Last winter I visited an “elephant sanctuary”, and frankly I’ve been too embarrassed and ashamed to share my experience. Why? Because my sanctuary was more like a for-profit business that preyed on the good intentions of foreign tourists who don’t know any better.
The worst part? I did know better, but I went anyway.
As a blogger, I read a lot of blogs. I knew that Elephant Nature Park was by far the best elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai (and possibly the only real one). I know elephant training basically amounts to torture. Whenever I see anyone riding on an elephant in one of those wooden chairs, I die a little inside. Why? Because those chairs crush the small bones that stick up on the elephant’s spine.
I did my research. I wasn’t about to be fooled or lured in by a cheaper company.
Elephant Nature Park: SOLD OUT
What I didn’t realize was that many people who visit Thailand are well aware that Elephant Nature Park is the best elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, and spots are limited. Of course, Elephant Nature Park will limit the number of people on its premises. It’s not a for-profit elephant tourist farm, it’s an elephant reserve!
When I arrived at my hostel and tried to book a spot, I stared at the screen in disbelief. Literally, every single slot for the entire month was taken. Even the more expensive excursions like Pamper a Pachyderm and Sunshine for Elephants were completely sold out. Tears welled in my eyes as I thought about missing a chance to play with the elephants.
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What About Patara Elephant Farm?
Then I remembered reading a post by I Am Aileen about her experience with a different elephant company, Patara Elephant Farm. Patara Elephant Farm does let visitors ride the elephants, but only on the elephant’s shoulders like a traditional Thai Mahout elephant owner, and each elephant is only ridden by one visitor a day.
The elephants aren’t chained up, and the park doesn’t use a hook to control or discipline the elephants. Patara Elephant Farm even releases their elephants into the wild when they’re ready.
The only problem: Patara Elephant Farm was also completely booked.
Researching Like Crazy
After about an hour of panicked research, the next best company I could find was Baanchang Elephant Park. They seemed to have pretty good reviews, with a five-star trip advisor rating of over 1,000 visitors. Everyone asserted that the park was definitely an elephant reserve. But for some reason I was hesitant.
After some thinking, I decided I’d give it a go. I knew what to look for in an elephant reserve. If it was a good place, I could talk about my incredible experience. If it wasn’t as good as I was hoping, I could write a review letting all of the park’s future clientele know what they’re in for.
…Let’s just say I’m going with the second option on this one.
Baanchang Elephant Park: Good or Bad?
Overall, I’d say Baanchang Elephant Park is not a horrible place that abuses the elephants. There are definitely aspects of the park that are very positive. The elephants don’t seem miserable, and Baanchang does rescue elephants from more abusive situations.
However, Baanchang Elephant Park still has a long way to go, and I wouldn’t recommend it for your visit to Thailand.
If Elephant Nature Park is a 10/10, I’d give Baanchang Elephant Park a 6/10.
The reason I’m giving Baanchang Elephant Park a 6/10 is that it’s not a horrible place. I believe they have good intentions but are clearly lacking in some areas. In comparison to the trekking companies and elephant circuses, Baanchang Elephant Park is doing an amazing job, and these elephants are definitely much better off.
Baanchang is not training elephants to do tricks. They are not breaking young elephants and training them to give rides. They’re against the practice of separating young elephants from their mothers, and refuse to have elephants paint, “dance”, or sit/stand on two legs.
Here are a few of the things Baanchang Elephant Park gets right:
1. Visitors Ride the Elephant Bareback
If you’re going to ride an elephant, the best way to do so is on the elephant’s shoulders. This is because the elephant’s spine is very sensitive and contains small bones that stick up off the spine. The elephant chairs you’ll see across SE Asia crush these small bones, leaving the elephants in immense pain.
While elephants may seem big and strong, they’re not meant to carry human passengers the way a horse or camel can. This is why you’ll see mahouts (traditional Thai elephant keepers) sitting on their necks. It’s much more comfortable for the elephant, and it’s definitely easier to ride this way.
Ever since I was young, I had always dreamed of riding an elephant. I love elephants, and the image of trekking through a jungle on an elephant’s back was the most fantastic thing I could imagine.
HOWEVER, after reading all of the articles and blog posts written about how elephants are trained to carry humans, I could no longer be happy about riding one. While Baanchang isn’t doing this “breaking”, I still think a reserve shouldn’t have elephant riding as an activity.
