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Meeting the elephants of Chiang Mai

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical eco-tourism project located approximately 60km from Chiang Mai. They offer Asian elephant encounters that don’t include rides, which can cause permanent damage to the elephants’ backs, and they don’t use hooks.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Camp 7
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Camp 7

We were picked up from our hotel in Chiang Mai city. The 1.5 hour drive hits windy roads as it enters the mountains, then at the sanctuary goes extreme off-road. Motion sickness pills are advised.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Camp 7
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Camp 7

It was pouring when we arrived. Disposable ponchos were provided. The muddy tracks were slippery, but a spacious sheltered observation deck awaited us.  The views above and below are from that deck.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Camp 7
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Camp 7

At Elephant Jungle Sanctuary locals of Chiang Mai work together with members of the Karen hill-tribes, best known for women wearing the neck rings that push their collar bones down and make their necks appear longer. The women of these Karen tribes however don’t wear the neck rings. A large number of Karen people migrated from Myanmar to Thailand, settling mostly on the Thailand–Myanmar border.

A Karen woman
A Karen woman – from Wikimedia Commons

Thai for elephant is “chang”.

To meet the chang we donned shirts with big pockets, made by the local Karen people, and stuffed the pockets full of bananas. The shirts were very similar to the Guatemalan clothing we bought at Grateful Dead shows 30 years ago. Then we put on the rain ponchos again.

The first elephant I met was an adult female. She was very calm and gentle, but it was still disconcerting to have her trunk busy reaching under the poncho and into my pocket for bananas.

Camp 7 chang
Camp 7 chang

Their trunks are easily agile enough to hold several bananas without crushing them, and still take more.

We peeled the bananas for the baby chang, who weren’t really into waiting for us to finish.

Camp 7 baby
Camp 7 baby

I couldn’t resist the urge to pat the little ones on their heads, even if they are covered with very coarse hairs. They seemed to like me taking their trunk in my hand as if to shake.

Our hosts brought more bananas, and when those were gone we fed the chang sugar cane. It was impressive to hear the adults crunch that thick cane with their teeth.

Chang
Chang

An elephant may spend 12-18 hours a day eating. An adult elephant can eat between 200-600 pounds of food in a day.

We crossed the stream to meet the chang at the neighboring camp. We fed them more sugar cane.

Elephants of the neighboring camp
Elephants of the neighboring camp

The youngsters at this camp were much larger. At every break in the feeding they like to get into the mud.

Adolescent elephant
Adolescent elephant

Our hosts served us a delicious lunch of pad thai and chicken wings and fresh fruit.

When we weren’t with the elephants the mahouts took them elsewhere. Adult males don’t hang out with the family groups, and we didn’t meet any. We occasionally heard distant trumpeting.

Elephants walking the trails
Elephants walking the trails

We made medicine balls for the elephants, mostly bananas and rice, with and without the husks. We didn’t put any medicine in the balls.

Medicine balls
Medicine balls

The chang gathered again at camp 7 when the medicine balls were ready to serve. The rain had stopped, but it would resume.

Camp 7 elephants
Camp 7 elephants

When the medicine balls were gone we fed them corn stalks with tiny ears of corn. The babies liked it when we peeled and fed them small ears of corn.

Camp 7 chang
Camp 7 chang

We changed into swimwear and helped the chang with their mud baths. Then we fed them more corn stalks before showering off the mud and getting ready for the ride home.

Below is a 6 minute video of our day with the elephants.

Please enjoy the full gallery of 12 pictures below.