Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, The Best Place to Visit in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thailand evokes images of Buddhist Temples, Pad Thai, exotic beaches and wild parties. Depending on your age and interests, many other things may lure you to Thailand. Beyond the good food, cheap shopping and bustling red light district, let me introduce you to one of the best things that I’ve recently discovered about the country.

Here I am interacting with one of the elephants at the Chiang Mai sanctuary

Thailand’s elephants have long been one of the country’s attractions. However, riding on their backs or watching them perform tricks is slowly being replaced by immersion camps at the ELEPHANT JUNGLE SANCTUARY.

What’s the difference, and why is this better? Simply put, elephants used for tourism are often mistreated. They are fitted with heavy, sometimes ill-fitting saddles which are used to carry various numbers of tourists.

They are also made to pull heavy objects to show their strength. While they are strong, Elephants are not built to carry loads on their backs. As explained on the sanctuary’s site, their spines are meant to support their already massive weight, not carry around amused tourists.

Oftentimes, performing elephants are malnourished due to the long hours that they are made to work. They are also unable to roam around freely nor are they able to cool down in rivers as they please.

At the ELEPHANT  JUNGLE SANCTUARY in Chiang Mai, formerly mistreated elephants from Thailand and abroad have been given a home in which they can enjoy their life as they would if they were wild. In fact, they get even better treatment. Here, they are supplied with ample amounts of food and water.They are also protected from poachers, hunters and other potential dangers.

Visitors to the sanctuary are given a chance to feed and interact with the elephants, but never in a way that would bother them or would force the gentle giants to act in an unnatural way.

Here’s a little recap of our full-day tour:

Our guide picked us up from our hotel in central Chiang Mai at around 8:00 am. We travelled about 60 kms. north of the city in a modified Toyota Hilux. We rode on back of the pickup, which has been fitted with a large canopy and benches, very rugged indeed.

The ride up the mountain was a bit treacherous and I must say that I was truly impressed with Toyota’s 4×4 capabilities. In any case, we arrived at the camp with several other pickups carrying other tourists. There are several campsites at the Chiang Mai Sanctuary and we found ourselves at Camp No. 2 with about 20 other people.

The first order of business was to wear a colorful poncho made out of traditional Thai fabrics. We scrambled about to rummage among the ponchos provided and finally found our OOTDs.

Here’s a quick snap of me and my friends, after we’ve gotten into our outfits:

(back) Tom (middle L-R) Rowena, Me, Sanita (front) Belle

As you can see behind us in the picture below, we are in a large hut which has been laid out with straw mats. Everyone is expected to take off their shoes and sit on the floor of the assembly area.

L-R: Rowena, Belle, Ish

Our guide told us all about the sanctuary and explains the do’s and don’ts. Here, no one will be riding any elephants. We are here to offer them some food, pet them, give them a mud spa and bathe them!

While we were getting our briefing, I could not help but notice that the elephants were also getting ready! They all filed into the field below our camp just as we were getting ready to go down to meet them:

Finally, we were all given small portions of sugarcane to keep in our pockets. We are supposed to offer these to the elephants, while shouting “Bon-Bon!” That would prompt them to raise their trunks and open their mouths:

Everyone walks down from the camp to meet the elephants.
This young boy eagerly holds a piece of sugarcane that he will give to his new elephant friends.
The elephants look so much bigger once they start walking quite rapidly towards you

As soon as we’re down on the field, the elephants charge forward. It’s a bit scary at first because they are so big. They can also be a little bit aggressive as they try to grab pieces of sugarcane. However, their movements are quite harmless and are not likely to hurt anyone.

They used their trunks like hands and grabbed the pieces of sugarcane from us. They quickly stuffed everything into their mouths before spitting them out again later so that they could chew them up one at a time. Basically, they just wanted to make sure that they got as many pieces as they could before they actually started eating. Clever.

Just look at the smile on this young elephant in the photo below:

They even smile for the photos:

These gentle giants are also quite intelligent. Look at this elephant reaching into my pocket to grab the last pieces of sugarcane that I’ve been hiding!

This one is also trying to see if Belle has any more sugarcane in her pockets:

Our friend Sanita still has some sugarcane to offer: I can see that her pockets are still heavy:

Time for some more pictures:

As you can see, they are quite happy to interact with humans. They let us touch them and even hug their trunks for photos.

