One of many common tourist activities to do in Thailand is to ride an elephant. Unfortunately, many of these elephant camps found throughout the country treat the elephants very poorly – I had a horrible experience two years ago when I was in Bangkok and I swore I would never go to an “elephant camp” again. Thankfully, however, there are also many Mahout elephant training centers, mainly found in Northern Thailand, that provide a much better experience. I had heard about how great these elephant encounters were in Chiang Mai, so on my trip to the north, I figured I would splurge (because these proper camps and sanctuaries sure aren’t cheap) and spend the day with some elephants in a safe, friendly, and comfortable environment. Our guesthouse recommended Chiang Mai Mahout Elephant Training Center and it turned out to be a great day!
This elephant experience was a full day trip, so we were picked up from our guesthouse around 8:00 am and were put into the back of a truck (thankfully with benches) along with about 8 other people for the next 2 hours until we arrived. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly a great start – being in the back of a truck on an uncomfortable bench without any air conditioning was not how I had planned my morning. For the last 30 minutes or so, you are travelling on a bumpy dirt road, which did not sit well with my stomach. Thankfully, the car-sick-inducing ride would be totally worth it.
Change Clothes & Introduction
After we walked down to the elephant center, we were given a change of clothes (Mahout clothing, to be exact) and were then briefed on what to expect for the day. The trainer (who was also our driver) was very personable, friendly, and knowledgeable. He explained the different commands that we would be using to tell the elephant to turn, go, stop, and so forth.
Up Close & Personal: Feeding The Elephants And Becoming Familiar With The Commands
After our briefing, we all went over to where some of the elephants were and learned how to feed them bananas. I had assumed you just give the banana to their trunk, but we actually said “appa!” and the elephant opened its big mouth and we placed the bananas on his tongue. Super cute, however, afterwards the elephant gave you a big “kiss” with its trunk, which left your cheek muddy and slimy. Yuck!
Once everyone had fed the elephants at least once, each person had the opportunity to ride a smaller elephant and practise saying the commands. Here is my attempt at phonetically spelling out the commands: sai = right, quai = left, pbai = forward, toi = back, and how = stop.
By this point in the day, I was absolutely famished (no surprise there, of course), so I couldn’t wait to sit down and get some tasty Thai food into my belly. We started with homemade vegetarian spring rolls that were nice and crunchy. After we were done, dishes of delicious pad Thai came out. Just when we thought lunch would be over, our guide came over and brought all the ingredients to make a papaya salad and taught us how to make it. He then let individuals who wanted to try their hand at making their own papaya salad give it a go. I thought this mini-cooking lesson was a really fun and unique added touch to the day.
After lunch we were able to hop onto our elephants and go for an hour or so long guided trek through the nearby forest. We ended up on one enormous elephant, with myself in the front and my partner in crime right behind me. Despite calling out the commands, it felt as though the elephants either a) didn’t understand what we were saying because of our western accent or b) didn’t really care. Either way, it was an enjoyable and fun experience riding bareback, though I’m not too sure my friend in the back would agree. If you’re sitting at the back, it’s a bit more difficult to support yourself when going downhill.. Let’s just say she had trouble walking afterwards!
Scrub-A-Dub-Dub Five Elephants In A Pond
As a reward for the elephants hard work and having to put up with us for the day, we took them into the nearby pond and bathed them. It was so cute seeing some of the younger elephants playing around in the water (though what wasn’t so cute was seeing one of them poop!) and absolutely loving their lives. After we had scrubbed them all clean, the staff began directing the elephants to spray water at us through their trunks. Needless to say, we all got absolutely soaked!
Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls
To finish off our day, we had about 45 minutes to swim in the waterfall right where we ate lunch. I went in for a bit, but the water was absolutely freezing since it’s completely covered in shade. When we all came out of the water, tea and coffee were waiting for us. A great end to a great day!
Spending the day with these elephants and trainers at this training center was a great experience and it made up for my horrible elephant ride a few years earlier near Bangkok. I highly recommend visiting this elephant training center in Chiang Mai or another similar one if you’re in the area!