Returning to Thailand, we were hoping to have an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai but equally apprehensive if it was responsible for us. Our past experiences with elephants have been on both sides of the spectrum. Regrettably, we rode an elephant in India. On the other hand, we’ve seen a thriving herd from afar in the most natural of habitats in Tanzania. Thailand is well known for having elephant tours however we needed to use caution in selecting an appropriate organization. Finding an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai can be a bit daunting with so many options and prices.
We found Local Alike through a web search and quickly acquainted ourselves with the breadth of tours they offered that was unique and socially responsible. Their belief in community-based tourism is a pillar of their mission, which is also an initiative being instilled in the broader tourism industry in Thailand.
In our eyes, we feel Local Alike is a great representation of a company who saw a community wanting to save their animals and found a way to incorporate tourism to continue the economy. We are proud to support them and now have an incredible experience to remember.
What’s included in an Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary tour
The first question we asked ourselves is what is included and how much is this tour going to cost us. While we’re are on a budget, we were still willing to pay a bit more for an experience offering good value. Elephant sanctuary tours in Chiang Mai vary widely in cost so it’s well worth doing your research to find the right tour for you.
This tour was a full day tour starting from 8 am and returning at 8 pm. It included learning about the history of Karen people and their relationship with the elephants, playtime and bathing in the river. We had lunch, dinner and return rides in a comfortable air-conditioned SUV.
The tour guides speak English quite well considering it is their second (or third) language. They think of themselves as members of the Karen tribe firstly and Thai nationals secondly providing a unique perspective on this country, tribal life and why they refer to themselves as “jungle people”
Be mindful the ride to the village is about two hours along a winding mountain. If you are susceptible to car sickness, you may wish to medicate accordingly.
Will I ride the elephants?
No. This is one of many camps that do not offer rides on the elephants. The owner of the village comes from generations of elephant caretakers. For a time, he had worked in a camp which offered elephant rides. After years of seeing his elephants in pain due to over-riding (cuts from the saddles, bloody and cracked feet) he decided to stay was no longer healthy for his elephants.
Our guide was very clear that these were domesticated elephants. Wild elephants, as he explained, only are “free” in a few of the national parks. Furthermore, when elephants run wild in areas where humans also inhabit, it often results in crops being destroyed or accidents with vehicles. Most time locals deal with the situation by killing the free, wild elephant.
Domesticated elephants, like the ones you meet in this village, are allowed to roam as naturally as possible with minimal guidance from the tour guides.
What to wear at an Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary
As you will be swimming with elephants, you will want to choose the appropriate attire. I wore surf shorts and a t-shirt, and my wife wore a one-piece bathing suit, singlet and yoga pants. She wore sneakers (runners), and I wore flip-flops (thongs). When we first arrived we were given a traditional Karen outfit to wear on top of your clothes. We found this to be very functional clothing because helps to reduce scratches from brush, insects and rocks. Lets put it this way, when you’re rolling around with a baby elephant on the hard ground you will want this outfit!
You will be able to shower afterwards, be sure to pack a towel. If you are staying overnight enquire about attire as it can get rather cold.
What will we eat on the Elephant sanctuary tour in Chiang Mai?
Our driver doubled as our cook and he prepared a very humble and delicious meal of Karen food. A curry, noodles, rice and fruit, simple and satisfying. We were also provided with bottled water throughout the day. On the way home, we went to a small Karen village where we tried locally brewed coffee that was delightful.
Is it ethical to visit an Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai?
It’s a murky world of what is ethical, eco and responsible when it comes to tourism and especially with elephants.
Unlike some of the other camps we have seen, there are a few things that helped us push the needle towards being ethical and responsible. We would all like to see these animals running free in the wild, and the owner of the camp has made every effort to provide an expansive environment for the elephants to roam.
The animals are always with a caretaker so that they do not wander off and end up being injured or killed for destroying property. The caretakers and the owners acted lovingly and playfully with the elephants. The elephants were allowed to graze at their own pace and were only coaxed verbally to move on.
In time, the owner hopes to build tree houses for guests and a fence so that the elephants can roam more freely and be enjoyed. Their mission, “to undo some of the damage humans have done to elephants over time, and to return them to the forest where they belong” is an effort we can support and we feel is as close to ethical as we have found.
This tour is not the cheapest Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai however, there were added benefits. The owner explained that by keeping the price a higher, they can offer a more exclusive experience with the elephants. We were the only two people interacting with the three elephants for the entire day. We also were able to visit and interact with a mother and baby elephant by ourselves.
Our tour was one day but would have gladly stayed for 2 or 3 nights as the drive out there was quite the trek!
Update July 2020: Elephant freedom village is back up and running! The GOFUNDME raised just under $5000 USD and helped to keep the elephants fed and cared for. Bookings are now available on their website and they saw their first back again in June. This Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary is family run and truly worth a visit.
Update April 2020: We visited the Elephant Freedom Village in November, an Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary. Inspiring work being done to support northern Thailand elephants through responsible tourism. With COVID-19 and forest fires in the area, the village is now in a bit of financial trouble. Have a read of our article and check out their GOFUNDME page.
Cost USD 98 per person (AUD 105)