On our last full day in Thailand, our family decided to split up. I would take James to an elephant sanctuary, while Jeremy and John would go mountain biking. Everyone had a ton of fun and all of us were happy with our choices in activities!
Choosing an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary
All elephant excursions are not created equal, and you may have heard about the importance of choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary. As I looked into the reasons for this, I learned that the main issues are around the common practice of riding elephants. Apparently, their spines are quite pointy, so when weight is put on their backs, it is excruciatingly painful. To be able to tolerate this pain and allow a rider, elephants go through a horrible training process. Thus, any elephant excursion that allows riding, is not ethical.
From here, there are debates about what else makes an elephant excursion ethical. The most extreme people will say that the elephants must be allowed to be completely free in their wanders and that humans should only observe them in their natural habitat and not interact on any level. This seemed a bit over the top to me, so we vetoed any sanctuaries that were observation only.
At this point, we decided to look at the reviews on Trip Advisor, eliminating any that had suspicions of cruel treatment of the elephants by the staff. Then, we looked at the ones that had a reasonable amount of interaction and settled on a full day tour at the Maerim Elephant Sanctuary. Excellent choice! We also considered the smaller Elephant Pride Sanctuary, but they were full.
Getting to Maerim Elephant Sanctuary
Most excursions in Thailand seem to have a service that will send a shuttle to pick you up at your hotel. A most common mode of transportation is the songthaew. Think of it as a covered pickup truck with benches along the sides, and you will get the picture.
The Maerim Elephant Sanctuary is about a 45 minute drive from Chiang Mai, though the hotel pick ups can take some time too. For our tour, at 9:00 we were the first picked up, made three more stops to pick other people up, made a stop at a 7 Eleven to meet up with the other shuttles, then proceeded up the mountain, which really wasn’t as winding as we were led to believe, arriving around 10:30.
Introduction to the Facilities
On arrival, we were shown a video that when through the history of the sanctuary and some information about each of their elephants. Most were rescued from riding camps, logging camps, or the circus. One was a brand new 3-year old baby that had been on site for only 3 days.
We were horrified to learn about the training process that each of these elephants had gone through to either allow someone to ride them or to force them to work in a logging camp. Picture big hooks that are used to beat the elephants into submission, often times leaving horrid scars.
Since this type of training process is legal in Thailand, there isn’t a lot that anyone can do other than raise enough money to buy an elephant from its owner and give it a better life. Some people argue that the elephant sanctuaries profit from this since they get a trained elephant that brings in a lot of money, and that the previous owners get a lot of money from selling the elephant, but I’m not sure what the alternative should be. If it matters a lot to you, choose to go to a sanctuary that purchases the untrained or otherwise unsafe elephants and participate in an observation-only tour.
After finishing the video, we were each given a set of traditional mahout clothing to put on over our swimsuits. One size fits all. Doesn’t matter if you are a XS or an XXL, simply step into the gigantic pants, fold the front until they are your size, then tie them with a cord.
We also discovered that the elephants have very poor vision and are somewhat color blind, so not only were our clothes protected from the mud we were about to encounter, but the elephants would actually be able to see us since the clothes were selected with elephant vision in mind.
As part of our clothing set, we were also given a woven bag and were instructed to fill it with bananas and pumpkin pieces, then we were off to greet the elephants!
Both of us were delighted to get up close to the elephants, although we were definitely a little nervous at first.
While we are told that these animals are wild animals and can be somewhat predictable, in reality, all of them have gone through a training process that has made them reasonably safe.
Once we realized how gentle these elephants really were, it was amazing to get close to them, feed them, pet them, look into their eyes, and talk to them.
At one point the photographer tried to get me to kiss the elephant. I tried, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
One interesting observation is that the elephants knew which food was good and which was bad. When they encountered bad food, they would throw it on the ground. When James picked some of it up to try to get them to take it, back on the ground it would go. One of the handlers came over and explained what was going on, and we started leaving the discarded food on the ground.
Foraging for Banana Trees
Once we were finished with feeding time, we all loaded onto the shuttles and set off for a banana forest. As we hiked past the coffee trees, we got in line to take turns chopping down banana trees with a machete.
You’re giving my child what?!? But, it was quite fun, and James didn’t chop off his leg.
Apparently, banana trees have very soft and juicy flesh that elephants find delightful. Not only does it have a pleasant taste, but if an elephant is having trouble finding water, it can provide the needed liquids to ensure survival. We all had an opportunity to try some and found it to taste and feel a little like a cross between a cucumber and some celery.
As we loaded the banana trees onto one of the trucks, we were told that we could sit on top of it if we wanted. But, I remembered seeing one particular tree swarming with ants and I had no desire to have ants in my pants, so we decided to skip that particular activity.
Lunch For Us
On our return, we were shown each of the ingredients that goes into a Thai noodle soup, then were told that we could make our own soup. First we got the noodles, chicken or tofu, and a few other ingredients and put them into a strainer. We then dipped them into a broth that had been simmering for hours until the noodles were soft. Then we put them in our bowl, scooped some of the broth into the bowl, then added whatever toppings we wanted. Chiles, limes, peanuts, fried garlic, and more were all options. Finally, we sat down to enjoy our meal. Yum!
