If you go to Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north I highly recommend you take a day trip to an elephant sanctuary, where elephants are fed, looked after and riding isn’t allowed. There are many different sanctuaries and maybe different types of tours you can do, from half day to three days. I did a full day which was half with elephants and half with other activities: trekking to a nice little waterfall you can slide down, and white water rafting.
At the end of this post I’ll share my tips.
Booking an elephant tour in Chiang Mai
Thailand’s north has about 800 elephants, and Chiang Mai has about 200 in sanctuaries. The chief purpose of the sanctuaries is to give them somewhere to live after the Thai government banned using elephants for logging about 20 years ago. They are fed, have medical care and enjoy mud baths and river scrubs daily, courtesy of the tourists who flock to see them.
Essential info about the tours
I booked my tour in Chiang Mai’s Old City, any tour operator will be able to book one for you. There is pick up and drop off from your hotel, and lunch is included. Depending on the tour you do you’ll get picked up between 7.30-8am and dropped off around 5pm. The tour operators are very helpful and do it all for you, I even had a friend who decided to come last minute and ended up booking 10.30pm the night before the tour! It cost me 1,600B ($52USD) and there were four people in my group, including myself.
Sugar Cane chopping and feeding mum and baby
From Old Town is was about an hour drive, and it was great driving into the sanctuary. Everyone was looking out the windows trying to spot an elephant. It felt like that scene in Jurassic Park when they first arrive and are in the cars, eager to see the dinosaurs. We turned a corner and there they were! Orange elephants! Orange? They were orange from mud they throw on themselves.
Baby elephants like to play
After getting changed into our elephant clothes (blue overalls with lots of pockets for food) and a small intro about the elephants, we were given a stick of bamboo and a machete and shown how to chop it up into nice bite sized chunks. During the intro we were told that the staff don’t train the elephants, so we were warned that the two year old baby might run around a bit and try to ‘play’ with us. Unfortunately elephant play means pushing you, and being pushed by a wild, 500kg energetic animal could involve crushed faces. However we chopped our sugar cane and walked to wards the elephants all the same.
The baby quickly got the sent of the elephant candy snacks and came racing towards us, one of the staff had to quickly jump in front of it and fling his arms into the air and yell something in Thai which seemed to distract the baby. We all laughed, nervously, is this safe?
Mum and baby were led off to be fed later, and two other elephants walked behind a wooden barrier for feeding. It was great seeing them take it out of your hand with their trunk, or placing it directly into their mouth. After feeding behind the barrier we went to see mum and baby and spent a nice amount of time with them, just us and them free to walk around however everyone chose.
Mud pits and river scrubs
After the feeding we got to walk down to the mud pit with two different, older elephants. This was so cool because you could literally walk as close as you wanted to the massive grey animals. Every now and then the elephants would stop and wrap their trunks around some bush or chunk of grass, rip it out and start munching it down. It was like going on a casual stroll down the road, with elephants strolling along with you.
At the mud pits the elephants, one at a time, walked in and wallowed about and eventually sat down. One did a massive crap too that a staff member had to throw out of the pit. Apparently elephants dump when they’re cooler. We could get into the pit with them, the edge of it anyway. It was thick mud and my feet sank so far mud went up to my knees. I reached down with two hands, grabbed a big chunk of mud and slopped it on the side of the elephant. It didn’t mind, in fact it seemed to be so relaxed it started to fall asleep. One of the staff started throwing mud at the side of the other elephant, big handfuls that would splat onto it. The elephant didn’t mind one bit, so I started doing the same. It was really funny throwing big splats of mud onto the animal.
After getting a nice covering the elephants got up and started getting out of the pit. I thought the strength of these animals was amazing: they’ve literally been sitting in mud which completely covered their legs and most of their body, but when it came time to leave they simply got up and walked out, accompanied by lots of mud slurping and squelching sounds.
They started walking towards the river, once there they took some drinks, walked in and we were given a bucket and scrubbing brush to clean the mud off. Elephants get a lot of annoying parasites and insects on their skin, so they’re always itching and love a good scrub.
This was the first time I looked really close at the skin, like 2cm away from it close. It is covered with thick, wire like hair and the skin has a pattern, it almost looks like tiny cells of purple/grey each having a smaller black dot in the middle. It was quite extraordinary.
Like with the mud we started hurling water at them, hurling water and scrubbing hard with dishwashing wooden scrubbers with hard, plastic bristles. An elephants skin is quite thick so you need to do anything hard for them to feel it. Once the bath was over the elephants got out and we followed them back to the main part of the park, we had showers, got changed and then had lunch. This was the end of the elephant part of the tour package. Lunch was vegetarian pad Thai, it was simple but tasty.
Trek to the natural slide
After lunch our guide took us on a small trek to a natural waterfall that had a slide which had been carved out of the rock by the water. On the way the guide pointed out various naturally growing fruits like bananas, guavas, coffee beans and some type of flower you could eat which I’ve forgotten its name. It’s a simple walk but there were a few difficult sections climbing up rocks etc.
The waterfall itself was small, but a nice welcome break in the heat of the day. I was already wearing my swimmers, so after watching another guy go first, I went down the rock waterslide. It looks scarier than it is, I dare you to try it.
White river rafting
After our trek we were driven to a different river where we waited to go white water rafting. When our skipper turned up (sitting 10 foot up atop three massive, seven-man inflated boats tied to the back of a ute) he gave us our safety briefing. While he was very enthusiastic his English was very hard to understand, but I did manage to understand that basically if he said ‘stop’ then stop paddling, ‘jump’ meant bounce up and down in the boat (for if you get stuck on rocks) and ‘left/right’ meant sit on that side of the boat, ‘go!’ also meant paddle!
The river rafting was fun. There was five of us in the boat, including the skipper. There were two at the front, one in the middle, one behind that (me), and the skipper at the back end of the boat. I’d say these rapids were at novice level, perhaps sections could be upgraded to beginner. If you’re expecting massive twists and turns and big falls and getting utterly wet, then you won’t find it on these rapids. There were some cool white water bits where the boat was crashing into rocks, spinning around and dipping quite heavily over shelfs, but the majority was a calm river.
Elephants on the river bank
It was still very nice though, to see all the scenery, and guess what, elephants! I didn’t realize but halfway down the river we got to see elephants hanging out by the side of the river. They were part of a different sanctuary but it’s still a wonderful sight to see an elephant there, just chilling or eating, or flinging mud on its back.
After the river ride we were taken back to the main sanctuary, waited to pick up some more people, and then driven home.
I’d throughly recommend doing this tour if you can, or at a bare minimum do a half day with the elephants. Once you get used to their sheer size and ways they act, it’s really cool to just hang out with them.
1) Take spare clothes, unless you don’t intend on doing the mud pits, river wash or rapids you should take spare clothes to change into before you head back to your hotel.
2) Take swimming clothes with you as they’ll dry quicker than normal clothes and you can play with the elephants or go on the slide risk free.
3) Take sunscreen and a hat. If you did the tour I did you’ll literally spend all day outside (except for lunch). Walking in the jungle with the sun beating down on your head will quickly exhaust and dehydrate you.
4) It’s okay to take a phone/sunglasses/camera etc on the river rapids if they’re waterproof. During the quiet sections of the ride it’d be a good opportunity to take some photos. I decided to leave mine in the bus as I didn’t know what to expect.
5) Have food before you go. If you can stomach eating breakfast at 6.30am then try that. The lunch they give you isn’t enough fuel for a whole day of activities. I had breakfast and bought two bananas with me as an energy snack.
Enjoy seeing the elephants, and for other interesting posts about Thailand please have a look at my Thailand page.