Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Thailand is known for its elephant parks, and they have their hot-selling elephant pants and souvenirs to prove it. While interacting with these creatures are a one-of-a-kind experience, it often comes at the expense of the animals - many are mistreated by their trainers, and live in less-than ideal conditions. At the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Chiang Mai, however, it’s a completely cruelty-free, ethical experience.
This safe haven for elephants strictly does not allow any riding - an activity that requires much training and has been known to be a gruelling process for the gentle giants. Instead, you’ll be learning how to feed, medicate and even give the elephants a shower - it’s basically a masterclass on how to take care of elephants. And there are options for overnight stays if you’re up for a glamping experience.
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Elephant feeding time
A day at the sanctuary will begin with feeding the elephants. You’ll be briefed about the right way of doing so, including the commands that they will react to. As our local guide said, “The elephants belong to the mountain people, so they speak the mountain language”.
You’ll get a chance to meet all 3 elephant families, including the baby of the tribe
All you have to do is say the magic word, “Bon Bon” and bring the provided bananas and pumpkins up to their trunks. As long as you have a treat for them to munch on, getting close to them is no difficult feat. Take this chance to feel the rough texture of their trunks and snap a couple of pictures.
The elephants’ trunks were especially fascinating to see up close as they seemed to have a life of their own, cheekily grabbing snacks from our pockets.
Buffet lunch on a bamboo deck
By the time you’re done with “meet and greet” portion, you’re likely to be famished. No worries though, because there’ll be a buffet spread of home cooked food waiting for you to feast on. This comes as part of the full-day visit package.
Freshen up with a few slices of watermelon before digging into a plate of rice, curry potatoes, stir-fried veggies and crispy drumsticks. The meal was nothing fancy, but it was tasty and wholesome - everything a meal should be.
You’ll be dining on a bamboo deck which overlooks one of the elephant families. It was quite entertaining watching the elephants play with each other and dust themselves with sand to protect their skin from the heat. One of the more playful elephants even tried to climb up to the deck we were on.
If you’re visiting in the middle of the year, it might get a little sunny and that’s where the cold drinks will come in handy. The sanctuary might be somewhere far in the mountains but they have their own makeshift convenience store where you can purchase a chilled Coke or beer. Sometimes, an ice cream vendor stations there as well and sells ice cream in flavours like coconut and orange for just 10 THB (~S$0.45).
Making medicine balls to help with the elephants’ digestion
You’ll also be learning how to make medicine balls that help with the elephants’ digestion. This is a multi-step process where the ladies will be mashing cooked rice and banana with a pestle and mortar, while the guys will be using a wooden device to crush the sweet bark and uncooked brown rice into a sandy consistency.
The final step is combining the dry ingredients with the wet ones - like how you’d do when baking. Once combined, the mixture is rolled into palm-sized balls with the consistency of mushy oats.
These digestion-aiding medicine balls sure were effective as the elephants were immediately doing number 2s after consuming them
Mud spa and bath time with the elephants
Be sure to bring a change of clothes because you’ll be getting down and dirty in the mud spa. But before starting the elephant bath, give the elephants a good scrub to get rid of any creepy crawlies on their skin.
As Singaporeans, we’re no stranger to the scorching heat and soaring temperatures. Chiang Mai is no different with their 3 seasons - hot, hotter and super hot. The mud acts as the elephants’ natural version of sunblock, which helps protect their skin and keep it cool.
Help coat the elephants with a layer of the mud and feel free to join in the fun and slap some on yourself too. Note that the mud pool might get a little slippery so be careful as you waddle around.
A stone’s throw from the mud spa is clearwater pond where you’ll be bathing the elephants. Just as you scoop water and splash them onto the elephants to get them squeaky clean, the friendly giants will use their trunks to spray water at you too. I would say this segment was the most fun because we got to see the playful sides of these lovely animals.
Ethical tourism at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Chiang Mai
Having never had such close interaction with elephants before, I would say the visit was an eye-opening experience. Being welcomed into their habitat to learn about how to take care of them also made the visit worthwhile.
Unlike many elephant tourism parks which may not operate in the most ethical manner, the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a place where elephants are rescued and cared for. But not without the help of tourists, as every visit here generates revenue to support the mountain tribe in their elephant-rescuing efforts.
Don the tribe outfits as you go about your visit - as a farewell gift, the local guides gave us new sets to take home
If you’re planning to get souvenirs for your friends and family back at home, the tribe outfit 300 THB (~$13) or wood-carved elephant ornaments and bracelets will do the trick. Proceeds from the sale of the merchandise will go to funding the sanctuary.
Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary packages
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary has many different visit packages that you can opt for. We chose to do a one-day visit but for a more in-depth experience with the local mountain tribe, choose the two-day visit. This will involve staying a night at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary camp.
This is the accommodation at the Phuket branch - you can expect the setup for Chiang Mai to be similar.
Image credit: @elephantjunglesanctuary
If you’re intending to do an overnight stay, you can look forward to spending a night at the camp. You’ll be living in a traditional house up in the mountains with options of both single and double sleeping areas.
Image credit: @elephantjunglesanctuary
Across all these packages, you’ll be provided with two-way trip transportation from your hotel which is extremely helpful as the sanctuary is located high up in the mountains. Check out Klook for a hassle-free booking.
Address: 119/10 Thapae Road, Chang Khlan, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand
Opening Hours: 7AM-10PM, Daily
Telephone: +66 53 273 415
Admission: From S$80.35 for a one day visit