Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A few weeks before we left for our vacation to Thailand and Cambodia, we heard about an elderly Cambodian elephant that died after giving tourists rides all day in the 40°C heat. That sad story just reaffirmed our decision to not ride elephants on holiday.

(Which has got to be one of the privileged sentences in the world: “We should opt not to elephants while on vacation in Thailand.”)

Instead, we found a whole list of “sanctuaries” in Chiang Mai where the elephants are mostly allowed to rest and play and humans can just interact with them as they go about their day.

If you ask me, this is still kind of a shitty deal for the elephants! I would not want truckloads of strangers showing up at my house every morning to shower me and taunt me with my breakfast bite by bite.

But I anthropomorphize…

We settled on the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for no particular reason. It had good ratings on Trip Advisor and it fit our schedule. We opted for the morning half-day session only. If it were up to me, I would have done a shorter cooking class and a longer day with the elephants, but it was not up to me.

We got picked up in a truck and drove for at least an hour to get to the sanctuary.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary group initiation

First they had everyone change into some woven shirts styled like traditional Karen clothing. Then after a brief talk about the sanctuary’s work and an outline of what to expect, a bunch of elephants came running down the little hill.

One of them came straight at me.

I froze. I was scared, but my brain was also telling me, “C’mon, these elephants interact with people every day. I’m sure it’s fine.” Which is how people get eaten by lions and shit. I feel like “MOVE” would have been better advice.

Thankfully, the elephants have seen this all before. She saw that I had no bananas and trotted from me just as quick as she’d come. She wanted bananas, not me.

Elephants are surprisingly light and quick on their feet.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary feeding elephants

Then we were given bunches of small bananas and handfuls of cucumbers. Then the elephants paid attention to us. Kind of.

It was kind of like some dogs I’ve met who aren’t unfriendly, just disinterested in humans who aren’t their humans. The elephants were like, “My self-esteem is not so low that I need to follow around a 30-something white woman and establish an emotional bond to get through my morning.”

So if you had bananas, you had an elephant’s attention. But they realized immediately when you were out of bananas, and then they would walk away from you to chew the giant mouthful of bananas you’d just fed them one by one.

They were very tolerant of us all milling about, wandering around and rubbing them and scratching them and feeling their hides. But if they started walking, we moved out of the way and that was that.

There was a little baby elephant, about three months old. She ran around scratching her butt on everything, which was pretty great.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary petting the baby elephant


She wasn’t trying to wait for anybody to have an epiphany about the oneness of life, either. She had places to go.

We handed out produce for half an hour or so, and then we all changed into swimsuits or clothes we were willing to get very, very dirty and walked down to the mud hole. The elephants were obviously very enthusiastic about getting into the mud. They ran down the hill, one of them trumpeting the whole time, and just fell onto their sides in the mud with their faces half-buried. The sanctuary employees’ warned us  not to get close to their legs, because they flail all of a sudden, roll onto their stomachs, and stand up. It was so cool.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary rubbing mud on elephants

I am the one dressed in black shorts and a black tanktop. I’m not sure I would have really wanted to be in a bikini for this, anyway.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary mud hole group photo

We rubbed mud on the elephants and each other for a while, then we all walked down to the clear stream to rinse off and have a little water fight.

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary in the stream

thailand chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary washing off

The guide told us that elephants could stay under water for twenty minutes. Another woman and I asked, “But how do they breathe?” And we totally earned the patronizing look we got in response.

(With their trunks, of course.)

With the elephants laying on their sides, this kind of reminds of those terrible photos of big-game hunters next to the animals they just killed. THIS IS SO MUCH BETTER.

After we got out of the water, we rinsed off and had a nice lunch of fried noodles. Then the trucks took us back to the hotel.

So long as the elephants weren’t stressed out by our attention, I’d say it was a great way to spend the day.

My mom is crazy about elephants: maybe one day I could take her there and do the overnight trip.

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