Caring for Elephants in Chiang Mai
Spending time with rescued elephants was at the top of my bucket list, and Chiang Mai was the perfect place to do it. Elephants have long been revered in Thailand, but they have also long been used as working animals. Their strength, perseverance, and intelligence make them formidably hard workers. Elephants are everywhere in Thailand - not only on Buddhist shrines and t-shirts, but also on advertisements for camps and jungle trekking.
Elephants were used for logging in Thailand until the practice was outlawed in 1989. An unintended consequence of this decision was that many elephants were then sold to trekking camps and the circus, since they could no longer be used for logging.
In order to "train" the elephants, these beautiful animals are repeatedly whipped and beaten until their spirit is broken. And I mean that literally. After so much abuse, the elephant will reach a point where it will no longer fight back, and it becomes malleable to the whims of its owner. For much of the elephant's life, it will be subjected to circus tricks, lugging tourists around, or even street begging (which has since been outlawed in Bangkok). It is not uncommon to see elephants chained to trees in the southern islands, and many tourists still seek out trekking excursions with elephants.
It was important to me to spend time with elephants at a sanctuary where they were being properly cared for and loved. After much research and recommendations from friends at Thai Thai Hostel, I chose Mae Rim Elephant Sanctuary. The sanctuary only opened in October, but it already has an excellent reputation.
I booked a full day visit with Mae Rim Elephant Sanctuary and I couldn't wait!
When we arrived at the sanctuary, the elephants were immediately excited to see us. They came to the front of the entrance and instantly used their trucks to check our pockets for treats. We changed into traditional village clothing (this helps the elephants recognize us as friendly people, so they don't get confused by all the visitors day after day). We loaded up our pockets with tons of bananas - bananas everywhere! In every pocket! And somehow the elephants managed to find them all. They loved poking around for bananas and they would open their mouths and lift their trunks so they could be fed. One of the elephants was even picky and peeled every banana with its truck before eating it!
Just from spending time feeding the elephants, we could quickly get a feel for their personalities. Mae Keaw was the oldest female, at the young age of 21. She had been rescued from a trekking operation. One of her legs was shorter than the other, so she walked with a limp. The disability left her unable to have children. Mae Keaw was gentle and playful. She loved the middle stalks of banana plants - she would rip off the outer layers until she got to the middle, then ditched the rest of the plant. Her mahout was only 18 years old, but his family had been with elephants for decades (mahouts are the traditional Thai caretakers of elephants). Since the mahout was so young, he was assigned to Mae Keaw because she is the easiest of the elephants to work with.
I loved Mae Keaw because her mahout would try to get her to go a certain direction, and she just didn't give a shit. She did what she wanted - she ate all the plants on the side of the road, ambled wherever she wanted, took long baths in the watering hole, and ate the most bananas out of the four elephants. I also loved how when we went on our walk, Mae Keaw was by far the slowest elephant and always behind, but the mahouts never rushed her or pushed her along. They just let her enjoy the walk, something she had never been able to do in the past.
Happy and Maitong were the two twin elephants, which is considered lucky in Thailand. Their mother had worked in the circus, and these two were destined for the same life until they were rescued by Mae Rim. They were super playful and constantly horsing around with each other. They both had wiry hairs that stuck straight up and they were always the first ones in the water.
Bunchu was a rebellious, 7-year-old male. The only male of the group, he had an experienced mahout because he was going through his "teenage" years. It made me smile that even elephants go through those tough teenage years! He sometimes pushed the others aside to get the best bananas, and often rough housed with the rest of the elephants in the water. He would also climb on top of the other elephants in the water and he loved finding playmates. All four elephants would make trumpeting noises with their trunks, but it was Bunchu who was always calling out to the other three.
