, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an 'ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project' providing an opportunity to get up close with elephants in a way that is safe for both the elephants and tourists.
Disclosure! When I visited Bali in 2011 I visited an elephant park where I rode an elephant and saw them perform in a circus-type show. At the time I didn't think twice about riding elephants, but most definitely felt uncomfortable seeing them shackled in small pens and reluctantly throwing basketballs through hoops. This time round I was more conscious of this and didn't want to fund something that is essentially contributing to the endangered status of Asian elephants.
Asian elephants are engendered for several reasons; the loss of their natural habitat as the human population grows, conflict with local people when they encroach on villages, poaching for their tusks meat and skin, and being taken live for the tourism industry. There is a growing focus in Asia now, amongst backpackers in particular, with the dominant message being simple... don't ride them. Although elephants may seem to be these huge sturdy beasts, they are not built to carry heavy weights on their backs in perhaps the way that horses are (for instance). And the act of simply riding elephants is not the entire problem; often where elephants are used as a tourist attraction they are mistreated and neglected. Just weeks before we visited Cambodia we read of an elephant dying from exhaustion from carrying tourists in scorching heat. We were really saddened to see people still paying to ride elephants when we visited, so soon after this made worldwide news. I really don't think ignorance is an excuse anymore.
So, what is the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary all about? In short, it is a project where (often rescue) elephants are cared for and given the freedom to live a healthy life. We saw no chains, no mahoots using hooks to control them and no mistreatment. We were told they use food as a way of keeping the elephants from escaping - of course this may not be the entire picture but it was a world away from the elephant tourist camp I saw in Bali in 2011. The Sanctuary also provides employment for local Karen (tribal) people, and helps to educate local communities about the dangers Asian elephants face with regards to loss of habitat and poaching.
We didn't ride the elephants, so what else did we do? When we arrived in the morning we were asked to change in to the Karen clothing provided and we quickly went to feed the elephants. We were taught about elephant behaviour and the mission behind the project - our guide was really lovely an genuinely seemed to care about the elephants and the project. After lunch we gave the elephants a mud bath, before walking with them down to the waterfall to wash the mud off ourselves and give them a good clean too! It was so fun and a really incredible experience. I kept thinking to myself I cannot believe we're getting to do this. In the afternoon we had a go at making medicine balls for the elephants, which we then went to feed to them and have a final time to interact with the elephants.
How much did we pay? Unlike many trips, there was no opportunity to haggle the price here! We paid 2,400 baht each for the full day package. At the time (April 2016) this was around £50 each. They also offer half day packages but I really don't think you'd get as good an experience doing this - I'd definitely recommend the full day.
Without a doubt this was one of the best experiences of our trip! I'd completely recommend Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, but there are other projects such as the Elephant Nature Park also in Chiang Mai.