A visit to a Thai Elephant Conservation Park is often at the top of a traveller’s to-do list when visiting Chiang Mai in Thailand. On our recent visit, we were no different. We spent a day with the Thai elephants and it will be a day we remember forever!

Where to Ride Elephants in Thailand?

When you first arrive in Chiang Mai, you are bombarded with messages and images of happy tourists riding elephants in Thailand and taking part in elephant tours. Elephants in Chiang Mai are big business. Top searches on Google include “Chiang Mai elephant tour”, “where to ride elephants in Thailand”, “Thailand elephant rides”, “elephant trekking Chiang Mai” and “elephant riding Chiang Mai”. But times are changing. People are starting to understand the plight of the Thai elephant and as elephant conservation efforts grow, elephants in Chiang Mai, and further afield, elephants in Thailand, are starting to reap the rewards.

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

A common site in Thailand – elephant rides are big business!

Now I really don’t want to get too deep in this post, but I strongly believe I would be doing a disservice to the work of the Thai elephant conservation centers if I didn’t at least try to help people understand the importance of the work they do. Many years ago I discovered the movie “The Cove” (if you haven’t seen it, please go and check it out). I was a true dolphin lover. I’d been swimming with dolphins and I loved visiting Sea World but I had no idea of the horror going on behind the scenes. The Cove was a real eye opener and forever changed the way we look at the treatment of animals. As a result of that movie, we are far more aware of animal cruelty, and as parents, we believe it is important that our children understand the reasons behind it. Elephant cruelty has gone widely unchecked for too long, and we all need to play a part in helping others become aware of their treatment.

Elephants in Thailand Culture

Thai’s Indian elephants (a subspecies of the Asian elephant) have a long and distinct history in Thai culture, and today the elephant remains a potent national symbol. Used throughout history to assist with manual labor, elephants were the “work horses” of the Thai people.

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

Elephants being used for logging

Known for their strength and intelligence, elephants were used during the war and were commonly referred to as warm-blooded armoured-tanks. The most intelligent elephants were chosen to work along side man, trained with a lightly pricked spear on their skin to move them forward, conducted amidst loud noises, shouting and drum sounds to accustom them to real warfare.

Outside of war times, the Thai elephant was used for logging. Their incredible strength made them the ideal partner, however since the logging industry became illegal, elephants owners (mahouts) have had to find other ways to feed their elephants – an animal that eats hundreds of kilograms a day. Most have turned to the entertainment and tourism industry and feed off the inquisitive nature of the thousands of tourists to visit Thailand each year.

For many years these broken elephants had to beg for food and perform tricks in exchange for money to buy food. What initially began as a way to help animals survive has now turned into a thriving industry. No longer about saving the elephants, baby elephants are torn from their mothers, animals have their spirits broken and are subject to bullhooks, ropes, and electric prods. Mahouts conduct Thailand elephant tours, charge excited tourists to ride an elephant in Thailand, and charge visitors a premium for the pleasure of feeding them elephant food – a few apples and bananas. Today, all of this is done in the name of making a few bucks.

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

A baby elephant enduring the breaking ritual – being prepared for sale.

Thai Elephant Conservation Thailand

At the beginning of the 20th century, , the forests of Thailand were teeming with a vast wild population estimated to be in excess of 300,000 with a further 100,000 domesticated elephants. Today these numbers have fallen drastically and there is a genuine concern for the future of these majestic animals.

Concern for the future of the Thai elephant led to the establishment of the National Elephant Institute (NEI) which grew out of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang. This and other groups work to help protect the remaining elephants. Thailand has also introduced laws to tackle animal cruelty, in an aid to help the elephants.

As times change and animal cruelty issues become more publicly recognised and far less acceptable, elephant conservation centers are becoming the new norm. Today ethical tourism (tourism which benefits local people and the environment) is allowing visitors to get up close and personal with elephants, but without supporting the money hungry elephant industry.

Elephant rescue in Thailand is purely about saving these gentle giants and Thailand elephant camps work extremely hard to do just that. I was initially concerned if visiting a Thailand elephant camp was just another form of a tourist money grab in disguise, however, while visiting we realised just how important our dollars were. We initially wondered if the elephants in Chiang Mai conservation camps were discarded or ill, however, we discovered that big money changes hands in order to save these beautiful animals. Some elephants are purchased directly (at a cost of more than 1,000,000 baht per elephant ($AUD37500/$USD28,000), while some mahouts unwilling to sell, are paid an ongoing monthly rental fee to hand their elephant over to a Thai elephant conservation center.

The work done at these elephant reserves in Thailand is making a real difference.

Which Elephant Conservation Center should you visit?

There are so many elephant camps in Chiang Mai, that choosing which one to visit is a hard decision. Furthermore, through research, it quickly became apparent that not all “conservation centers” were completely ethical – many of them included elephant rides!

By far, the most popular park is the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. However, it does book out very quickly, and sadly for us, we could not get tickets. We ultimately opted to visit Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and we were very pleased with the visit we had, and especially, the work they do.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – Our Visit!

Our day started off with a hotel pick up. We envisaged a comfortable minivan (given the 60km journey), but alas, a songthaew arrived in its place. We jumped on board and off we went. A quick stop at the Chiang Mai office to purchase our tickets (see costs below) before leaving the city of Chiang Mai and heading out into the beautiful countryside.

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

thai elephant conservation park Our arrival at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – Learning About the Elephants

Upon arrival at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, we were greeted by our hilarious guide (who introduced himself as the Thai Justin Beiber!!!) and met with the other members of our group, an array of European backpackers. Our day began with a wonderful discussion about the elephants, the founding of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and the important work they do. We learned about the horrific treatment of elephants and the fact that unlike horses, elephant spines are not actually strong enough to support the weight of riders (something I certainly didn’t realise). While we listened and learned, what struck me the most was the love these men had for these beautiful creatures, and any concerns of this being a shonky tourist attraction quickly disappeared.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – Meeting the Elephants

Discussion over, it was time to meet and feed the elephants – a variety of fruits that they were all very keen to receive.

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

Karen feeding the Baby Elephant that was rescued with its mother

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

Elephant Selfie!

Once lunch was done and dusted, it was time for a mud bath, for both elephants and humans alike – and oh what fun that was.

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

Brody takes a mud bath with an elephant!

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

When they’d had enough, up and out they went! The elephants had the freedom to choose. We would have loved staying longer, but the length of the activities was determined by the elephants.

And how else would you clean up after a mud bath but with a swim in the river – and this truly was the highlight of the whole experience. Even now, writing this, I still can’t quite believe I’ve been swimming with elephants – it was magical.

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

Thai Elephant Conservation Park

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – What Did it Cost?

An experience at a Thai elephant conservation center isn’t super cheap but it is worth every penny. The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary costs the same as the Elephant Nature Park, however, we did discover that the full day tour, while over $100 more expensive, didn’t seem to offer a great deal more. So, being the budget travellers we are, we opted for the afternoon tour (plus we like our sleep ins!!) and not once did we feel we had missed out.

thai elephant conservation park

Full details for each option can be found here.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – Our Video

We had an absolute ball visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and it really was a highlight of our stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We learned so much about the plight of the elephants, and we all have a much greater understanding of what “tourist elephants” go through to provide the service that so many tourists pay for each day. If you ever visit Chiang Mai, we highly recommend a day at a Thai elephant conservation park.

Now, sit back and relax while we share with you, our day at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

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