Hidden away in the depths of the forests near Chiang Mai there are lots of Nellys. Elephants of all sizes, all ages and sadly, all states of happiness. Visiting these incredible animals was one of the main reasons Caitlin and I wanted to visit Chiang Mai and so it’s safe to say that when we woke up at the Shangri-La Chiang Mai on the second morning of our stay there, we couldn’t wait to head out to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
With eight different locations and over 30 elephants living in the hills around Chiang Mai, you’re guaranteed to have an up close experience with the elephants. On our trip there were about 25 people, which although it sounds quite a lot, still made for enough time with as many elephants as you could feed! It’s a fair drive to get there (it takes about 1 hour 45 minutes) so take a book, catch up on some sleep or get to know the other people on your trip – but every moment in the bus is worth it.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, as you might guess from the name, is an ethical elephant interaction that’s focused on sustainable eco-tourism and providing elephants with happy, healthy lives.
Which means that there is absolutely no riding elephants here. Instead, you’re encouraged to feed them (and boy do they eat a lot!), walk through the jungle with them and bathe them. From the second you arrive at the sanctuary it’s all about getting up close with the elephants and really getting to know them. Best way to do that? A lot of bananas and sugar cane!
The project is a joint initiative between locals from Chiang Mai and the Karen people, all of whom wanted to make sure that elephants are cared for, loved and not treated badly as sadly, many are. That day we happened to visit location 4, the hill top paradise sanctuary, which is home to nine elephants (one male and eight females!), and soon to be some more as one elephant is pregnant!
I was amazed that even though the elephants hadn’t been treated well in their former lives, that with love, attention and a lot of care from those at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, that they were such friendly animals. Or maybe that was just the pocket full of bananas I had..!
After arriving, you’re given a brief introduction to the sanctuary, told about all the different elephants and where they came from and told just how important small initiatives like the sanctuary are. Riding elephants is still subsidised by the Thai government, so all the money the sanctuary needs to run itself comes from tourists who visit.
You’re then given a top to wear, which is a piece of traditional Karen clothing and then shown to where the bananas and sugar cane are! After taking handfuls of each, you head down and meet all the elephants, introducing yourself one by one to all of them. Though you’ll have to go a little further to see the male as he tends to keep himself to himself!
No need to worry about photos either if you just want to enjoy the experience or are nervous about dropping your camera as there’s a dedicated photographer to take all the photos you could ask for – and they’re all uploaded to a Facebook album meaning you can access them that evening or the next morning.
Once the nelly’s have finished all their bananas and sugar cane – which happens a lot more quickly than you might think as these beautiful animals eat for 20 hours a day non-stop – you go on a walk through the jungle to the river, bringing your new found friends with you. Watch as they drink from the river, find a place to cool down, and generally wander in and around you all.
I mean, now that they’ve had their lunch… It’s probably time for yours! Included in the price of a full day tour is a traditional Thai lunch. Enjoy delicious Thai curry and fresh fruit to sate your sweet tooth and enjoy a little respite from the hot sun – as you guessed it, the elephants enjoy their second (or third, I may have lost count) lunch of the day!
As the elephants live in a completely free area, you can watch them wander around, and just do what they want as you sit above, watch and see them as happy as they should be.
I swear this one had a smile on her face the entire day!
Don’t worry though, with the prospect of bananas around the elephants will happily come up to say hello and see if you’d like to share any of your lunch!
Just remember to pack your sunscreen and insect repellent, as well as a towel if you want to bathe the elephants.
After a relaxing lunch, back to see your nelly-friends to bathe them. Firstly, they like a good mud bath… Who doesn’t? Soft skin isn’t just for humans you know…
And then rinse them off in the clear water river just beside it to make sure they’re all lovely and clean!
If you don’t have enough time in Chiang Mai for a whole day with these amazing animals you can do half days, too, where you can do everything you do on the full day but just with a little less time for each activity, and a little less time relaxing in between.
“Look over there, he has sugar cane!”
Watch them wander off, up hills (!) and back down and listen out for the mother calling her baby back when he strays too far!
You won’t regret spending a whole day here – they really are the most wonderful animals, and the guides are so friendly, fun and welcoming, too.
119/10 Thapae Rd Chang Klan, Muang,
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Ph: +66956984422, +66835624263