CONNECTING WITH ELEPHANTS IN CHIANG MAI
Northern Thailand is abandoning the outdated practices of elephant tourism for ethical approaches to allow travellers to interact with the country's iconic mammals in a conscious way
Words: Emily Georgieva
Photography: Charly Pn
29 November 2021
Thailand's glamourous Bangkok with its diversity and the paradise-like beauty of the southern islands often take the spotlight when travellers plan a trip to the country, but cities such as Chiang Mai are steadily gaining popularity as an equal rival. Northern Thailand offers an eccentric array of culture, authentic gastronomic experiences and last, but not least, an opportunity to truly connect with the nature in the area. A growing number of expats and digital nomads are becoming aware of everything that Chiang Mai has to offer and so the city is turning into one of the must-visit places in Thailand. One of the reasons we fell in love with this magnificent place is the opportunity the city offers to ethically connect with the country's most conic animal - the elephant.
Over the past couple of decades, the demand to "authentically experience" remote places, has led to some poor practices, one of which is the exploitation of local animals. The elephants in Thailand are known as a working animal and until the late 80's, practices of mistreating the mammals have been allowed. Since then there has been a national ban on logging set in place to ensure safely conditions for the elephants to live and develop. Thailand often comes under scrutiny due to the exploitation of the mammals through harmful practices such as elephant ridings. During those widely and regularly practiced rides, the howdahs (elephant carriages) were proven to cause the elephants great pain and even spinal damage. The interest in conscious travelling has set the wheels in motion to ensure that those outdated tourism activities would hopefully soon cease to exist.
The welfare of the captive elephants is no longer just a concern of the Thai law and the owners of the animals, but it is of interest to the tourists as well. The demand to be informed about how the animals are raised and trained is opening up a conversation about how to be better, act with more awareness and put the safety, as well as the wellbeing of the elephants first.
"The demand to be informed about how the animals are raised and trained is opening up a conversation about how to be better, act with more awareness and put the safety, as well as wellbeing of the elephants first."
There are many campuses across Thailand which are paving the new way by abandoning those unethical practices in favour for a more conscious tourist experience. Visitors are now able to connect with the mammals in a respectful way. Instead of riding the animals, travellers can go on elephant-led walks. Helping with feeding and assisting with giving baths at ponds and rivers are also offered as options. By participating in the eco camps, travellers are able to interact with the elephants in a way that is most similar to their natural habitat. This way you will be contributing to keeping more conscious businesses across Thailand opened.
Since the start of the pandemic and the government imposed travel restrictions, the country has suffered great losses caused by the tourism industry. Close to 5 000 camp staff and mahouts have lost their jobs. Those impacts are especially crucial in the rural areas where the livelihood of the locals depends on elephant tourism. Hundreds of elephants have already been abandoned and sold to zoos due to financial difficulties that make the upkeep of the animals impossible. Over the course of the pandemic, more than 80 camps have had to close down, but with over 3 800 working elephants left, there is still a hope that we can collectively do better.
On your next travels to Northern Thailand, make sure to stop by Chiang Mai and support the local conscious elephant camps. We picked our favourite spots in the area where ethical tourism and the welfare of the animals are a top priority.
Ethical Elephant Campsites to Visit:
This was the first elephant camp to toss the interactive model out the window and adapt to an observation-only approach. Experience a jungle hike and interract with the animals in their natural habitat in this camp supported by World Animal Protection.
2. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)
BLES is a remotely locatet sanctuary-turned-home of retred and rescued elephants, where you can participate in activities such as collecting and transporting the food for the animals directly from the jungle.
3. Elephant Nature Park
Just 60km away from Chiang Mai, travellers can volunteer for just a day or t hey can choose to work on weekly projects. Elephants roam free and share the land with other rescued animals like buffaloes, birds and cats.