Visiting an Elephant Sanctuary
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
By far, the highlight of my 10-day trip to Thailand was the day spent visiting an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. We had some really fantastic days, visiting temples in Bangkok, climbing a mountain to Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, and touring the islands around Railay, but the absolute best day was our day at Happy Elephant Home.
I absolutely love elephants. So I wanted to be sure to do my research. I took a long time searching for a sanctuary that was ethical, personal, and really cared for these beautiful creatures. Thankfully, there are a number of excellent sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, Thailand where the elephants are cared for and respected. I knew enough to have a few important requirements for whichever sanctuary we were going to visit.
First: NO RIDING
We have all seen pictures of tourists riding elephants through the jungle, or of circus elephants being ridden and doing tricks in the circus. I'll admit I always thought "how fun!" but the sad truth is, riding an elephant can severely hurt their neck and back. As much as the photo op is adorable, the practice of riding elephants is just not ok with me. So first and foremost, I wanted to be sure that wherever we went for "elephant day" there would be no riding.
Second: Ethical treatment
This seems like an obvious add-on to the no riding requirement but sadly, just no-riding is not enough to ensure the best treatment of elephants. I wanted to be sure that the elephants were being properly cared for all-around, that they have enough space to roam, good food and water, and kind, knowledgable caretakers.
Third: Fun & Educational
I didn't want just a zoo day where we made a long trip to just look at the elephants across a fence. I wanted to learn, get to actually meet the elephants, and feel like it was a full experience. Like I said, I love elephants so I wanted this day to be all about seeing them in Thailand, learning about them, and giving our time and tourist dollars to a place that was doing good work.
Fourth: Time and Travel
Honestly, this was the least of the worries with picking a place, but it was still a consideration. We only had a few days in Chiang Mai so the full-day we devoted to the elephants, I wanted to be spent actually with the elephants, not finding transportation or figuring out logistics.
With all those factors in mind, I searched through articles, blog posts, Travelocity reviews, and narrowed it down to a few really excellent sanctuaries outside of Chiang Mai. Ultimately, we decided on Happy Elephant Home for a full day program.
We were picked up at our hotel on the morning of "elephant day" and met the rest of our group. Our fantastic guide, Omo, introduced herself and we drove up through the mountains to Happy Elephant Home. When we arrived, we met some of the dogs who live at the sanctuary and said our first hello to the elephants!
The Mahouts (caretakers) gave us outfits to change into and then we all circled up with Omo for a lesson on elephant history and anatomy. We learned about the differences between Asian and African elephants, elephant bones and nutritional needs, and the personal histories of the elephants at Happy Elephant Home. Most came from the trekking camps around Thailand, one from the circus, and all were purchased for Happy Elephant Home when they were no longer ideal for the work they were doing or when their health was too much work for their previous owners. One elephant was blind in one eye from her working conditions while the most recent addition to the herd, Bella was pregnant with months left to go (months! elephants are pregnant for up to 22 months!)
After learning about the elephants, we went to snack time! We chopped up sugar cane and loaded up baskets to take out to the field with the elephants! Omo told us to be careful with our baskets since the elephants all know that's where their snacks are. We got to wander the field and hear more of their individual stories. We brought them corn and took about a million pictures feeding and scratching them.
As the sun got higher, a few of the elephants were ready to cool off in their mud bath. Over on one side of the field is a huge pit dug in the dirt with a slow-flowing hose. Omo told us we could jump in and help them cool off with the mud if we wanted. While some of our group chose to sit in the shade and watch, a few of us figured we might as well jump in.
When are we ever going to get another chance to give an elephant a mud bath??
We jumped in and proceeded to throw some nice cool mud on our new friends. Since elephants can't sweat, this is one way they can cool down, and everyone had a pretty good time getting muddy no matter what!
After hosing ourselves off and saying a thank you for the natural mud exfoliant, we sat down to some lunch!
Now, I love Thai food. And I could probably write a novel about all the amazing food I ate in 10 days in Thailand.
And in that novel, these noodles would get their own chapter.
Happy Elephant Home set up a buffet of sorts where we could all cook our own rice noodles and top them with whatever broth, meat, tofu, sauces, bean sprouts, and peanuts we chose.
I like to think that over the years I have gotten more and more daring. For an adventurous eater like me, having that many choices, with opportunities for second and third helpings, was heavenly. And trust me, every combination was delicious, although I was still too whimpy to try the extra spicy chili sauce. I'm not quite that adventurous.
After lunch and a brief rest by the pool, it was time for my favorite part of the entire day, even better than the noodles.
I knew from the day description and many TripAdvisor reviews, that we would get to accompany the elephants down the hill to the river for their afternoon swim. (Truth be told, it was the final determining factor in choosing which sanctuary to visit).
We walked down the hill to the river that runs in between Happy Elephant Home and the neighboring Elephant Nature Park (another excellent sanctuary) and jumped in the river with the girls.
Not only was the water cool and refreshing, getting to play with the elephants and cool off in the water was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience that made the whole day all the more special. Mountains rising up around us, the Thai sun beating down, and elephants spraying us with water. It's a day I will never forget.
If you are in Chiang Mai, I highly recommend spending a day with Happy Elephant Home. The love and care they have for their elephants (and dogs) is palpable and they make their guests feel so welcome. Elephant day more than lived up to my expectations and really was just the best day.