My sister originally wanted to spend two weeks in Europe after finishing graduate school. I was the one who convinced her to try Asia instead; she’d already been to Europe. Asia is generally cheaper, and besides, they have elephants. The elephants sold her. For two months all she would talk about was elephants.
I don’t know why we didn’t bother to research or book our elephant experience in advance, but we ended up asking the concierge at Le Meridien to set something up for one of only two full days in Chiang Mai. Our first choice was full, but fortunately the second one, Baanchang Elephant Park, had something available.
Trip Report Index
- Trip Report Introduction: Taking My Sister to Asia for Two Weeks
- Review: Cathay Pacific First Class SFO-HKG (Last of the 747s)
- Review: Grand Hyatt Hong Kong (after Renovations)
- Revisiting the Old, and Finding New Favorite Activities in Hong Kong
- Review: Dragonair Economy Class to Chiang Mai (HKG-CNX)
- Review: Le Meridien Chiang Mai
- Visiting the Baanchang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai
We paid about THB 5,000 per person (about $150) so we could each have our own elephant for the day. Sharing an elephant is 20% less, but it really wasn’t a large expense for a full day at the elephant park, including transportation and lunch. It was our largest non-travel expense during the entire trip. Longer packages including overnight stays are also available.
For what it’s worth, we did try to research which companies had the best records when it came to humane treatment of the animals. Baanchang was among them. Still, it’s not easy to figure out what’s legitimate and what’s not when you’re reading third-party websites about Thai companies. Neither of us noticed anything at the park that caused us great concern. The elephants were swaying a lot when we first arrived, which could be a sign of anxiety. Or maybe they were just excited that it was feeding time. (They calmed down eventually.)
After a little more than an hour in the (comfortable) van, we arrived at the park to see two other vans already there. About 20 people in total shared roughly 15 elephants. A few other elephants were present but were either older, younger, or ill and didn’t participate that day.
We were all handed denim shorts and shirts and told to change clothes. Lockers were provided for our belongings. There were also hammocks and free, chilled bottled water to enjoy between breaks.
The first few hours were spent feeding and petting the animals. I think if we had done only this Katherine would still have left satisfied! Those trunks are just as dextrous as your hand, and before you knew what was happening it would be reaching out in front of you to snatch a banana or some sugar cane from your grasp. Sometimes they’d give themselves a good scratch before eating it. 😛
The real challenges were holding onto the food long enough to actually approach the animal — especially the animals in the back — and getting over the fear that such a large creature might suddenly change its might and turn on you. (Recall how cautious you were the first time you approached a horse. Now imagine if that horse was twice as tall and twice as wide.)
Asian elephants are actually relatively small compared to their African cousins, and a trip later that year to the San Diego Zoo bore that out. But they were still plenty big to us.
After feeding time we learned a few commands in Thai so we could give them directions just like the mahouts. Each person got on an elephant and rode it in a circle before handing it off to the next person. Mounting and dismounting an elephant was done much like a horse, except first I had to get the elephant to kneel so I could scramble up. The first thing we learned was to be careful where we put our hands. Elephants are mammals and have hair like us, but the short, bristly hair on their scalps could be painful if you weren’t careful.
We broke for lunch, which was surprisingly good. There was plenty of rice, fried prawns, spring rolls, and chicken curry. I didn’t leave hungry, and if you had a couple bucks with you there was also beer and ice cream for sale.
After lunch it was time for an elephant tour! We all got our assigned elephants, some people doubling up and my sister and I riding alone. Unfortunately she and I always seemed to be at opposite ends of the line. We rode around the campus a couple of times in a loop that couldn’t be more than a half-mile long. But it was just long enough to take us out of sight of the main buildings, and we did get to go up a few hills and through the edge of the forest.
Bath time was probably our favorite part. Those elephants get dirty, and so were we after a day spent feeding and riding them. It was a very good thing that we were given new outfits when we arrived. Everyone got a brush and a bucket to wash their elephant down by the watering hole. If you were smart, you were wearing a bathing suit underneath.
I led my elephant into the water and jumped in with him, giving him a good scrub and washing off all the caked-on mud. He really took to it and rolled around on either side, sucking up water with his trunk and spraying everywhere. But Katherine did one better! One of the mahouts convinced her to ride her elephant into the pond. That elephant then started walking or swimming to the far side before turning and dumping her in! Unfortunately we didn’t have our cameras with us at this point because of the water.
We all took showers at the end. Like the open air kitchen, they were nothing special, but each shower had a private room, a clean towel, and soap. It was perfectly adequate as long as you weren’t prissy. Katherine and I caught up on the hammocks with some ice cream, made friends with another woman who happened to work at a hotel on Maui, and before long it was time to head back to Le Meridien.