A hidden gem elephant experience in Chiang Mai
One of the things that I really wanted to do when visiting Thailand was to visit an elephant sanctuary. I’d heard so many scare stories though about how the elephants are often mistreated to train them to perform for the public.
I knew I didn’t want that!
I did a lot of searching online before I finally decided on one – Karen Tribe Native Elephants.
This really is a hidden gem. The only way to book is by contacting them directly online. You won’t find them in tour agencies or advertising in town. They also only accept a maximum of 8 visitors per day. This ensures that both you and the elephants get the maximum amount of attention.
What makes this really special is that it is run by the Karen Tribe themselves. The Karen Tribe have been known as the main caretakers of elephants in Chiang Mai for generations. To the Karen Tribe, elephants are a member of the family so they would never mistreat them.
We started our day with a fantastic drive through the countryside, up into the mountains to the elephants up in the rainforest.
For Alexis and I, we were in for an extra special day, there was only the 2 of us. After meeting Sun and the 6 guides that would help us throughout the day, we went on to meet the elephants.
We started by saying hello to the elephants and feeding them a little so that they would get to know us. We were told at the start of the day that they hoped we had fun but the day was really about the elephants and not us (my kind of place). The most important thing was for the elephants to be happy and healthy.
We were told the different ways to tell if an elephant was happy and healthy. Some were through visual inspection… I won’t spoil it for you just in case you decide to visit but I remember what they were. Others were a bit more hands on.
Collecting the elephant poo had many purposes. The first was that you could tell how healthy an elephant was by inspecting it. The tribe themselves can tell the age, gender and general health of the elephant just by looking at their poo. It’s also used as fertiliser for the fields and dried poo (from the males) can be used as fuel for burning. Surprisingly, elephant poo doesn’t smell bad.
After brushing the elephants down, we made some healthy treats for them by grinding up various fruits, herbs, seeds and rice. This was done the traditional way which meant it took about 15 minutes to make and less than 15 seconds for the elephants to hoover up.
Afterwards we hosed the elephants down and gave them a big long drink. They can hold a lot of water. I seemed to be standing there with the hose for a very long time. I didn’t mind at all though, I was exceptionally happy just watching them.
The next part I was initially unsure of. Riding the elephants. I’d heard a lot of scare stories about how riding elephants was bad. About the brutal training they are put through to make them do it. After talking with Sun, my mind was completely at rest. As I said at the start of the post, these elephants were family and are never mistreated. They are trained using food and treats, much in the same way you would train a horse. The tribe only ride the elephants bareback so there are no uncomfortable harnasses on there either.
We were shown how to mount the elephant safely (for both us and the elephant) and then it was off for a trek over the mountain. This was lovely… the elephants loved it too as they got to stop off and snack on verious plants and trees along the way.
Down the other side, it was lunch time. We had an excellent lunch of fried chicken, fried banana for Alexis (vegetarian option), rice and various exotic fruits. The elephants were allowed to wander off and do their own thing.
Once all was done, it was time to bathe the elephants. First we had to pound wood from a special tree to create a pulp. This contained a natural soap and the pulp formed a perfect sponge for scrubbing down the elephants. We were shown how to do this properly and then it was down to work.
After rinsing off the elephants, it was time to go clean ourselves up and change. Our time was almost over already. After saying goodbye to the elephants and their handlers, it was off to the village for a cup of coffee while Sun made up a DVD containing all of the photos that had been taken throughout the day with his fantastic camera. This was included in the price and completely unexpected.
Other than the elephants, this is definitely one thing that I loved about this place, there were no hidden extras, no asks for donations and I left feeling fantastic and felt like I had taken away a whole load more than I had paid for.
As well as the full day trip, the Karen Tribe also offer an overnight experience where you stay in the village and take part in traditional activities. If it wasn’t our second to last day in Chiang Mai, we would definitely have done it. Next time I am in Chiang Mai, I will definitely be visiting them again and spending a couple of days there.
This trip was by far my favourite experience in all our travels throughout Thailand. If you are ever in Chiang Mai and looking for an elephant experience, I really can’t recommend the Karen Tribe Native Elephants enough.