A Walk Through the Forest
Our next activity was a walk through the forest with the elephants. James wanted to walk with the new baby and another elephant that was nearby, so we went with it. The adult was a bit grumpy and ran me off the path as I tried to pet it. So, thinking it was an accident, I went to its other side and got run off the other side of the path. Hmph.
I joined James with the new baby, which had an elephant handler next to it at all times. This was when I really started noticing the various handlers scattered around. I guess it makes sense that the sanctuary would want to make sure that the elephants don’t hurt someone, while also making sure that the guests are being kind and respectful to the elephants.
Banana Tree Feeding Time
As we approached the end of the path, we discovered that our banana tree truck was waiting there, so we unloaded it and brought it over for the elephants to enjoy. Fun!
We spent more time petting and talking to the elephants, then once the banana trees were consumed, we got to learn a bit about the elephants eating habits.
Apparently elephants have a quite poor digestive system, and to get proper nourishment they need to spend 12-18 hours each day eating. Crazy, right!
When you look at the various occupations that elephants are given, you should quickly realize that it is impossible for an elephant to both do its job and get adequate nourishment. In the logging industry, elephants are expected to work 5-8 hours per day. On the plus side, they only sleep 2 hours per day. But, if you add these numbers together, you will see that a well fed logging elephant will spend 19-28 hours per day in work, eating, and sleeping. Umm…28 hours per day?!? What if the elephant wants to do anything other than work, eat, and sleep?
Another thing we learned is that an elephant’s fear of mice is real. Elephants really don’t like anything that moves too quickly or makes a lot of noise. A mouse that runs around an elephant, squeaking up a storm, is not pleasant.
Leaving mice aside, elephants usually don’t like dogs either, but this elephant sanctuary had several dogs on site, so this didn’t make sense. As it turns out, these particular dogs don’t run or bark much, thus the elephants and dogs can peacefully co-exist.
One of the elephants decided that one of the neighbor’s trees looked quite tasty, reached over the fence, and broke off a branch. Of course, this cannot be permitted, so one of the elephant handlers started yelling at it, slapping it on the hindquarters, and pulled on the rope around its neck. Definitely much more humane than the hidden nails that we read that other sanctuaries sometimes use to control the elephants.
A Mud Spa
Finishing with our lecture, we made our way to a large mud pit, or as one guest – helpfully or unhelpfully – labeled: an elephant toilet.
We removed our traditional mahout clothing, left our flip-flops on the side, and entered that slimy, disgusting feeling mud pit. James was delighted, but it did feel a bit like elephant diarrhea. Oh well.
Most of the adult elephants had already had at least one other mud bath earlier in the day, so many of those elephants chose to simply stand in the mud. The staff did nothing to force the issue, which was a reason why we chose this “ethical” sanctuary over others who claim to be ethical, but in reality have not-so-ethical practices.
A couple of elephants obliged us by lying down and letting us slather them in mud.
What a happy boy!
What a happy baby elephant!
James decided that I wasn’t getting muddy enough, so he shoved me into the mud. I decided to pull him in with me.
At one point an elephant decided to do its business in the mud, so one of the handlers went and picked up the gigantic ball with his bare hands and tossed it out of the pit. Umm, yeah.
At the end, our tour guide had us all pose for a group photo. Unfortunately, he also decided that a “silly” photo was in order and instructed the entire group to get a big handful of mud and throw it in the air. Gross! But James was delighted. A few people followed the instructions to say something silly and ended up with mud in their mouths. Jeremy would have been horrified, but fortunately, he was mountain biking with John.
Cleaning Up in the River
Next, it was time to go to the river. Ordinarily, I would have said that the water looked quite gross, but after bathing in mud, it was so refreshing to wipe all the mud off and have some semblance of cleanliness.
The baby elephant took the most delight in the water and was squirmy and frolicking to the point that I feared for James’ toes. Fortunately the adults were mostly much calmer.
Once the elephants decided they had enough, our time was over and we were led back to the main building.
There were a few showers next to the pool, so we took turns cleaning up a bit more, then hopped in the pool for a refreshing swim in crystal clear water. So delightful! I got a Thai iced tea from the snack shop and enjoyed our last moments at the elephant sanctuary.
Realizing that the inside of my swimsuit was still quite dirty, I decided to go and take a private shower as well. Once we returned home, I had to wash our swim suits several times to remove the smell of the mud, and James’ swim shirt was permanently stained, but it was still worth the experience.
Once everyone was cleaned up, the staff had each group look at the photos that a professional photographer had taken. I had spent a lot of time taking photos on my phone, but when I saw their pictures, I knew that they were what I wanted. All photos in this post were purchased from Maerim Elephant Sanctuary. At about $25 for two people, it was money well spent!
If you spend any time in Thailand, definitely consider visiting an elephant sanctuary! We were very pleased with the Maerim Elephant Sanctuary and would highly recommend it.
If you consider other places, just remember that the process of training an elephant to allow riders or perform tricks is quite cruel, so really consider if you want your money going to support that training process and keep in mind that your participation might encourage the facility to get more elephants to train in this way.
With a full day tour, were highly satisfied with the amount of interaction that we had with the elephants and think that you will be too!
Keep reading our travel blog for more animal adventures and more Asia travel ideas!
Here are some more blog posts from this trip to Thailand: