Thailand | Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai

For most of us, when we think of holidays in Thailand, images of perfect sandy beaches are the first thing that comes to mind. Second, is elephants. We've all seen the cheesy smiles of tourists posing excitedly next to these giant grey animals, and probably a few of people sitting on top of them in great big over bearing wooden structures too.

Here's the thing - elephants are not meant to be ridden. Their backs, despite their size, are not designed to hold any weight. Plus, it's kinda unnatural for a wild elephant just to let a random human jump on it's back right? These elephants are often illegally taken from the wild, beaten and tortured until their spirit is broken, and then taught forced to do tricks or let people ride them. Even after all that, the mahouts still use bull hooks to bully them into doing their "job". It's cruel and completely unethical. So while I wanted to see them, I did not want to book an elephant ride or support any company who offers them.

After a good bit of research, we whittled it down to two sanctuaries near Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park (the most well known ethical sanctuary) was already fully booked, so Elephant Jungle Sanctuary it was. I read lots of reviews, from Trip Advisor to blog posts, before going ahead and booking a full day package for the day of Gordon's birthday.  

We were picked up from our hotel around 8am, and made our way to the hills with another 6 tourists. Perched on benches in the back of an open 4x4 vehicle for nearly two hours, we got to know our companions pretty well and hear about their adventures. The end part of the journey is fairly steep through the mountains, and extremely bumpy down the dirt roads to the final destination. We lived to tell the tale obviously but I feel like it should come with a warning - nobody mentioned it in any of the reviews I read and I was not mentally prepared for it!

When we arrived at the sanctuary, we were introduced to our guide and each given a traditional Karen shirt to wear. After a brief introduction it was time to get stuck in and feed the elephants! A bunch of bananas in hand, we got up close and personal with these guys, feeding them one by one. Some were greedier than others and one stole my entire bunch of bananas with his trunk! There were plenty photo opportunities and EJS even have their own photographer capturing the experience to share on facebook.

We met three different groups of elephants, including one baby of a few months old, which of course everybody wanted a photo with. To be honest, Gordon and I kind of held back and watched a lot of what was going on. I felt like people were too focused on getting the perfect picture - doing it for the 'gram - than they were on the magnificence (and welfare) of the animals. Elephants were pushed back by mahouts if they tried to move whilst people were taking photos. By no means would I say we witnessed an animal being mistreated, but I did feel they should have been given the freedom to wander, and not forced to stand still to please some over enthusiastic tourist clinging onto their trunk.

A couple of hours of interacting with the elephants, we headed back to camp for lunch. I was unsure what to expect from a traditional style buffet but the fried rice, chicken and veg was actually really tasty! We had a good laugh making medicine balls for the elephants too - men went off to do manly stuff (smashing up bark) while the women mashed bananas and rice to complete the mixture.

For the final part of the experience, we changed into our swimwear and headed down to the river. We fed the medicine balls to a group of elephants, before leading them for a mud bath! This was such a surreal way to get to know the elephants! They seemed to really enjoy it and a few people in our group joined in getting ridiculously muddy themselves!

Finally, we walked over to the river with these gentle giants still caked in mud, ready to wash it all off. I think this was probably my favourite part of the day. The elephants rolled around in the water, letting us splash them and spraying back with their trunks!

We loved our day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, but I do have a few issues with the experience. Firstly, the photo situation I mentioned before. While there's no riding and it's definitely more ethical than some places I've heard about, I still felt like the experience was more about the tourists - to entertain them and give them what they want - rather than about the welfare of the animals. 

Secondly, while the guides did seem to care for them and treat them well, they couldn't fully answer our questions about some marks on an elephant's ears. We were given a mumbled reply - something about infection, many years ago. In fact, we weren't given any information about the elephants history, how they came to be at the sanctuary or what EJS is doing to help the situation. There were some signs at the camp about the mistreatment of elephants and why they don't offer rides but it was never discussed. 

I don't want to end on a negative, but I couldn't write this and not mention my concerns. We did enjoy our day at EJS and we didn't see any mistreatment - I just wish there was a little more education and for tourists to take a step back and give the animals some space when they need it. 

We paid 2400THB each (£111 total) for the full day experience at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai and booked in advance online. This included lunch and transportation! 

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