When visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand, you will be tempted to visit an elephant sanctuary. There are advertisements and fliers posted all over for them, and, elephants are awesome, so why not book a tour and meet some? In recent years, it seems as though more and more “elephant sanctuaries” are popping up looking to make some money off the tourists who want to interact with elephants for the day. Not all elephant sanctuaries are created equally. But it is important to do some research before selecting the right sanctuary. In this post I will explain how to choose a reputable elephant sanctuary, the costs, tour options, where they get their elephants from and our experience with the elephant sanctuary we choose in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
How to Choose an Elephant Sanctuary
Choosing the right elephant sanctuary is really important for your experience, as well as the elephants. When looking at the different advertisements, make sure they do not allow riding on the elephants and that they do not use hooks. These practices can be torturous and exploit the elephants. You want to visit a elephant sanctuary that is a rescue and rehabilitation center. This means that they have rescued the elephants from different industries and are now helping them live a better life.
One good place to start is by reading reviews on TripAdvisor or on Google. There you can find how other travelers have found the elephants to be treated. Be sure that the elephants are not forced to participate in any activity if they do not want to.
Here are some sanctuaries near Chiang Mai, Thailand that we considered visiting:
Elephant Nature Park is the largest and most popular elephant sanctuary that we considered. They have many different tour options which is convenient. Elephant Nature Park also offers week long paid volunteer options that you can do with either elephants or dogs. Maerim Elephant Sanctuary, the tour we ended up choosing, has 7 elephants, which includes two hilarious toddlers. Elephant Pride Sanctuary is the smallest and least known that we considered. It has great reviews but was a little more expensive than the other options. I would eventually like to visit all these places one day to meet all the elephants!
How Sanctuaries Get Their Elephants
Elephant sanctuaries use the earnings from the tourist fees to purchase elephants from zoos, logging industry, and circuses. When we arrived at Maerim Elephant Sanctuary, they showed us a video about what life was like for the elephants before coming to the sanctuary and it was absolutely heartbreaking. They gave us the history of all the elephants they have at their sanctuary and explained that it takes a very long time for the elephants to trust humans, and other elephants, again. One of the elephants often will break visitors selfie sticks because it gives her PTSD of the hooks they would use in the logging industry to torture her.
Cost to Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
Many elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai offer half day and full day tour options. I would highly suggest going with the full day tour if you have enough time in your schedule. You will definitely not regret it.
I did a lot of research prior to us selecting Maerim Elephant Sanctuary. Most of the elephant sanctuaries are within the same price range since it costs so much to care for elephants. Depending on which you choose, the price should be around 2,000 Thai Baht or about $65 USD for a full day and 1,600 Thai Baht or $52 USD for a half day.
Most elephant sanctuary tours in Chiang Mai for a full day include transportation, food, water, insurance, and an experienced local tour guide. It is a good idea to bring a towel, swimsuit, insect repellent, sunscreen and flip flops.
Our Experience at Maerim Elephant Sanctuary
If you have chosen the full day tour, they will pick you up from your hotel or hostel around 9:00 am and bring you out to their elephant sanctuary. This is about a 45 minute ride in a truck. Once at their sanctuary, you will be given traditional clothing to wear. They aren’t the cutest outfits, but they are great for not getting mud on your normal clothes. Then you receive an introduction from one of the elephant guides, who plays the heartbreaking video previously mentioned and then goes into detail of each of the elephant’s history. They disclaim you might think they are being a little rough on the animals, but sometimes elephants are stubborn and so big that they can’t really feel touch since their skin is so thick.
Now that you’re ready to meet the elephants, you fill a little satchel with as many bananas as you can fit in it! Then you go meet the elephants!!! At our time of visit, they had 7 elephants which included two babies. They did talk about trying to purchase one of the baby’s moms from a zoo so, maybe by the time you visit, you’ll meet 8 elephants!
Did you know elephants are picky eaters? When handing out bananas the elephants will drop some to the ground. This is probably because that particular banana is not sweet enough. The elephants will smash the peel off and just eat the inside.
After feeding the elephants their bananas and hanging out with them for a while, they took us in the truck to go to one of their banana plantations. There we got some banana stalks which we cut down with a machete and brought back for the elephants to eat.
Once we got back to the sanctuary it was time for lunch! They offer a delicious Thai noodle dish which you get to make yourself for lunch. You put noodles, cabbage, and tofu/chicken into a basket and cook it in some boiling water. Then you take your cooked noodles and put it in a bowl with veggie or chicken broth. Then you can add toppings like peanuts, sugar, fresh cilantro, garlic and many spicy options.
Once everyone has finished eating, it is time to take the elephants for a walk. Elephants are fast walkers! It takes a bit of speed to keep up with them! Next you all head to a field to hang out with the elephants. Here you will give them the bananas stem pieces you cut down earlier. Elephants are so fun to watch eat. During this time the elephant guides tell you interesting facts about the Asian elephants, such as, how can you tell the difference between an African elephant and an Asian elephant? The ears of Asian elephants are much smaller than African elephants!
Once you are done with the elephants in the field, you walk back with them and it’s time to go into a big mud pit with them! This part I was a bit nervous about, but it was fun to cover the elephants in mud!
Next you go to the “elephant pool” and wipe all the mud off the elephants. This part I found hilarious. The baby elephant was literally pretending to be a submarine and blowing bubbles with his trunk! Gosh, it was so funny!
After, it is time to rise off and get in the human pool. Here you can relax, play volleyball and chat with other people on your tour. You can also take this time to look at the photographs the photographer took all day! We ended up buying our package which had about 400 photos in it and cost about $26. This wasn’t cheap but the photos were such a great reminder from our day I knew I wanted to have the memories forever. Sadly, then it is time to say goodbye to the elephants and head back into Chiang Mai.
I cherish our experience with the elephants at Maerim Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We had such a fun, and memorable day even though it was a bit rainy. One of the best parts of this sanctuary is their elephants are not forced to participate. If they did not want to eat bananas or go into the mud pit with us they do not have to. This is great since the elephants who choose to genuinely want to be interacting with you.
I truly do not have any negatives from our experience that day. Maybe that it is not exactly budget friendly for the tour, or the optional photos, but after visiting I understand that it is necessary for them to charge that much for their care. You will definitely not regret the expense to visit these amazing animals.
The staff at Maerim Elephant Sanctuary are knowledgeable, friendly, and really love the elephants more than anyone. They consistently asked us if we had any questions, if we were having an okay time, and if there was anything we needed. I truly did not want to say goodbye to the elephants at the end of the day. I would definitely go back to see how their elephants are doing the next time we are in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Bonus: Where to Stay in Chiang Mai on a Budget
Are you looking for a place to stay in Chiang Mai on a budget? I highly recommend The Grace House. The owners are very kind and welcoming. The location is great- close to many food options and night markets. Their cafe also has great breakfast which can be included in your room rate.
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