Of all the things we did in Thailand, my two favorite experiences were participating in the lantern festival and playing with the elephants. For our elephant experience, we went to a sanctuary in Chiang Mai that was recommended to us by our air bnb host.
“I was a little sad because my expectation of riding an elephant in Thailand was crushed.”
Prior to going to Thailand I had seen exotic pictures of people happily riding elephants in the jungle, and I wanted that experience too! Upon doing research to find places where we could ride elephants, I came across a lot of information that said riding elephants is inhumane. Well I definitely didn’t want to be part of tourist trap that was bad for elephants. After hours of reading and researching, I came to the conclusion that we would not be riding elephants when we got to Thailand. I was a little sad because my expectation of riding an elephant in Thailand was crushed. But I’m so glad we didn’t chose to ride them. Not just because riding is cruel, but because feeding, bathing, and interacting with them is so much more fun! Instead of sitting on them while they walk for a while, we got to walk with them while they played in the jungle. When it was lunch time we got to feed them bananas and rice balls straight from our hand. When it was bath time we waded in the river with them and rubbed their backs while they rolled around. These elephants seemed happy, they were free to roam the jungle, and I felt like our time with them was just them getting pampered. The experience was so much better than I expected.
One of the most memorable experiences from that day was when I was trying to ration out my bananas to the elephants. Sun, the baby elephant, and his mom, Moon, were tag teaming and grabbing at my pockets from both sides. My outfit started coming undone, they were literally undressing me. I couldn’t stop laughing.
The second best experience was when we bathed them in the river. I remember splashing buckets of water on Stella, then rubbing her leathery skin. She had that look on her face, the one that cats and dogs get when you itch the right spot. While she was on her side I hugged her. My body rose and fell for a few breaths as she breathed. It felt like the scene out of Jurassic Park. At one point we made eye contact and I thought, “Wow, she’s really looking at me.” I later read that elephants are one of the only animals that are self-aware.
On our drive back from the sanctuary we passed several elephant camps where tourists like ourselves were riding elephants around the camp. I remember David and I thinking, “Why would you want to do this when you could have the kind of experience we just had?” We asked our driver from the sanctuary this question and he said that tourists imagine themselves riding an elephant in Thailand, so that’s what they come to do. It’s true, I imagined myself riding one too. Had I not researched elephant riding or our host not recommended this sanctuary, that could of been us. Thankfully though, elephant sanctuaries are becoming more popular. I was happy to hear that the place we went to bought or rented (with the goal to buy) all of their elephants from work camps. He said their elephants were physically abused at the camps, but they were free to roam and do as they please in their new home. His favorite elephant was Stella, an older lady that had been at a camp for 20+ years. Stella had a sloped back and was timid, but he said she was so much happier and noticed a big change in her since her arrival. Hugs for Stella! This is Stella.
David and I were in awe of the elephants and our whole experience with them. We hope if you’re thinking about interacting with elephants in Thailand, you chose to play with them instead of riding them, you won’t regret it! ◊