Up Close & Personal with Thailand Elephants

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Wes and I have always loved being around animals. We’ve raised squirrels, chickens and more dogs than we can count. We’ve even talked about owning a farm! So, when we headed to Thailand last June, the first thing we did was research the elephants.

Elephant tourism is huge in Thailand, but we quickly realized how cruel it can be and decided we couldn’t support something that would harm these beautiful creatures. After a lot of research and second guessing, we came across the Elephant Nature Park. A haven for abused and mistreated animals, the park rescues elephants that have been tortured in the tourism industry and the logging trade and gives them a home to roam. This sounded like something we could support.

 Elephant Park 2The Elephant Nature Park

The Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation center for elephants and many other animals in need, such as dogs, cats and buffaloes. The park takes pride in giving these animals a natural environment where the animals can roam free and start their healing process. When you visit, you can choose from a range of elephant experiences, and most packages are super hands-on, giving you an incredible, up-close experience with the animals. All programs are “saddle off,”  which provides a more life-enriching atmosphere for the elephants. You can choose an experience where you simply observe the animals, or an experience where you are up close and personal. We chose the Karen Elephant Experience.


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The Karen Elephant Experience

The Karen Elephant Experience is an all-day affair that starts with a 2-hour drive outside of Chiang Mai. They picked us up that morning in a comfortable transport van and began giving us the details for the day. After the introductions, we watched a video that was initially informative and funny and went over the typical safety information on how to interact with the elephants. But, the second part of the video was heart-breaking and completely shocking, revealing the dark side of elephant tourism. We’ll keep this post light, but if you would like to learn more about the horrors involved in elephant tourism, Read “The Elephants of Thailand

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Interacting With The Elephants

After the 2-hour ride through beautiful mountains and forests, we finally arrived at the Karen Elephant Experience, which is different from the Elephant Nature Park. It consists of four elephants on a private reserve where we were able to interact with the animals on more of a personal level. There were only 8 people in our group, which gave us more of a one-on-one experience with the elephants.

We were led to a beautiful hand-made hut on stilts looking over a lush forest valley. After a quick reminder of how to act around the animals, it was time to meet the elephants.

Feeding The Elephants

We began by feeding the elephants huge buckets of cucumbers and cantaloupe. To grab chunks of food, they reached out with their trunks, which felt like dried leather as they brushed against us with enough force to easily push us over. They greedily reached for their treats, going through three large buckets in only minutes. Then, the handlers handed us loose shoulder bags of food and we started to hike into the forest.

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Hiking With The Elephants

Walking through the stunning mountains of Chiang Mai with the elephants following close behind is something I will never forget. Being in their natural habitat, seeing them push down trees to eat strips of bark, you become intensely aware of how strong these animals are. Even with the realization that they could bull you over in mere passing, the whole experience was extremely peaceful.

After hiking with the elephants, the crew prepared us a delicious vegetarian meal. It was lunch with a view! We sat at in an open air hut with gorgeous mountains as our backdrop. A light shower had cooled the air and there was a nice breeze. I couldn’t help but think about how nice it would be to live there, away from the noise and responsibilities of everyday life.

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Swimming With The Elephants

Now that our bellies were full, it was time to get dirty. The elephants needed their daily baths! But, the purpose of this bath was not to get clean, and we started out by giving the elephants a mud bath. Everyone crowded around as the elephants waded into the muddy water. After a hesitant start, we all jumped right in with the elephants. Within a couple minutes, we were all covered in mud and so were the elephants. They loved it! They rolled and sloshed in the mud, sending waves through the knee-deep water. We playfully coated the elephants in layers of mud, probably more for ourselves than for the elephants, and mud fights and plenty of laughter added to the experience.

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Now that we were coated in hardened mud, it was time to rinse it off. So, we strolled with the elephants to a nearby river and used buckets and brushes to clean the blanket of mud off the enormous creatures. Meanwhile, they playfully splashed and swayed in the water, enjoying the attention. Once they were clean, it was time to get the mud off us, so we moved to a small rushing waterfall that fed our water hole and provided us fresh, elephant-free water. We sat under the waterfall and cleaned the mud out of places that mud does not belong, and also used shampoo that the staff provided. While it wasn’t the cleanest shower we’ve ever had, it wasn’t the worst either.


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Leaving was hard. Everyone in our group lingered around the elephants as long as we could, taking pictures and getting that last moment with them. We all knew this would be an experience we would never forget. We were so thankful to find an ethical elephant encounter in Thailand. Spending time with these incredible giants was the highlight of our trip.


What You’ll Need

  •  Swimsuit
  •  Change of clothes
  •  Towel
  • Tennis shoes for walking
  •  Flip-flops for the mud and river experience
  • A camera
  • Environmentally friendly sunscreen and bug spray
  • Water and snacks

They provide water and a wonderful vegetarian lunch. Plus, they provide an outfit to go over your swimsuit while you are giving the elephants a mud bath.

Book Your Experience Here

Need a place to stay in Chiang Mai? Check out Ban Sabai Resort and Spa!

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rawThrough their blog Jones’n for the Road, Wes and Kelsey Jones encourage travelers to get outside of their daily box, challenge themselves and push their boundaries. As they share their passion for travel, they pass along tips on everything from budget traveling and choosing gear to exploring the outdoors and finding inspiration through travel and adventure.

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