Earlier this month, I made it to Chiang Mai during an extended trip in Southeast Asia. One incredible thing I did there was hanging out with elephants. It wasn’t something I had thought of doing before arriving in Northern Thailand, but I am so glad I gave it a go.
A two-hour car ride whisked me from the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai and took me into the mountains. I had arrived at the Karen Hill Tribe of Mae La Kee, ready to spend a full day with these majestic creatures. I learned basic techniques to feed, bathe, and care for the elephants. For the day I even got assigned my own elephant to take care of. Her name was Memarie. And there was a five-month-old baby elephant who basically stole everyone’s heart.
What sentient beings they were. I will always remember the jolt I felt when OUT OF NOWHERE one elephant hugged me with his trunk. And the playful baby snatching food from my hand when I was feeding his grandma. (He got away with it). They were big yet gentle. Rugged yet beautiful.
The tour was operated by a team of indigenous elephant caretakers in their village. The elephants, rescued from the city, now call the village their home. From this trip I became aware of the plight of captive elephants in Thailand. Read on if you want to know more background info and the tour I went with.
Why So Many Captive Elephants in Thailand?
Elephants have always been an integral part of the Thai culture and history. Intelligent and strong, elephants were essential for religious, military, and farming purposes. In the mid-1900s, elephants became used in the logging industry which ultimately destroyed their own habitat. Finally, severe flash floods led to a deforestation ban in 1989. It left tens of thousands of elephants and their trainers out of work. This economic gap resulted in a sad situation. Many of these elephants, having nowhere to go, got put in torturous camps for tourism or illegal logging.
In recent years, there has been a shift for elephant conservation. Chiang Mai has emerged at the forefront of it, and you can find elephant sanctuaries around the area. Some of them offer eco-tourism experiences to generate income that, in turn, provide shelter and care for captive elephants.
My Elephant Sanctuary Experience
For my excursion, I wanted a program that demonstrated ethical practices, and preferably in a small setting (not a “petting zoo”). After some research, I decided to go with the Karen Tribe Native Elephants Tour. I liked that they have a daily limit of 8 visitors for a more immersive experience while not distressing the elephants.
Overall the tour lived up to its promises and positive reviews. It was pricier than other options out there, but worth it. The package included transportation, training with my own elephant, lunch, and more. For more info about the activities and booking, visit their website.
The program took place in the village of Mae La Kee, located 75 kilometers southwest of Chiang Mai. The Karens are a group of indigenous minority in Thailand (and Myanmar). So I got to visit a traditional ethnic village too. In talking with the hosts, I learned a bit about their lives, which in ways are a world apart from the dominant Thai population.
Besides caring for the elephants, this program has created jobs employing villagers as trainers, and farmers who grow food for the elephants (they literally go through tons of plants and fruits everyday). On the drive back to the city, I had a lot of time to chat with Sun, the lead and entrepreneurial mind of the program. In near-fluent English, Sun told me he is one of only two people in his tribe to have graduated from college. He wants to change that. One way is by giving out scholarships from income generated through the elephant program.
When asked why he chose to return to his native village instead of working in the city earning far better wages, he replied in these inspiring words:
“If I do that, I only help myself, but not my people.”