While in Chiang Mai we decided we would like to see the elephants. One of the most popular things to do in Thailand is elephant trekking (something both of us have done in the past) however what we didn’t realize at the time was just how cruel elephant trekking is. Only after leaving Thailand we discovered just how horrible elephant riding truly was, in the past we always thought the elephants looked really healthy and well cared for but underneath their seats hid the nasty truth.
Luckily there are few places where views are changing and much more effort is being taken to protect the elephants. We decided that we would visit an elephant camp that was focused on protecting these beautiful animals.
We booked in with ‘Happy Elephant Home’ where you could still get up close and personal with the elephants but in a much healthier way. Pulling into the camp there were a few major differences between this place and the trekking camps. Firstly the elephants were free to roam about the camp, secondly there were no chains around their feet or neck which is a common site at trekking camps. Finally, the elephants were guided using spoken language and not the bull hooks used by trekking camps where they stab the sharp point into the elephants neck.
The only elephant who was not free to roam was a mother and her 2 week old calf who were kept in a pen away from the other elephants in order to keep the calf safe from the other elephants. We were able to feed and pet both mother and baby however had to stay outside of the pen so the mother never felt threatened.
Our guide Omo, explained that all the elephants in the camp (7 in total with another baby expected soon) were rescued from the elephant trekking or circus. At the camp they were able to play,eat and roam freely. We got changed into the clothes that all mahouts (the people who look after the elephants) wear and started our day.
First on the agenda was feeding. We were given bananas and all split
off into groups to feed the different elephants. For the 2 younger elephants we had to peel the small bananas before they would eat them. We then led the elephants down to where pits had been dug out and turned into giant mud baths. The younger elephants were having a great time rolling around in the mud and climbing on top of one another. It was actually amazing to see the elephants have so much fun interacting with each other, anytime we have seen them in the past they have never even acknowledged each other. We all climbed into the mud with the elephants and helped rub the mud into their skin which helps keep them cool in the heat of the day.
As the elephants continued to play under the watchful eye of their mahouts, our group hiked down the hill in search of banana trees. We were given machetes and found trees with a thick bark and proceeded to chop a few trunks down. They were quite hard to cut down and quite heavy to carry back up the hill. Just as I was beginning to wonder how the elephants would eat the trunk of the tree the young one snatched it out of someones hand, placed it on the ground and broke it with the weight of his foot!
Some hungry elephants!
We spent a bit more time feeding them before jumping into the van
and driving to the camps sugarcane farm. We were given instructions on how to cut the sugar cane and were told we would need 3-4 canes each. What I didn’t realize was the importance of striping the cane before touching it as the cane is covered in hair-like thorns which I spent the next few hours trying to remove from my hands!!!! We cut the cane into 10 cm strips before loading them and us back into the van. Sugar cane is very sweet and the elephants love love LOVE sugarcane!!!
As soon as they saw we had sugar cane they came running over and even tried to go in our bags before we could get them out… we offered them some more bananas but they only had eyes for the sugar cane!
After feeding them their lunch it was our turn for some grub where
Omo explained more about the treatment of the elephants in the trekking. One elephant in particular we noticed had an extremely sore looking wound on its right side. Omo explained this elephant had just been rescued from an elephant trekking camp and had a horribly infected wound caused by the seat that would dig into its side. The owners of the trekking refused to spend money on the elephant and eventually when it couldn’t work any more was sold off for 800,000 baht. The camp then had to carry out surgery on the elephant and daily treatment to try and heal the wound. She also explained that the elephant had put on about 10 stone since arriving in the camp a few short weeks ago as it was starved in the trekking camps.
She explained how the spirit of the elephant would have to be broken before they allowed people to ride on them and they did this by beating and starving the elephant. The stories were horribly sad!
After lunch it was time to give the elephants some exercise so walked with them down to the river which was about a kilometer away. Reaching the river the young elephants ran straight into the water and began to play with each other. The older injured elephant needed a bit of coaxing into the river as it was more concerned with going through peoples bags to find sugarcane!!
We joined them in the river giving them a good scrub and splash. It was great fun as the three of them clearly were loving being in the water with the two young ones were jumping on top of each other. (more impressive when you think just how large they are!!) when the older injured elephant had had enough it climbed out of the river and started trying to push the puss out of its wound on a branch. As it oozed out we asked if there was anything that could be done to help but were told that unfortunately thee wasn’t and antiseptic was put on every night.
We walked the elephants back up the kilometer track and gave them one last feed, pat and cuddle.
The whole experience was one of the most heart warming, fun, positive and insightful days we had in Thailand.
I have added this to my must see Thailand list and took off elephant
trekking. Although it might be much cheaper to get up close and personal with elephants by doing the trekking…. the elephant camps are worth the extra money and allows you to see elephants that are really well cared for, with no chains and genuinely happy. The camp have done amazing work and hopefully if more people go to camps like this the elephant trekking will have no option but to close.
Happy Elephant Home
Half day 1,800 baht
Full day 2,400 baht