Northern Thailand Must Do: Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary and Trekking

Being able to spend time with elephants was one of, if not the main reason for my trip to Thailand. Along with participating in the Chiang Mai lantern festival, visiting an elephant sanctuary was what sparked my interest in the country from the very beginning.

I wanted to see elephants up close, in their natural habitat. But most importantly I wanted to have a real experience that was beneficial to both me and the elephants. I wanted to learn about them and their environment and what life is like in Thailand hillside villages.

I also wanted to challenge myself by being outdoors, trekking through jungles and eating the weirdest things I could muster enough courage to put in my mouth.

With the limitless options available around Chiang Mai, choosing a sanctuary can be challenging. My choice was easy however, as I took a recommendation from a friend. Because of that, I did minimal research on the other elephant tour companies. And because I wanted to spend as much time as I could, I booked a 3 day tour at the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary.

I couldn’t be happier with the choice.

(Note: I booked this well in advance of my trip to ensure it wasn’t sold out.  They also have several tours available for different lengths of time. If you aren’t sure you can handle the trekking or sleeping overnight in the jungle, there is a half day tour offered. It gets you up close with the elephants and back to town before dark.)

When the day arrived for my trekking adventure to begin, I was picked up from my hostel promptly by our tour guide. Then I began the three day journey I would spend in the Karen hilltribe with my best friend.

Driving up the mountain from Chiang Mai in a bumpy songthaew, I caught glimpses of elephants and the scattered farms in the area and a wave of emotion came over me. It was the same exact feeling I had when I saw the Trevi Fountain for the first time in Rome. The feeling that I am living a big dream – a dream that I wished hard enough for and made happen somehow even though I never seem to quite understand how I do it.

It’s the same feeling I get sometimes walking the streets of Manhattan and I can’t help the water threatening to leak from my eyes knowing I somehow made it home.

I arrived at the elephant camp after 45 minutes up winding mountain roads, the truck bouncing through potholes big enough to lift my entire body off the seat. Once there, our group changed into local tribe clothing. After just a few short minutes, we were walking down the hill, and I was face to face with my massive and magical new elephant friends.

We initially were told a lot of information about the elephants. What and how much they eat, how to tell the difference between an Asian and an African elephant (it’s all in the size and shape of the ears and head), reproductive habits and why they need to be kept together in small groups. We learned how to feed them and spent the next hour or so feeding and interacting with them.

Being near them as quickly as we were gave me no time to process the fact that these massive animals were gentle. Being so close to them for the first time in my life was actually a little intimidating at first.

I eventually warmed up to them and let their trunks roll out to grab bananas from me. I was a little too scared to yell “BON!” to coach the elephant into lifting it’s head and opening it’s mouth to feed it myself. But when I finally did, I could feel the wet, worn out sand paper that was its tongue grab the banana. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be.

After a quick lunch, we spent the rest of the day giving the elephants a mud bath to help coat their skin. We made medicine for them to eat and then swam with the elephants near a waterfall to wash off the excess mud.

We trekked a little further into the jungle to a waterfall that we were able to relax at for a little bit. The waterfall was big and beautiful and had picnic tables set up everywhere, and a person selling beer and water.

I sipped on my 60 Baht Chang beer, swam in the waterfall and took in the chaotically serene sounds and smells of the jungle that surrounded me.

After some time spent at the waterfall, we were trekking back to the elephant camp. Saying goodbye to the large half day tour group that would head back to the city, we trekked on. Our small intimate group of six continued to the Karen Homestay, where we would be sleeping.

So Homestay sounds like a nice, inviting name doesn’t it? It almost sounds like it’s comparable to an adorable Bed & Breakfast somewhere in the Vermont countryside. Although that wasn’t what I was expecting, I had something a little different in mind than what we arrived at.

We trekked down to what was referred to as a bungalow, sitting high in the jungle. Although I think even bungalow sounds a bit too nice for what it was.