Honestly, riding an elephant was my least favorite part of the whole experience and I felt guilty the entire time. The rest of the people in my park agreed that they much preferred to just feed and wash the elephants.
2. Good Medical Care
One thing I was happily surprised by is the amount of attention that goes into the elephants’ health and well-being at Baanchang. Our guide spent quite a while explaining the frequent checkups elephants receive, and the way medicine is administered. They also pay close attention to the weight and physical fitness of the elephants.
3. A Cultural Experience
All visitors at the park change into a Mahout outfit that will be worn throughout the day. We were also taught the Thai commands Mahouts use to control the elephant. Visiting Baanchang Elephant Park was like getting a quick glimpse at traditional Mahout culture in Thailand.
4. The Elephant-Mahout Connection
All of the elephants and Mahouts at Baanchang Elephant Park have an amazing connection. You can really see the love and respect they have for one another. Every Mahout and elephant are matched together one-to-one, and the Mahout does everything with that elephant. They even sleep on premises!
I saw elephants playfully hitting their Mahout’s with their trunks, and Mahouts napping on their elephants’ necks. They seemed to really bond together as partners. Rarely did I see a Mahout firmly scolding an elephant, even when my elephant decided to destroy a recycling bag for fun. For the most part, any discipline was done in a joking manner.
The park even told us that sometimes elephants reject a Mahout, and the park is forced to find another one. It really is a mutual partnership rather than a domineering master.
That said, Baanchang Elephant Park is not a perfect sanctuary, and there were many things that upset me throughout my visit.
1. Too Many People
Firstly, Baanchang Elephant Park has way too many people. There is no way this can be good for the elephants. Each visitor is placed in a small group for the day, but there were countless small groups coming and going.
The first part of the experience involves feeding sugar cane and bananas to the elephants, but I couldn’t help but worry they were overfed. I wasn’t quite sure if this food was regulated, or if the park just wanted to give each visitor the full “feeding experience.”
I also worry that the elephants were giving way too many rides throughout the day. I would hope that each elephant is only ridden once or twice, but there’s no way to be sure.
I know it’s pretty hypocritical for me to complain about the number of people at the park because had the park been more selective, I probably wouldn’t have been able to visit. The only short-term solution is to book really early during high season if you want to visit a sustainable park like Elephant Nature Park. Hopefully, in the long-term, trekking companies, and circuses will realize it’s more economical to open a real sanctuary, and this will become less of an issue as tourists vote with their dollar by choosing good parks to support.
2. Rushed and Controlled Experience
Because of the number of people, I felt somewhat rushed as they tried to fit in all the tours for the day. Rather than the day feeling relaxed and natural, it felt like they were trying to shuttle us from station to station. I would have loved a chance to relax as the elephants enjoyed themselves.
The bathing part of our day felt extremely quick to me. I would have loved to watch the elephants splash around in the water, but it was really “in and out.” I honestly wish the elephants had more free time to wander and play. That to me would’ve been much more enjoyable than actually riding one.
3. Two People to One Elephant
Baanchang Elephant Park places two people to an elephant, which I really didn’t like, and neither did any of the people in my group! I was traveling solo, so I had an elephant to myself (and I had to pay up the nose for it). But everyone else in my group came as a couple or family and shared an elephant.
Basically, I was the loser girl with no boyfriend or friends, as usual.
The main issue with sharing the elephant with two people was that the second person has to sit on the elephant’s back. Not only is this bad for the elephant, it’s very uncomfortable for the rider as well!
4. Elephant Tricks
As I was feeding the elephants bananas, a Mahout pulled me over to a young female elephant and had her plant a giant, muddy kiss on my cheek. Everyone thought it was so cute, and took tons of photos of me. To be honest, I really wasn’t thrilled the Mahout was encouraging the elephant to do tricks.
It’s hard to know when things are appropriate. I mean, my dog did tricks, but I didn’t have to beat my dog with a metal hook to get him to learn. All I had to do was wave some food in his face. I’d honestly rather they not have the elephants splash water or give kisses, it blurs the line between sanctuary and circus.
5. The Elephants Are Chained Up All Day
This is the part that upset me the most. Baanchang tries to write these restraints off as “necessary”, but I knew it was BS.
Firstly, the elephants are all chained in the feeding area, where they spend almost the entire day. This means they spend the majority of their time chained up. The park explains that this is necessary because they would 1) run out into the neighboring farms and eat all the crops 2) get in fights with one another 3) stampede when frightened.
