Visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai Thailand

July 13, 2017 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Thailand,World Schooling

If you are visiting Thailand, an elephant encounter could be high on your priority list, but how do you do it ethically? With a visit to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary!

A chance to visit an Elephant Conservation Park is commonly at the top of a traveler’s to-do list when visiting Chiang Mai Thailand. When we visited we were no different. We were fortunate to spend a day with 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 and tourists are paying top dollar to ride them. 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.


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Tourists riding elephants in Thailand


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.

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 alongside 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.


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary


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 with elephant food – a few apples and bananas. Today, all of this is done in the name of making a few bucks.


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

An elephant is broken


Thai Elephant Conservation

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 are also improving laws to tackle animal cruelty, in an aid to help the elephants.

As times change and animal cruelty issues become more publicly recognized 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 elephant sanctuaries 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 realized 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 ($AUD37,500/$USD28,000), while some mahouts who are 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 Centre 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 – and 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, a small sanctuary just out of Chiang Mai, 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 pickup. 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. We had 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 hills of the countryside. Getting there was half the fun!


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Our journey to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

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 that they are responsible for. Any concerns of the sanctuary being a shonky tourist attraction quickly disappeared.


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – Meeting the Elephants

Discussion over, it was time to meet and feed the elephants. We were presented with baskets of fruits and invited over to the elephants, where they were all very keen to be fed!


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Karen with the baby elephant

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Feeding time!

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Elephant selfies


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.


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Time for a mud bath – humans and elephants alike!


These elephants seemed very happy and when they’d had enough, up and out they went! For elephants at the sanctuary, freedom to choose is paramount! We would have loved staying longer, but the length of the activities was determined by the elephants.


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Brody had a ball!


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 had the opportunity to help bathe the elephants – it was magical.


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Bath time

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

The King family – Swimming with Elephants


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – What Did it Cost?

An experience at a Thai elephant conservation center isn’t super cheap but it is a program 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 travelers we are, we opted for the afternoon tour (plus we like our sleep ins!!) and not once did we feel we had missed out. The cost of the excursion includes transport, lunch, a unique shirt from the villages of the Karen people, and the opportunity to interact with elephants in an up close and personal elephant experience.


Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Costs


Full details for each option can be found here – Book Now.


Our Experience – On Video

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

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  1. Emma said on August 2, 2017 6:13 pm:

    Excellent article Karen! I’ve just shared it to our page. We are very keen to experience elephants in this way too.

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