Baanchang Elephant Park: Sanctuary or Prison?

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.

Is it really an elephant sanctuary?

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.

Baanchang Elephant Park

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

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 Good

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:

Riding elephant bareback

Riding the elephant like a real Mahout

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.

But….

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. 

Happy Elephant

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.

The Bad

That said, Baanchang Elephant Park is not a perfect sanctuary, and there were many things that upset me throughout my visit.

feeding elephants

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.

bathing elephants

Quick elephants, get in the water now!

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.

Baanchang Elephant Park

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.

Baanchang elephant park

These elephants were all chained here in the sun

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.

Mahout hooks

Mahout hooks

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.

Baanchang Elephant Park

I’d rather just play with the elephants

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.

Elephant Nature Park

I love elephant nature park!

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!

Nairobi Elephant Orphanage

Baby elephant at the Nairobi Elephant Orphanage (another ethical elephant encounter)

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.

 

Baanchang Elephant Park

Have you ever been to a sanctuary you didn’t think treated the animals well? What was your experience?

Comments

comments

About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

31 comments on “Baanchang Elephant Park: Sanctuary or Prison?

  1. THANK YOU for writing this. I had a very similar experience at a park I was told was a sanctuary in Chiang Mai. (After we found out Elephant Nature Park was booked.) I actually told them I didn’t want to to ride the elephants and a few others in our group decided not to as well. We were told to wait in a different area while the rides occurred and then almost given a “pep talk” about how the hooks and chains are necessary. It just didn’t feel right-something that’s hard to explain to others.

    My favorite parts were bathing them and feeding them. I’m smiling now thinking of it. I had the same apprehension about posting on my blog about my experience, but maybe got a boost from you posting yours, so thank you. :) Can’t wait to hear about the Elephant Nature Park!

    • Caroline that’s so great to know I’m not the only blogger who feels this way. I was afraid of getting crucified for writing this! I figure I might as well stop feeling ashamed of myself and do something productive with my experience. I’m hoping people can find this post and hopefully book a different park.

  2. Ah!! Love this. I’m so happy you gave an honest review. I had a similar experience with Elephants World – overall sounded a bit better thank this park but the mahouts still used hooks and people were allowed to sit on the elephants while they bathed. Not a bad place, but better exists (like Elephant Nature Park). Like you, ENP was sold out when I visited. I cringe when I see people come back from Thailand with “amazing photos of me riding an elephant.” Love these posts that honestly portray these experiences.

    • I just visited Elephant Nature Park a few days ago and it was incredible! It was nice to be able to compare the two. I honestly really should have asked my hostel for a better substitute to Baanchang rather than relying on the internet. Now hopefully people will find this and not make the same mistake as me.

  3. I’m really glad you wrote this post, Richelle! Many people wouldn’t think twice about seeing elephants chained up or performing tricks, so being able to point out what was bad at the park is really useful!

    My week volunteering at ENP was one of the highlights of my travels thus far. It’s an incredible place and they really do put the elephants first. I got to meet Lek when I was there and heard someone ask her what she thinks about the other elephant parks and trekking camps around her that don’t treat the elephants as well as ENP does. Her answer was amazing (and really speaks to her character): she said that she’d rather the elephants be in these other parks than performing in circuses or logging or begging on the streets.

    If only all the parks in Thailand would follow in Lek’s footsteps! Like you said, simply observing the elephants up close is WAY better than sitting on their backs.

    • Wow Amanda that’s such a good response from Lek. I agree, the elephants are much better off in Baanchang than where they came from previously, but I just visited ENP a few weeks ago and Baanchang pales in comparison. Hopefully people will start voting with their money and these other parks will make changes. But seeing how crowded Baanchang was, I don’t know if it will happen anytime soon!

  4. Your points are spot on! I was just at ENP and I’m returning tomorrow. I’ve done a few overnight visits because the week volunteer program was booked. ENP is an incredible experience where you can observe and just be with the elephants. I think its interesting because the “sanctuary” you write about is a popular activity suggestion of Chiang Mai hotels. It’s upsetting. The more bloggers who share this info, hopefully, the more tourists will understand that something is OFF when a wild animal lets you sit on it for a ride.