Usually, I would believe this, but then I think of Elephant Nature Park. The elephants there aren’t chained up all day, and they can wander around on the vast property. I think the main issue with Baanchang is that they really just don’t have enough room to keep the number of elephants they have, and they have no way to contain them to keep them from getting out and into the fields around the park.
To be honest, the chains really bothered me. In a reserve, the elephants should not be chained up, especially not for hours on end in the heat. They should be wandering, playing with their “families” and resting. The idea that these elephants stood there chained all day is sickening to me.
6. The Mahouts use hooks to beat the elephants.
Baanchang tries to convince all the tourists that the elephants have a mind of their own and won’t listen to the trainers without the hooks. But isn’t this a reserve for wild animals?
Elephants who don’t want to give rides shouldn’t be forced, and elephants who don’t want to take a bath shouldn’t go. This is a reserve after all. The only time I can see a hook being necessary is if two elephants are fighting with one another.
Unfortunately, I did witness Mahouts using the hook on an elephant a few times. Usually, it happened when the elephant refused to do a command. For example, when an elephant refused to kneel down to pose with some visitors, the Mahout started beating his side. Again, if an elephant refused to bend down to let people on or off, a Mahout would smack him with the hook.
If my dog refused to do a trick, would I smack him with a hook? Definitely not! Would I hit him at all? Never. I read that many elephant owners will tell visitors that an elephant’s hide is thick, so they need to be hit very hard with hooks, but actually, elephants are quite sensitive.
Elephant Nature Park
If you really want to visit a real elephant sanctuary, I would 100% recommend Elephant Nature Park. As much as it sounds like fun to ride an elephant, the most fun I had was interacting with the elephants and watching them play. While sitting atop an elephant was a cool experience, I could live my life and be perfectly happy never having done it. I much preferred to feed and bathe the elephants.
If you’re traveling during high season (Dec-March), be sure to book Elephant Nature Park really early. Honestly, book at least a month ahead of time. This can be annoying if you’re kind of going with the flow like I was, but if you really want a positive experience with elephants, you’ll have to plan your trip a bit to make it work. However, if you’re visiting in the off-season you can pretty much book a few days before and be fine.
UPDATE: I Visited Elephant Nature Park!
Over the summer I took a trip back to Chiang Mai and visited Elephant Nature Park! I decided to try out the park’s more expensive Pamper a Pachyderm program, which I absolutely loved!
Our small group spent hours trekking through the jungle around Elephant Nature Park with our elephants, feeding them bananas along the way. To be honest, it was a little scary walking right in front of an elephant, but we had a few local guides to make sure nothing went wrong.
Instead of hooks and chains, we used bananas and sugarcane to tell the elephants where to go. We even had a few elephants on our trip who were owned by a woman outside of the park. Her elephants are rented for the day to participate in Elephant Nature Park walks, which I think is fantastic! This woman makes way more money with Elephant Nature Park than she would by renting her elephants to a different company, and the elephants are treated very well. Win-win for everyone!
Eventually, we ate lunch surrounded by elephants, and bathed the elephants in a river, splashing them with buckets of water. We then had a tour of the main park and got to meet the two little babies who are WILD. Elephant Nature Park refuses to train or “break” the new elephants, so you just have to keep your distance!
Containing the Elephants
How does Elephant Nature Park maintain control without hooks and chains? Well, firstly their property is HUGE! The elephants are free to roam pretty much everywhere, however, the owner did tell us they have to spend a lot of money reimbursing farmers when an elephant decides to run off and destroy their crops.
At night the elephants are put into a paddock where they go to sleep. These paddocks are huge, and the elephants have plenty of room to lie down and wander around inside. This keeps the elephants from running off in the middle of the night while everyone is sleeping.
Overall, Elephant Nature Park does a fantastic job rescuing elephants and I can’t recommend them highly enough. Hopefully in the future parks like Baanchang will see that there’s more money in providing a sustainable experience, especially as tourists begin to vote with their dollar in favor of true reserve parks.
If you want to book your own experience with Elephant Nature Park, be sure to do it well in advance to make sure you don’t miss out like I did the first time!
If for some reason Elephant Nature Park is booked up, I also recommend looking at Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park. It’s a bit far outside of Chiang Mai and you’ll have to spend the night, but it looks like an incredible experience.
Have you ever been to a sanctuary you didn’t think treated the animals well? What was your experience?