The sanctuary was small with only four elephants, but it meant we got more individualized time with them and it kept the tourist numbers to a minimum. It was clear that these four elephants were very close to one another. When we weren't with them, they stayed in the shade, with Mae Keaw towering over them as the maternal figure. Plus, I couldn't believe how much it actually costs to rescue / buy an elephant from the logging or circus industries - $40,000USD! Or 1.5 million Thai baht. No wonder it takes sanctuaries so much time to save the funds to rescue an elephant.
After feeding the elephants ALL of the bananas, our group of volunteers walked to outside the sanctuary to cut down banana plants for their lunch. We hacked down a few plants and carried them back, where the elephants were eagerly awaiting us. Elephants eat a lot. All they do is eat! When they have a good life, that is. The four elephants quickly broke apart the banana plants, and after finishing those, they fished around in our pockets for more bananas! Between meals, they wandered into the water to cool off, spraying water on their backs with their trunks and playing around with each other.
In the late afternoon, we took a walk along a dirt path to a large, grassy area. Again, I loved how the elephants were not corralled in order to be with us. The elephants wandered on their own, many of them wandering off the path and far away from us. They are also not tied up when they sleep - elephants typically sleep from 11pm to 3am, so one of the mahouts has to wake up very early to make sure they are still all there! (A few weeks ago, there were only three elephants in the morning - Happy had wandered off to take a morning stroll through the village!) During our walk, the four elephants kept eating any grass they could find and used their trunks to pull leaves off of trees. They were just happy to be wandering, and I loved to see them living the good life.
Afterwards, the elephants made a bee-line for the mud bath! And it was muddy. We were waist-high in mud, and a full-on mud fight started. I had mud everywhere, and had to give up the fight when I got hit square in the back with a big mud ball thrown by one of the volunteers. To be honest, I was hesitant to get in the mud… I mean, it is mud, and it was really thick, dirty mud. I tried not to think about what was it - earlier, I had seen a mahout haul out steaming balls of elephant poo. But that wasn't the point! The elephants loved it, and who was I to deny them a mud bath, poo and all?!
Then we wandered into a pool of fresh water where we were able to wash all the mud off of ourselves and the elephants. The elephants loved it. They literally just plopped down in the water and rolled over onto their sides, which is a hilarious sight to see because they are just such huge animals. You have to watch out for their feet when they decide to get back up! Mae Keaw, the oldest female, just sprawled out and let us wash her and cool her down.
After a full day with the elephants, it was time to say goodbye. We gave them the rest of the bananas in our pockets and gave them big hugs around their trunks. Our group cooled off in the swimming pool and spent another hour talking and sunbathing. One of my favorite parts was when the two twins wandered straight into the pool - they were curious! The mahouts laughed as the two elephants wobbled along the edge of the pool, but they eventually called them back over by tempting them with banana plants.
At this point, the sunrise was on the horizon and the day was winding down. We climbed back into the sanctuary's truck to be driven back to our hostels. I gave Mae Keaw one last hug, her trunk wrapped around me, and I was grateful to see these animals happy and cared for. Perhaps they weren't in the wild, as they should be, but this was the next best thing.
My hope is that there will continue to be a shift in ecotourism, where more tourists become aware of the cruelty of trekking and riding camps and instead choose to put their dollars into sanctuaries where they can spend time with elephants that are not chained up or forced to perform tricks. It may be slow progress, but I do think ecotourism is on its way there. We can all play a part in helping to move that progress along.
- If you go: Mae Rim Elephant Sanctuary, 2000B / $58USD full-day visit
- I chose Mae Rim because the price couldn't be beat, they keep their groups very small (they were only six of us in the group), they are only 30 mins from Chiang Mai, they had 5-stay reviews, and elephant conservation efforts is their first priority.
- If you stay: Thai Thai Hostel, 290B / $8USD a night
- This is one of the best hostels I've ever stayed at. The staff is amazing! I wish I could go back.
- If I'm being honest: There are tons of "sanctuaries" in Chiang Mai - be sure you do your research and only choose an organization that ensures the elephants are not used for tricks and that they are properly cared for.