Most people visiting Thailand have “riding elephants” on their to-do lists. We were no exception. There’s been much debate about whether it’s cruel or right to visit elephant camps in Thailand and we certainly weren’t oblivious or indifferent to the concerns. In fact, we did a fair amount of independent research before deciding to move forward with our plans and selecting a destination that focused on providing a sanctuary for rescued elephants. You can read more about some of our thoughts on the broader topic here.
Ultimately, we chose to visit Baan Chang Elephant Park, which is about an hour drive from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The park provides a sanctuary for 39 rescued elephants (at the time of our visit) and is not only dedicated to caring for the elephants, but educating visitors and providing them an opportunity to make a real connection with these fascinating animals. The fees you pay to visit go towards preserving their livelihoods and funds to rescue more elephants.
Our English speaking guide picked us up at 8:00am from our lodgings in a comfortable air conditioned van. Upon arriving at the park, we were provided lockers and a set of clothing to change into. We were also encouraged to help ourselves to free bananas and water. Next, it was time to meet and feed the elephants. We were given large woven baskets overflowing with sugar cane and bananas that we were directed to share liberally with the elephants… all of them. In a sense, the guides wanted each guest to introduce themselves to each elephant with a gift of food. It’s important, they said, to let the elephants form a positive opinion of you and let them know you are kind.
My son and I lugged a heavy basket around to the elephants and hesitantly offered the fruit. However much you might love elephants, it’s hard not to be intimidated by their sheer size when you are up close. I suddenly had an irrational fear that they’d accidentally step on my bare feet. It never happened.
Some elephants are friendly, some are shy, some are gentle, some are excitable, some are standoffish, and some are sneaky. While my son and I were feeding one elephant, another was behind us slyly dipping into our basket. When we tried to take the basket away, the elephant grabbed it, resulting in a brief and comical tug-of-war until a mahout stepped in to rescue it for us.
After our baskets were emptied, we were given a lesson on how to mount, dismount, ride, and steer/direct the elephants. We were told not to let the elephants brush up against trees while we are riding them or to let them eat excessively along the path. The first warning was so that our legs would not be scraped or crushed and the second was so that the elephants would not get an upset stomach.
Our tutorial complete, it was time to practice and our son was, of course, the first to volunteer. He climbed up on the elephant, and with no hesitation, gave it the command to stand. He confidently instructed the elephant to go forward, turn left, turn right, stop, and lay down. All with a giant smile on his face.
Next, it was our turn. Still slightly intimidated by the size, but emboldened by my son’s performance, I hopped on and told the elephant to stand. Wow! Elephants are really tall. It felt a little awkward and a bit uncomfortable, but it was AMAZING. I gave the voice commands that I’d been taught and tapped the back of the ears with my feet as instructed — and sure enough, the elephant knew exactly what to do.
While riding, I felt that I could safely lend some attention to fully registering the fact that I was on an elephant. An elephant! I touched its skin, which was surprisingly like a sandpapery leather and covered in thick bristled hair. I felt the sway of its walk. I tickled its ears with my toes. I hugged its head. It was all really cool.
When it was time to dismount, I remember not being sure whether or not the elephant was truly laying down yet, because I was still so high off the ground. It was, and I slid off, somehow giving myself an abrasion on the inside of my arm from rubbing it on the elephants skin as I dismounted. That gives you an idea just how rough the skin really is.
After everyone had completed their test ride, we broke for a tasty lunch, which was served family style and in generous amounts. There was plenty of time during our break to relax, have an ice cream, or even take a brief siesta in the hammocks provided. Once everyone was content and well-rested, we were each assigned to an elephant (by yourself or with a partner based on your booking). Here is where our pre-lunch lesson was put to the test.
My husband and I were placed on the tusked bull elephant and thus led the pack. Our son and our visiting friend were partnered and placed on a lovely female directly behind us. We rode the elephants around the park for 30 minutes, took a short break and then rode another 30 minutes. Each person got to take a turn as the driver and as the passenger. Personally, I found the passenger position to be much more comfortable and relaxing. Being the driver requires a lot more attention and balance.
At the end of our walk, we dismounted at a pond where the elephants were excited to take a cool swim. We were given buckets and scrub brushes so we could bathe our elephants, and to help remove skin irritants and bugs. I felt this was the best bonding experience of the day. The elephants, and the people, really seemed to enjoy themselves. We were all soaked, of course, but that’s why we were given the extra clothes.
To conclude the day, we were taken back to the main building where we were able to shower and change back into our own clothes before piling into the van for our drive back to the city. All in all, it was one of the best experiences and most memorable travel experiences that I’ve ever had and I’d highly recommend it to anyone.
Baan Chang Elephant Park
Tel. 053-814174 or 089-6355206
- Transfer from / to hotel via air-conditioned vehicles
- English-speaking guide and professional Mahout
- Accident insurance
- Mahout clothes
- Showers and towels
- Personal expenses such as drinks, tips etc.
- Other services not mentioned in the program.
Things to bring: Camera, mosquito spray, sunscreen.