A bungalow in the Karen hilltribes is nothing more than a tree house.

Most of the surface area is open to the outside air. The only thing that was completely enclosed were the rooms, which had no lights and no beds. They consisted of just a thin cot mattress on the floor surrounded by mosquito nets. The common area where we ended up hanging out, drinking, eating all our meals, (and encountering a friendly neighborhood snake) had a spectacular view of the jungle treetops.

The entire place would operate on about three lights once the sun set. It made 7pm feel like midnight.

The first night I spent there, after the single most beautiful sunset I have ever seen in my life completed and the sea of dark around us brought out a hushed nighttime jungle soundtrack, I could barely relax.

But with the help of the Polish couple that my friend and I met on the truck ride up (with a full bottle of vodka), and some Chang beer, I got just drunk enough to fall asleep.

Waking up after a full nights sleep made me feel much more optimistic about the following day. There was fresh fruit, eggs and bottomless coffee to enjoy.  Along with a cold shower with water piped through straight from the river.

This was the morning I learned that it would just be me and my friend embarking on our second day with our tour guide Foon. Saying goodbye to our new Polish friends, we headed out to see what was in store. This day was to be spent mostly trekking, and with little idea of what to expect, we set out on our private tour of the Karen hillsides with Foon..

That day I climbed hills, ducked under canopies of leaves and branches, and ate whatever Foon picked off the trees. The stranger who picked me up just 24 hours earlier, and threatened everything that walked or crawled passed that he’d BBQ it, had become my lifeline. I put more trust in him then I’ve ever put in a single person.

He carved bamboo cups for my friend and I and personalized them with our names. I had a bite of a tiny crab grilled by locals right from the river. I ate raw beef salad, and made sticky rice over an open flame in a bamboo stick.

Foon told us all about life in the Karen hilltribe and how its 250 person population live their daily lives. How a majority of their food is grown locally, and how rice is the backbone of their farming community. And how they make their own clothing, and how the girls marry younger than the boys.

I witnessed children at school, laughing and playing in uniforms and were humbled by farmers at work tirelessly in the rice fields.

We spent our second night at the same Karen Home Stay we had spent the first night. This time with a much larger group than the night before. We ate dinner together, drank beer and went to bed early again.

On our last day we were able to choose if we wanted to do more trekking. This was because it was just the two of us. My friend and I both felt we had sufficiently pushed ourselves out of our comfort zone enough the previous day. So we passed on more trekking and spent time with the elephants. (My main reason for booking the tour in the first place).

The day ended with a bamboo raft ride through the jungle. We were dropped off, bare foot, with all of our belongings left to Foon in the songtheaw.

Climbing onto the unsteady bamboo floating device, we let the man controlling the raft take us down the river. Swatting bugs and letting the water through the cracks of the raft, I took in the Tarzan scene around us.

It was a short rafting trip before we were dropped off at a new location. Foon was waiting to greet us and there we had a hot lunch and beer next to the river. We said goodbye to our tour guide and jumped back in the truck to head down to the city and onto the slowboat to Laos.

GENERAL TIPS FOR A THREE DAY STAY AT CHIANG MAI ELEPHANT SANCTUARY

  • Be ready to be picked up on time from your hostel or hotel
  • It is not three days spent entirely with elephants – it is instead an overall hilltribe experience
  • You stop at a small market on your way up the mountain. There you can grab snacks, coffee, sunscreen or anything else you may have forgotten for your journey. Lines can be quite long so keep that in mind.
  • Bring swimsuit and sandals everywhere you go.
  • There is no Wi-Fi anywhere so be prepared to unplug.
  • For evenings in the bungalow, be the hero who brings entertainment. (A deck of cards, hard liquor, snacks, etc.)
  • Bug spray will be your best friend, bring more than you think you’ll need.
  • Unless you’re really outdoorsy or an avid hiker, be prepared to be pushed out of your comfort zone. Also be prepared for the most challenging and rewarding experience of your life.

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