Playing with Elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand

When traveling, I like to go off the beaten path and see what a city is like on a day-to-day level. Sometimes, however, you just have to experience some of the bigger attractions. If you didn’t try deep-dish pizza, did you really go to Chicago? If you didn’t hike the Great Wall, did you really go to Beijing? If you didn’t see the Eiffel Tower, did you really even open your eyes?

In Thailand, I was told I must check out the elephants.

This was one of those touristy things I was somewhat reluctant to do at first. (At $50 it was easily the most expensive thing I did, and that includes my flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok) But, in the end, I’m super glad I did do it. I’ve seen pictures of friends doing elephant rides in Thailand and thought it’d be a waste of money. In short, not to be entirely self-righteous, my money went to good people and theirs went to continuing a really shitty practice for elephants.

If you’re ever in Thailand, a perfect project to part ways with your money is The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Otherwise, you don’t know what kind of inhumane treatment has occurred. Seriously, if you want to enjoy what nature has to offer while being responsible, check them out.

Playing with the elephant
So cute. And the elephant, too.

Turns out, riding on an elephant is not the best thing for them. Riding on their necks is perfectly okay, but saddle those beasts up and throw three people on their backs – as they do in some places – and their spines cave in and severely shorten their lifespan and worsen their quality of life. These places persist because A) they’re cheaper than what I paid for B) because they don’t feed the animals what they require although C) they work them crazy even on empty stomachs. I went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and they treat them properly. (So they say.) There’s no riding them at all. The young never grow up with hard labor and their lifespans improves dramatically.

Playing with these animals was great fun and for whatever it’s worth, and however cheesy it is, I will have a lifelong connection to them. I got to pet them, hug them, feed them, bathe them. Their shit was thrown at me (seriously.) I “washed” my skin in their dirty shit water. And then rinsed off in a river.

washing the elephants
There I am, bathing with a muddy, poopy elephant.

One reason I don’t like zoos, is that in order to fully understand or appreciate a collection of animals they need to be curated like art in a museum, which leads to some ethically questionable viewpoints. Another is that, is that no matter their intentions, the animals can’t be treated as they should in such cramped spaces. And further the intended goal of getting people actually interested in these beautiful creatures is hardly fulfilled.

How many people genuinely went to a zoo, and afterwards felt any activist-inducing passion for the polar bear walking around 110-degree concrete? (Beijing Zoo) Who saw Shamu and felt the need to help orcas? (nobody otherwise that thing/those things would’ve been free eons ago.) But here I am talking about it, sharing in on FB and hopefully someday being able to donate. Yes it’s all talk, most likely menial, but it’s more than most zoos can do.

These types of reserves or sanctuaries or whatever you want to call it are amazing. It brings people to the animals. It keeps animals (largely) in their homes. And it gives them a suitable habitat and love. These are not entirely feasible on a mass scale and this I get. Between here and the super famous Panda Wolong Nature Reserve I went to in China, I get the sense they are much more capable to achieving their goals than a zoo. They treat the animals better and actually give the viewers a closer experience with the animal. Save the pandas! Save the elephants! Save the rhinos!!! (Some might be beyond hope actually…)


Let me know what you think in the comments below! Do you agree or disagree?

Like what you’re reading on Thailand? Check out some other related articles in: The Thailand Chronicles!


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