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This month we accomplished probably the biggest Thailand bucket list item for anyone – hanging out with elephants on a Chiang Mai Elephant Tour – and much more. This tour came with an ethical day of feeding and washing elephants, trekking through the jungle to a waterfall, and rafting down a river in the jungle. It was the perfect addition to our Thailand Itinerary!
Although it rained basically all day, it was absolutely magical. We had this adventure just outside of Chiang Mai, which is a pretty nice train ride in Thailand up from Bangkok.
Chiang Mai Elephant Tour: Starting the Journey
We started off the day with an amazing little Thai woman named PJ picking us up at our hostel. There were a total of 6 of us – four of us who had already met in Bangkok and two more British guys that we bonded with on the way. We all piled into the covered back of this truck (basically how everyone gets around in Chiang Mai – sitting in the back of glorified pickup trucks with seats, and motorbikes). We set off on a 1.5 hour journey up into the jungle to start our Chiang Mai Elephant Tour and meet our new elephant friends.
The journey was gorgeous – it was beginning to cloud over, and there were layers of mist just licking the tops of the lush green mountains. The truck twisted and turned thought the bumpy jungle roads as we talked together and watched amazing scenery disappear through the open back window.
After a brief stop to get some little thai Red Bull’s and crispy banana chips, PJ offered for us three girls to take a ride on the little roof rack of the truck. Obviously jumping at the chance (sorry mom), we climbed up onto the top and held on for dear life as she wizzed through a bit more of the jungle. We took numerous selfies and narrowly missed a few branches to the face, but what even is health and safety when you’re in Thailand, right?
Chiang Mai Elephant Tour: Confirming Ethics
One of our friends checked up on the treatment of elephants and standards of this company before we booked. There are TONS of companies in Thailand that mistreat and exploit animals for tourism. You aren’t supposed to ride on the backs of elephants on those little seats because it digs into their backs, or see them lead around with chains. Basically anything that is unnatural for the animals is not too good… and riding them is definitely not natural!
Our tour guide today enlightened us that you can sit on the backs of elephants – just not for seven hours a day on tour after tour, or on little seat structures that are unnatural and uncomfortable for them. We watched the trainer hop up on the elephants backs to wash them today and they were still as happy as can be.
Whatever Chiang Mai Elephant Tour you decide to take, just ensure that they are treated well and NOT ridden!
Chiang Mai Elephant Tour: Meeting the Gentle Giants
We pulled up to a little open house-type thing all lined with wood right on the edge of a river. The scenery was amazing! We saw the elephants near the river gnawing on some tall green grass.
The first thing we did with the elephants was feed them little bananas. There were about 12 big bags full of little bananas in the truck, and we learned that this is actually only 2% of what these huge animals eat the whole day! As we walked up we could see the elephants buzzing with excitement about their meal. They were moving back and forth, flapping their ears, and wagging their tails, which as we learned, are all signs of a happy elephant. Two of the elephants were 48 year old sisters, and one was one of their daughters at 28. They were so loving and gentle!
As the video shows, we would take the bananas in groups of 3 or 4, peels and all, and either hold them out low and place them in the curve of their trunk for them to plop into their mouth, or we would hold the bananas high. The elephants have been trained to know how to accept food, and when we would hold the bananas up in the air they would tilt their heads back to open their huge mouths for us to place the bananas on their tongues!
Next we fed them some more bales of green bamboo-looking grass. They loved it! We placed it at their feet and they would grab it and loudly crunch on it, or sometimes wave them around in the air like a performing baton twirler, apparently to scratch itches on their body. They would also suck dirt up into their trunk and blow it all over their back, to prevent mosquitoes and the like from disturbing them.
We definitely got pretty dirty, and I was using one hand to feed the giants and the other to try and get some good footage! Wearing a white shirt was definitely a bad choice, but ruining this one means I can shop more, right?!
Chiang Mai Elephant Tour: Preparing More Food + Washing
While the trainers prepared the elephants for their baths, we got to make them a little mid-morning snack that was meant to help their digestive system. We wrapped sour tamarind shreds and large grains of salt inside sticky balls of rice, and the sour/salty combination is supposed to help cleanse their stomachs from all this dirt that ends up inside them. We even tried some ourselves – it was pretty dang strong, but they ate this snack right up as you can see in the video!
