Chiang Mai, Thailand is a beautiful place to visit and one of the most popular tourist attractions there is to join an elephant riding safari. This is definitely a great experience, but unfortunately, many tour operators abuse and mistreat their elephants. I highly recommend joining a tour with an organization interested in protecting this endangered species.
When I visited Chiang Mai, Thailand in October 2008 one of the things high on my To-Do list was to ride an elephant. Though this may be a difficult task to accomplish in northern California, riding an elephant in Chiang Mai, Thailand is as easy at it gets. With hundreds of Chiang Mai tour operators offering safaris that include visiting hill tribes, bamboo rafting, and elephant rides, we had a plethora of options to choose from.
We happily signed up for a Chiang Mai tour to do a one day jungle trek which included all of those activities and I was so excited to finally be fulfilling my dream of riding an elephant. Unfortunately though, the experience itself did not quite play out the way it did in my imagination.
When we arrived at the elephant site, we crossed a very rickety bamboo bridge that stood high over a river to get to the elephants stalls. When we crossed to the other side, we found the elephants looked like they hadn’t been bathed in a long time, they were standing in their own dung, and some of them looked extremely emaciated. It broke my heart to see these beautiful, majestic animals tied up and living in such filthy conditions.
The ride itself was enjoyable, we trekked through the jungles and out into open fields while sitting on a small bench that sat on the elephants back and was tied all the way around its underbelly. The jungle was beautiful and the whole setting felt very peaceful and natural. I felt like I was on a national geographic tour. Yes, it was that amazing and beautiful.
What was not enjoyable was seeing the mahouts (the elephants keepers guiding their elephants) spike them with sharp hooks whenever the elephant did something it wasn’t supposed to. This one baby elephant kept eating everything it saw in sight. It really was quite incredible to see an elephant up close and personal practically taking down a tree to munch away at it, but then his mahout would hit him every time it did. Obviously just to keep the tour ride going which made me feel awful. But if you are a tourist and want to ride an elephant in another country, that is going to be the reality of it.
I later learned that the Thai elephants, which are considered to be holy beings in the Thai culture, are a dying species. Thankfully though, there are a number of organizations contributing to the preservation of these majestic animals. If you are planning a visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I highly recommend visiting one of these parks.
Elephant Nature Park was established to provide a sanctuary and rescue center for distressed elephants. The park is located 60km from Chiang Mai’s city center and is set in a valley, surrounded by a river and mountainous forests. The park’s mission is to provide a sanctuary for endangered species, to encourage the restoration of rain forests, to preserve the cultural integrity of the local community, and to educate visitors about these endangered animals along the proper care and treatment for them.
Elephant Nature Park welcomes volunteers and visitors. The park can only facilitate small numbers so to visit the park, you must pre-book. They offer a number of tour options, including one day and multi-day tours, so that you can choose the best experience for yourself. These tours will include feeding and bathing the elephants as well as transportation and lunch. They really offer a great opportunity for learning about elephants in their natural habitat.
Patara Elephant Farm is located south of Chiang Mai’s city center and is saving the elephant species by implementing an elephant breeding program. They are making baby elephants and providing a safe environment for all of their elephants to be in, while managing a tourism organization. My husband and I actually met other travelers along our way who told us that their experiences here were truly one of a kind. That it was a beautiful environment and the elephants were well kept and treated in a loving manner.
The best part is that Patara Elephant Farm offers the opportunity to be an elephant owner/trainer for 1 day, 2 days, or up to 5 days if you so wish. This is a great way to get to learn all about caring for and keeping a domestic elephant. You will learn how to hike, track, and approach your elephant in the bush. You will learn how to walk, feed, bathe, and ride your elephant bareback. When you are comfortable riding your elephant bareback, he/she can you take for a journey to a temple, village, or waterfall, where you can swim with the elephant. The tour also includes transportation to and from your hotel and a picnic lunch.
A trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand is an amazing opportunity and really an incredible place to visit. Just be sure to check with whichever Chiang Mai tours you choose to join. Help the preservation of the Thai elephants but joining a Chiang Mai tour that promotes the safe health and well-being of these beautiful creatures.