    • Yeah I’m really hoping I can get this post to rank in google so that people can be informed before they go. I went to ENP a few weeks ago and loved it! I’d love to do a longer volunteer program when I have more time.

  5. Thank you so much for this very honest post. I think it’s so important that we speak about how parks treat their elephants, so that we can be informed when making a decision about where to go to meet these gentle giants. I am glad that your experience at Baanchang was mostly positive, and I am grateful for your honesty in sharing the negatives of your visit. We were in Chiang Mai this past October and we ended up visiting a terrible park. I left in tears and it really traumatised me. Even though I was aware of the mis-treatment of these animals, it is another to see it with your own eyes. The problem is, we hadn’t much choice of where to go due to bookings and our itinerary, and with research it seemed to be somewhat of a decent place. But the reality was much different. I think it’s important to share our negative experiences and help educate others who visit the parks that there is abuse that occurs behind the scenes which allow the elephants to perform these so called “cute” tricks for the entertainment of the tourists.
    Since my experience I have lost some faith in finding anywhere proper where I could witness these beautiful animals. It has made me sit back and think about how this desire to see these animals may be coming from a selfish place. I love elephants, and maybe the best thing I can do and the best way I can show my love for these intelligent creatures, is to respectfully avoid visiting these sanctuaries. Another part of me wants to continue my search in the hopes that there are sanctuaries out there that are true and kind… and then I will whole heartedly support them and hopefully have a chance to visit, as a humble witness.
    I am starting to hear and read a lot of good things about Elephant Nature Park, and I am glad to read that you have too. Thank you for linking more posts about it from other bloggers, the more info the better! Hopefully when I return to Chiang Mai, I will be able to visit for myself.
    Cheers!

  6. THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS! I am going through a very similar dilemma now and am having such a difficult time selecting a park now that Patara and Elephant Nature Park is booked. Though I was excited to book a spontaneous trip to Thailand to witness the beauty and majesty of these animals, I guess being a natural planner is actually the way to go! The detail on the use of hooks and chains was the most important to me as I share the same skepticism. I want to support an organization that truly has the elephant’s best interest at heart–so thank you for sharing your experience!

  7. Really wonderful post! Thank you for sharing! I hope you had a great time at ENP! I volunteered there for a week 5 years ago and have been back to work on their other programs. Before going to ENP, I knew nothing about how the elephants are trained. Now that I know there is no way I would ride an elephant, but there are so many people who still have no idea.
    It’s awesome that you did your research and learned not only about the training but about the fragile makeup of an elephants skeletal system.
    Even though you visited a place you didn’t like, it’s great that you are sharing that experience with others so they can make a better choice when visiting elephants.

    • Thanks so much Sadie. I went back and visited ENP and it was so much better! I would love to go back to Thailand and volunteer for a week like you did. Maybe when I quit my job in a year…

  8. SO excited to already be booked for the Karen Elephant Experience at ENP in Feb 2017! Question to those who have spent several days at ENP. Which other ‘experience’ would offer the most (ethical! :) ) hands on time with the elephants? I have looked at the side by side comparisons on their website and even messaged ENP, and I still don’t understand the difference…. particularly since the “single day” experience is have the price of the other “day long” experiences

    • I did the pamper a pachyderm one and it was great! There weren’t very many of us and we got to trek through the jungle and across a river outside the park, next to the elephants feeding them along the way. It all seemed pretty natural and they followed us along the trail, knowing there were bananas in our bags waiting for them! I think any of these day-long excursions are better because you get more time with the elephants, and you get to feed them throughout the day, rather than in one quick feeding session while standing on a platform.

