The first stop on my solo adventure was Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand and takes about an hour to reach by plane from Bangkok. I liked Chiang Mai much more than Bangkok as it was a smaller city and less crowded with tourists. I also felt like the lifestyle in Chiang Mai was a bit more relaxed than in Bangkok. The main event during my time in Chiang Mai was spending a day at an elephant sanctuary.
I spent a lot of time researching different elephant experiences in Thailand and knew I wanted to do one where the animals are treated super ethically and one where you DON’T ride the elephants. I’m not saying it’s bad if you’ve ridden an elephant before, but it just something I didn’t want to do. All of the places I looked at that had elephant riding also got negative reviews that criticized the ethics of the park. I ended up going with The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. It got great reviews online and had everything I was looking for in an elephant tour–pick up/drop off service, lunch, feeding the elephants, bathing them, and playing in the mud with the elephants.
On the morning of my elephant adventure, I was picked up by the tour group in a songthaew (a pickup truck adapted into a taxi). I thought we would be riding in a van or something but nope, the two-hour drive was basically in the trunk of a pickup truck. I was seated closest to the edge of the truck so felt nervous that I would fall out at times, but it didn’t end up being that bad. For the second half of the drive, you’re driving into the mountains on SUPER uneven terrain. Everyone in the back of the pickup was bouncing all over the place–it was scary yet pretty goofy.
Once we got to the elephant sanctuary, we had to carry all of the fruit to feed the elephants to the bottom of the hill and change into our mahout (a person who takes care of the elephants) gear. The staff told us the elephants respond more positively if you’re dressed in clothes they’re familiar with. After getting changed, we were split into groups and briefed on what to expect and how we should interact with the elephants. The main thing to remember was to just remain calm and be kind to the animals.
The first thing we did was go into the forest to feed a momma elephant and her baby. We fed them bananas, sugar cane, and watermelon. When you go up to feed the elephant, you say “bon bon” and that’s how they know you have food and you’re about to feed them. It was crazy how many bananas they would try to hold at once in their trunk before putting it in their mouth. It was definitely a weird feeling having the elephant take food with its trunk straight out of your hand. During this part of the day, I also got a big smooch from one of the baby elephants.
After feeding these gentle giants, we headed back to the main area to eat our lunch. The company provided a good spread of fruit, noodles, chicken, and veggies. During lunch, I discovered that a few of the girls in my group are also English teachers in Chongqing. Such a small world!
Once we finished our lunch, it was time to change into our swim suits and get in the water with the elephants. The water was SO COLD at first, but one of the staff members made sure everyone was getting wet by throwing buckets of water on us. The staff there was super friendly and playful–they helped make the day even more fun. While we were in the water, we splashed the elephants to help them cool down. At one point, one of the elephants just plopped down into the water–I was worried it might land on me!
Next, we were off to the mud-pit to play with the elephants and rub mud on their skin. Literally within 10 seconds of me being in the mud I was COVERED head-to-toe in it. One of the elephants kept flinging mud back at me with their trunk. We smeared mud all over the elephants as it acts as a sunscreen for them. After being plastered in mud, we went back into the water to wash off and then head back to downtown Chiang Mai. Once I got back to my hostel that night, I had to wash my hair three times just to get all of the mud out of it. Even after washing it, my swimsuit still has a slight brown stain on it.
I had such an amazing time with the elephants–definitely a highlight of my time in Asia. These animals are just so beautiful and incredible and all they want is love and kindness (and lots of bananas). If you ever get the chance to come out to Asia, I would strongly recommend going to an elephant sanctuary–you will not be disappointed.