The gentle giants of Chiang Mai

An elephant sanctuary like no other

Ed Pineda

I was 5 years old when I first encountered an elephant sheltered in a zoo. Back then I thought Elephants are temperamental animals and very difficult to please as the one I met is very much like that. He was just lying on the floor and seems lifeless. Growing up I eventually realized that it’s because of its living condition and the environment which caused him the way he reacted.
20 years later, I found myself in the wilderness of Chiang Mai, feeding and bathing a herd of elephants.

Before I tell you my encounter with these gentle creatures I want to put an emphasis on how beautiful Chiang Mai is, which I consider one of my favorite cities and will probably go back again and again. The food is so delicious and they mostly provide healthy menus and options (not to mention it’s very affordable!), the city center is so alive and yet there are plenty of places where you can reconnect with nature. And although some locals don’t speak English, most of the people I met are extremely friendly, always smiling, and even bowing their heads after a conversation. Chiang Mai has just this homey vibe that you’ll love.

The name of the sanctuary is Bamboo Elephant Care. They provide 3 different experience that you can choose from but their core activity is mainly feeding and and bathing elephants. I chose a day trip that includes trekking, rafting, and the elephant care. I’m gonna provide more details as I go along. 
I was picked up around 8 in the morning from my hotel. Pick-up is inclusive if your location is around a specific region in Chiang Mai. They might charge you additionally if you’re hotel is reasonably far away from the pick-up points.
It was just a short drive until we reached our first destination. We are suppose to do a two-hour trekking but since the rain was pouring crazy and the trail is muddy and slippery, the tour guides decided to do an alternate route. The trek was very short and easy, we ended up in a series of low-waterfalls. The guides started to jump and slide encouraging everyone to come behind and do the same. We all went down for a swim under the refreshingly cold waters.
After trekking down, we had a quick lunch. They served native Thai food and fresh fruits, which is a good meal after trekking. We headed later on to our second activity which is rafting. This is the part where everyone is just high and euphoric especially when the rapids are big and fast. It was a team effort sustaining the speed of the raft and at some point we have to move from one spot to another while simultaneously paddling on the same direction just to keep everything in balance. It was fun and thrilling!

 

After these two activities, I am actually happy with what I paid for to think the main thing haven’t happened yet. I’m telling you this tour is worth every Baht you paid for. I also brought my DSLR camera but I didn’t use it since both activities requires you to get wet. One of the tour guides document everything in action  and post all pictures in their Facebook page for you share, in which I copied some. Such convenience especially for solo travelers like me!
The highlight of my visit was of course my experience in the elephant sanctuary. As soon as we arrived, they gave us a red mahout style Karen uniform (I am not sure but I think the reason why we have to wear a uniform is for us to have an easier time building a bond with the elephants as they perceived us as visitors and that we are gonna feed and bathe them). Anyway, the keepers are very knowledgeable with their craft and gave us a short briefing and taught us some basic commands.

Bon - eat

Didi - good boy/girl

Made - come

Pai - go

Ya - don't

How -  stop

Toy - go back

The elephants mostly stay by the mountain side and come down when they’re hungry. There were bucket loads of bananas and stalks of grains.We arrive during their lunch time so the elephants were really hungry, rushing down to get their food. By this time, you’ll have the opportunity to be in close contact and you have to feed them by hand. They snatch everything with their trunk so you have to hide the bananas behind your back so they won’t take it all at once.
Afterwards we started putting a pile of straws on the ground and they all dashed to take their part. They also taught us how to make herbal medicines in case they encounter difficulty with their digestion. Afterwards we took a walk through the mountains trailing after the gentle giants.
The final part of the tour is bathing and brushing the elephants in the river. This is such a fun part! The elephants are so playful they shoot water from their trunks or they pretend falling down in the water causing a big splash ending up getting totally soaked! The sad part of the day was saying goodbye to the elephants and the new good friends I’ve met.
While heading back to Chiang Mai, I thought of so many things. I realized how healthy and happy the elephants in the sanctuary. They have so much independence, they go up if they want to walk and go down if they want to eat, they don’t even have gates to keep them restricted. They’re always moving and playing. There were no shows to perform, no cages after all the guests are gone, and no signs of cruelty and violence. When you approach one of the elephants, they give you a welcoming atmosphere reflecting how the keepers treat them with great respect and utmost care. They also limit the number of participants that visit the sanctuary (we were around 12 people during the time of my visit) so the elephants don’t get overwhelmed.
At the end of the day, I found myself smiling, feeling fulfilled, and grateful for the small accomplishment I did for the day.
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P.S. There are a lot of elephant related activities that you can do in Thailand. Sure they all provide fun memories and Instagram-worthy snaps, but not all of them will give you an experience as meaningful as taking care of rescued elephants from cruel acts. If you want to experience this great excursion in Chiang Mai Thailand, you can send a message through their Facebook page.
The Bamboo Elephant Family Care
Reasons to do this activity:
1. They provide options.
*For the adrenaline junkies, you can do the trekking, rafting, and elephant care.
*For families with kids, you can do the Long Neck Village, and elephant care (less strenuous). 
*And for those with limited time, you can do a half day elephant care experience.
2. No camera? No problem! They guides take millions of photos which you can download from their Facebook page.
3. I paid 1,800 Baht (Around $55) inclusive of roundtrip to Chiang Mai, delicious lunch, and an experience of a lifetime.
Tell me your elephant encounters and make sure you comment it down!

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