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  10. I really enjoyed reading your post, as I was in the exact same situation as you were in! ENP was my first choice, and I had read in my Lonely Planet Guide that Baan Chaang was also an ethical elephant park to visit. I was conflicted as you were when seeing the chains and bullhooks, but I feel that Baan Chaang are continuing to develop and review the way that tourists spend their day with the elephants. My day was a little different to yours as I chose a program where we didn’t ride the elephants, and spent almost all day relaxing, playing and feeding the elephants in the shade after a short trek, finished with time to play in the water. If the elephants wanted to wander and leave us for a while they weren’t punished or forced to spend time in the area, although the mahouts still have bullhooks. I didn’t see any being used, and the mutual respect between the elephant I spent most of the day with and its mahout was wonderful to see.

    I hope Baan Chaang continues like this and gets rid of any riding all together!

    • Wow that’s good to know. I don’t think that was an option a few years ago when I went (either that or it was sold out). I really hope that they keep making changes because they’re not a horrible place. My only main worry is that they elephants are chained up for quite a long time, however, there isn’t enough space in the park for them to all roam free. I think the park will have to purchase more land if they really want to have that many elephants. I also really hope that they realize the more lucrative and sustainable option is having more intensive quality time with less people, rather than inviting a bunch of people into the park to ride and play with them. The more parks like Baan Chang start changing, hopefully other parks will do the same so that you can always find a sustainable place to see elephants, and the only good place won’t be constantly sold out.

  11. Thank you so much Richelle! Just found your blog while researching Baan Chaang . I’m glad you gave an honest opinion and now I’ll try to book with ENP instead when i visit this summer.

    • That’s so great Vanessa! ENP is definitely a million times better than Bann Chaang, and you’ll have a way better experience with them. Have fun in Thailand this summer!

  12. We were in the same situation as you this year and Baanchang was our only option. I wanted to echo what the commenter above stated…they seem to be improving on their less ideal areas. I talked to a few of the non-mahout employees and they said that each elephant is limited to one ride and that they aren’t forced to carry folks if they aren’t in the mood. I was skeptical but sure enough we saw one say “no way, Jose” to a visitor and he went back in. Also, they’ve cut down the time you ride (as well as offering a no-ride option)…and re-routed it to bath time! We had nearly an hour in the water with our two elephants. Of our two mahouts, only one had a hook. Also, I saw about a dozen “muddy elephant kisses”…and all were done without the use of a hook, all with food. I hope that’s the norm now and not an exception. I think articles like this are really helping parks that want to listen and improve do so. Unfortunately, it seems that not many are as open to critique as BC.

    I think that due to the limitations in the size of the park, BC will never get to the “10 out of 10” status. It does get crowded. They do have to worry about the elephants getting out onto private land that’s near the park, so the chains are probably the best option for the owners. It’s a terrible reality. These are hurdles that aren’t likely to be overcome. I do think that these creatures are 9999999% better off at BC than in their previous situations OR at all of the other elephant parks in Thailand (save ENP and possibly Patara).

    One a side note…we only saw two on the entire property chained during the day…one was for a bath and inspection (probably 45 minutes), the other was longer but inside. I think she was a new mother with her baby. I’m not saying that they are using the chains less but it was nice, even if we were the exception, that on this day it was minimal.

    FYI…my visit was in March 2017.

    • Wow that’s so great to hear! When I was there every single elephant was chained during feeding time and all of the mahouts had hooks. I really hope they are changing and responding to feedback. I think the more people vote with dollars, the more these places will change. Especially since ENP is so expensive, and sells out regularly, Elephant Parks can charge more if they treat the elephants well. Thanks so much for letting me know!

  13. I just visited Baan Chang in November 2017. I too lucked out of a visit to ENP even though I tried to book a month in advance…But agree with other commenters, I think Baan Chang has come a long way from the experience you had. There were only 6 of us during the day, and I didn’t see any elephants chained or any mahout use a bull hook. There were 3 newborns who were kept with their mums at all times, even saw one breastfeed! I hope to have the opportunity to visit ENP on a future trip to Thailand, but I feel at peace about having gone to BC.

    • Wow that’s so great to hear! I felt pretty guilty visiting when I did, so I’m SO happy they’ve changed. The fact that they’re not chained up all day anymore is so great. Thanks so much for taking the time to let me know!

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