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How to Choose an Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai Posted by on Feb 26, 2015 in Culture, Travel

Elephants (ช้าง – cháang) are an important part of Thai culture, and they’re also a huge part of the tourism industry. Take a walk in Chiang Mai, and you’re sure to pass countless travel agencies offering a variety of elephant-related experiences. From a simple ride on Dumbo to week-long mahout training camps, to long-term volunteer opportunities, it’s all there in Thailand’s northern capital. Not all elephant camps are created equal, so it’s important that you do some research before choosing a place to go. Here are some things to think about when planning your Thai elephant adventure:

ช้าง

ช้าง

To ride or not to ride?

We did it, but maybe you shouldn't...

We did it, but maybe you shouldn’t…

That is the question. If you disagree with riding the elephants, a lot of choices will immediately be eliminated. For those who aren’t sure why this might be a bad thing, just punch “elephant riding” into Google and start browsing through the multitude of articles online about why many consider this a horrible practice. It’s not so much the riding of the elephants, but rather the way that they need to be trained in order to allow people to do it. There is definitely a dark side to the elephant tourism industry, and it starts when they are very young. If you do decide to ride an elephant, definitely be wary of places that use wooden chairs for riders and hooks to keep them in line. On our visit to an elephant camp, we went for a ride on the elephants. No hooks or chairs were used, though. In hindsight – after doing much more research – I would choose a place that does not offer riding. Sure, it is a great experience, but not for the elephants. For more, check out this post from the Expert Vagabond about why you shouldn’t ride elephants.

Which place to choose?

Ask about how they train the elephants.

Ask about how they train the elephants.

As mentioned above, there are tons of options for visiting the majestic animals, ranging from a single ride to extended stays as a volunteer. Since this is such big business, there are more elephant camps than you can count scattered around northern Thailand. Making a decision is not exactly easy, unless you’re the kind of traveler who just dives right in to the first thing they see. Some things to consider are:

  • Reputation
  • Cost
  • Duration
  • Ethics/Practices

What kind of experience do you want?

Make sure you get to bathe the elephants!

Make sure you get to bathe the elephants!

Are you just looking for a cool selfie to post on Instagram with you and the big Chang? Do you want to be entertained? Are you on a tight schedule? Do you really want to learn about the elephants and saving these endangered, majestic creatures? Answering these questions will help you choose the type of elephant camp that is best for you.

Do you want to see a painting elephant?

A first-hand elephant experience

I'm not cut out to be a mahout...

I’m not cut out to be a mahout…

When we were in Chiang Mai, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit around and sift through the dozens of camps. The owner of our hostel was a great source of information, and he recommended a place that many former guests had been to and were all satisfied with -the Chiang Mai Elephant Training Camp. We really enjoyed our day-long mahout training there. In the morning, we made friends with the elephants by offering bundles of bananas and then learned some of the basic commands from the real mahouts. We then practiced executing the basic commands so we could get on and off the elephants. After lunch, we went on a nice ride down to the river, where the elephants got to cool off with a nice bath. They were even dishing out showers and kisses to the group.

Big elephant kisses.

Big elephant kisses.

The animals seemed to be happy and it was clear they were taken care of. Plus, if you ask me, carrying around a few tourists sure beats the alternatives for many elephants – hauling materials for construction or being hunted for their ivory. While the day tour was fun, I still have an interest in going back and doing a longer stint as a volunteer at one of the more highly acclaimed camps. The problem for us – and I’m sure for many other visitors to Thailand – is that there’s so much to see and most likely not enough time to do it all.

A friend of mine also recommends the Ran-Tong Save & Rescue Center, where the elephants are treated well and there are no hooks or chains. Further research has shown that both the Elephant Nature Park and Patara parks are also both excellent choices. It’s not in Chiang Mai, but the Boon Lott Sanctuary in Sukhothai also looks like a great place. See for yourself:

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.