After they were done with their appetizers, it was time to feed them something more substantial. We climbed back up the hill to grab stalks of corn. Each person grabbed a small bunch to carry down to the elephants. It’s not exactly hard work but the corn fronds were a bit scratchy and I got a bit of a rash. However, I couldn’t complain after seeing this little trooper carrying some corn fronds down the hill:

I finally made it down with some goodies for the elephants!

They started devouring the corn fronds while we watched from the sidelines.

It was also the perfect time to squeeze in more photos:

We particularly enjoyed petting the baby elephant in our camp:

Naturally, where there are large elephants, there are also large piles of poop. Here’s Rowena showing off a fresh pile:

After feeding the elephants with sugarcane and corn fronds, the whole group returned to the camp. We enjoyed a quick buffet lunch (rice, noodles, chicken, vegetables and fruits) before chilling out for a few minutes. The heat gets to be a bit draining and we all welcomed the quick break. An ample amount of bottled water is also provided for us.

Before everyone fell into a siesta, we were called to gather around our guide once again. This time, he said that we are going to learn how to make some medicine or natural supplements for the elephants.

He took out a giant mortar and pestle and bashed in some bananas, tamarind and rice.

Some members of the group were called to help one of the other guides as he prepared another component of the elephant medicine. He took out some rice husks and taught us how to turn it into a fine powder by bashing it with a large, wooden mortar and pestle that you can operate with your feet:

Everyone had a go and had a great time. It’s the first time for some people to see this contraption but it’s something that’s also available in the provinces of the Philippines (You have seen it if you were born at least 30 years ago).

After we were done with the rice husks, we brought it back to be mixed with the bashed fruits. The nutritious mix is full of fiber and vitamins that are good for the elephants.

We are all told to get our hands dirty to form the medicine “pills.” Basically, we needed to shape the sticky mixture into baseball-sized pills. The kids particularly enjoyed this part!

When we were ready with the “pills”, we were told to get into our swimming clothes. Before coming here, everyone was told that we need to wear clothes that we are willing to get dirty and wet.

We headed back down the hill and shouted “BON-BON!!!” The elephants heard us and started charging back down as well! It’s amazing how agile they are, despite their size!

Here we are in our swimming gear, and with the medicine balls in our hands as we waited for the elephants to return:

Once they were close enough, we fed them with the medicine balls that we made. Here’s one happy elephant getting fed by one of our companions:

Everyone gets a dose of vitamins before heading off to the next activity:

Here’s another happy camper, I swear you can see them smiling:

After a few minutes, the elephants (and tourists) proceed to the mud spa! The camp has a large mud swamp which has been made for the elephants to enjoy. The shallow pool is filled with cold, refreshing water and soft, fine mud.

Off to the mud spa!

We covered the elephants with mud, and ended up getting completely muddy ourselves. At this point, the elephants got on their sides and were quite playful. Be careful to stay behind them to avoid getting kicked. Likewise, keep small children away from the elephants until they are comfortably on their sides just to make sure no one gets trampled as they fall into the mud. Once they are lying down, it’s fun to approach them and smear mud across their bodies:


The mud literally treats their skin and fights against bugs. It also acts as a sunscreen:

The guides made it their mission to get all of the tourists muddy as well:

Once everyone was well and truly muddy, we all proceeded down to the river for a nice, cool bath:

Here’s our baby elephant happily splashing about:

We were given buckets and brushes, so that we could wash and scrub the elephants:

After we were done cleaning our big new friends, it was time to get ourselves cleaned up as well. We headed upstream to escape the water that we used to clean the elephants. The small falls and pools in the river made really good spots for swimming and washing off the day’s grime.

We spent a few more minutes with the rest of the group and cooled off in the fresh water:

Here’s Belle, Rowena and I, trying to get a selfie while balancing on the slippery rocks:

There are also some showers in the camp so you can scrub yourself off with some soap. Bring a towel so you could dry yourself off before changing into dry clothes.

Overall, it was a fun, eye-opening experience. There was definitely a lot more interaction with the elephants than you could ever imagine to have in a zoo. You learn a lot, have loads of fun, and the elephants seem really happy too. Heck, how can they complain when they have 20 humans with the sole mission of feeding them and giving them a mud spa and a bath?

For more information and if you want to experience this too, visit the ELEPHANT JUNGLE SANCTUARY website.