Deciding on an Elephant Tour
Like most people, one of the first things I thought of when planning our trip to Southeast Asia was elephants. How amazing would it be to interact with these amazing, majestic creatures?!
The amount of elephant attractions are overwhelming. You can ride elephants, watch them paint, see them balance on tightropes, and bathe with them; the options are countless.
I absolutely adore animals – my childhood dreams were growing up to be either a veterinarian or a marine biologist – and the last thing I wanted to do was endorse their suffering for the sake of profit. I did a ton of research on elephant tourism, which organizations are responsible and ethical, and the plight of elephants in Asia to make sure I didn’t take part in something I would regret.
The first thing I found out is that riding elephants is actually extremely harmful to them – unlike horses or cows, elephants have an arched back structure which is not conducive to carrying a lot of weight. I had no idea – you’d think that such a big animal would have no problem carrying heavy loads!
It turns out that the big chairs that carry several tourists at once can weigh much more than the 150 pounds that are considered “safe” for an elephant, and cause lasting damage and even lameness. The only way you should ever ride an elephant is to sit between their shoulders, and always bareback. I made the choice not to ride elephants at all – I have so much respect for these gentle giants and think it’s a pretty unnecessary part of the experience.
I second guessed if I should even go see elephants – I’m generally not a fan of zoos and other places that keep animals in captivity for profit. But the other side of the story is the shrinking number of elephants in Asia due to habitat loss and laws against logging (putting them out of work). Places that keep and breed elephants in a humane way are, in a way, helping to keep this species from extinction. And yes, ideally the elephants could roam free in a nature reserve without having tourist groups come and take pictures of them. Ideally. However, until this is a reality (hopefully one day the government or a benevolent millionaire will step up), these ethical elephant parks are, in my opinion, not a bad option.
My first choice for seeing elephants was the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, which is one of the first elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia. It’s a park that takes in mostly sick and injured animals, elephants that have toiled in the illegal logging industry or been beaten into submission performing tricks for tourists. It’s one of the more popular ethical options – however, it is also not cheap at 2500 baht for one day (100 CAD).
I heard about Conserve Natural Forests from a friend. They had amazing TripAdvisor reviews and were significantly cheaper at 500 baht (20 CAD) for an afternoon. It was the one! They are first and foremost a nonprofit organization that deals with reforestation of depleted jungle, but they also have two resident elephants!
Conserve Natural Forests Experience
About 20 of us plus three guides rode in their two trucks to the park. We got there and no time was wasted – we were allowed to grab bags full of pumpkin and were off to meet the elephants! We crossed a river with knee-deep muddy water and walked up the embankment. As we tread through the brush, I spied two elephants through the tall grass!! Already, I could barely contain my excitement..
We were introduced to Maemoon and Kamjam. They are mother and daughter, 36 and 48 years old, respectively. Oh, and they happen to both be very pregnant (by the same bull – some Game of Thrones type drama). Maemoon is 5 months overdue – which brings her pregnancy term up to 27 months at the moment! Apparently this is nothing to worry about, but I can’t imagine it being too pleasant!
Their trunks reached towards us when they smelled food, and coiled around the piece of pumpkin before bringing it back to their mouth. You could hear them chewing and chomping as they devoured pumpkin after pumpkin – a truly elephantine appetite (pun entirely intended)!
Hilariously, if you gave the elephant a portion that didn’t quite satisfy, it would keep its trunk by your hand until you gave it a second or bigger piece!
Next, we followed the elephants back to the river to bathe them. Walking with such massive creatures is both daunting and humbling, scary and exciting. When we got to the river, the elephants turned into giant puppies. They flopped their giant bodies into the muddy water, rolling around and causing tidal waves in the river. Just like you see on the BBC, they used their trunks to spray themselves with water!
One of the elephants curled up her trunk and rubbed her eye after it had been splashed with water. She looked so human in that moment!
When they were “clean”, we walked back across the river to the bamboo huts we started out at. The elephants stood in the river and we fed them from the top of the embankment – the only way I could be at eye level with these majestic monsters! The next hour or so, you could order food (one guy with a wok) and drinks and keep feeding and watching the elephants.
Even though we were a group of 20 people, most people just chilled in the huts while a few of us elephant enthusiasts fed their insatiable hunger with pumpkin after pumpkin after pumpkin.
Once the pumpkin was exhausted, the elephants crossed the river once more to get to the lush grasses on the other side. They munched and chomped their way through the shrubbery, using their trunks to coil around and rip out bundles of grasses and leaves.
They also used the especially nice branches to smack the insects off themselves. They would keep their branch with them as they wandered through the grasses, periodically picking it up and putting it down to eat. So clever! Being up close with elephants really makes you see how intelligent they are.
After several hours with the elephants, we were asked to help plant a tree! Conserve Natural Forests has planted over 200,000 trees in the region around Pai. Basically all of the ancient teak trees in the jungle have been cut down, and it is their mission to rebuild healthy forests once again. Each of us planted a teak seed in their nursery, and a tree in one of their fields!
We got to spend a bit more time with the elephants, and then it was back to town in the back of a pickup truck! I wish I could always get around in an open truck bed – I love the feeling of the wind in my hair and just a bit of adrenaline in my veins. We got back to town at around 17:30 (with slightly more windswept hair).
Overall, it was an amazing experience. It was only about 3 hours long, but basically the entire time was spent with the elephants. I was a little wary at first because there were 20 tourists and only two elephants, but it still felt like you got plenty of personal pachyderm time! The elephants were totally free to roam the area, and seemed very content and well cared for. I would totally do it again, and can highly recommend the experience! It’s definitely something I will never forget.