We changed into our swimsuits and prepared to wash the elephants. They need to be washed regularly because all the dirt that they put on to protect themselves gets stuck in their little creases, and because of any bugs or tics that may have gotten onto their skin. We learned that washing them with sponges, like some companies do, is actually not good for the elephants. Instead, PJ gave us little cuts of creeper vine wood and taught us how to mash them up with a little wooden bat-type thing until they are soft and spongy. This vine actually soaps up a bit when put in water, and is a natural way to clean the elephants. They can even eat the makeshift ‘sponge’ afterwards too!
The elephants filed down into the river and enjoyed their luxurious bath given by all 6 of us and the trainers. We scrubbed their tough grey skin, threw water on their backs, and watched them wriggle around in the water and take a few sniffs around. We used the running river water to wet them down, and had a lot of fun with them in the water. They really are majestic creatures and it was so magical to be able to interact with them so closely – I felt like I was actually getting to know them!
After their bath, the trainers took the three elephant girls back into the jungle where they are thankfully not kept in a cage! It was sad to say goodbye, but this tour we booked came with an entire day full of adventures. After a beautiful meal provided for us of fried rice served in a banana leaf and fresh cut pineapple, we got back into the truck to head out on our jungle trek to a waterfall.
Chiang Mai Elephant Tour Part 2: A Jungle Waterfall Trek
It was pouring rain but that wasn’t going to stop us! PJ lead us through some corn fields to a narrow path through the jungle, crossing over wooden boards over babbling streams and even some tree trunks over small valleys. We were soaking wet and pretty cold, but you best believe we were still going to swim in the waterfall! We followed the locals’ advice to get a ‘water massage’ by standing under it, almost falling over from the pressure! We got ‘barreled’ in one part of the waterfall, had a little swim, and were on our way again.
After getting our dirty and wet selves back to the car, it was time for our river rafting adventure. We were given life jackets, a helmet, and some comical instructions from PJ including how to row, stop, listen to our guide, and ‘fight off the alligators.’ It was time for the final part of our Chiang Mai elephant tour: river rafting!
Chiang Mai Elephant Tour Part 3: River Rafting
Uncoordinated was an understatement for our boat, as you can clearly and hilarious tell from the video and my ridiculous facial expressions. Our guide whose name was ‘Bang’ (coolest name ever) could not have been more than about thirteen, and was not very talkative. He actually seemed quite unhappy, as you can see when I tried to get him to smile at the camera… I guess that’s what happens when you have to row idiots down the river all day 😉
We tried to get a system going to paddle together but couldn’t seem to get it right…. we got stuck like every 5 minutes on rocks and had to bounce up and down or all move to one side of the boat to try and de-wedge ourselves. We got stuck for a good ten minutes at one point and watched all the other rafts go by laughing at us…. but it was hilariously fun all the same. This moment where we ended up getting stuck for a good ten minutes is the very end point of the video… we were so stuck I had to turn my camera off, bounce up and down, and move to the front and sides of the raft like ten times before we finally got going again. Phew!
Bang pulled our raft up and it was time for the final adventure – standing up on bamboo rafts as we floated down the river. This was quite uncoordinated as well because our guide had all six of us get on one raft and we were too heavy… so it basically just sank and dragged along the ground. We couldn’t stop laughing at our continued incompetence, but it didn’t matter at all. Because, well, we we’re floating down the river in a jungle in Thailand on a bamboo raft. It can’t get much better than that!
Sopping wet, covered in sand and dirt, and pretty damn mangy, you can imagine our excitement to put on dry clothes and shower off when we got to the cafe at the end. I felt like a new person! We all got a beer and reflected on our insane day adventures on our Chiang Mai elephant tour. It was only my third day in Thailand, and I was feelin’ fulfilled. Extremely sore, but fulfilled just the same. This type of tour is a must-do for anyone passing through Chiang Mai…. except for those don’t like getting a little down and dirty.
More Option for Chiang Mai Tours and Day Trips:
- Take a day trip to the white Temple in Chiang Rai – one of the coolest temples in Southeast Asia for sure.
- Visit the hill tribes in the nearby mountains – a great cultural experience for sure!