The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
When researching which sanctuary in Chiang Mai to visit, two main factors that influenced our decision were: ethical values of the sanctuary, and regrettably, budget. We were looking for a great authentic experience that was still value for money.
We decided to opt for the overnight stay in the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (EJS), which cost 4,900BAHT (€136).
The two-day package was an unbelievable experience and I could not recommend it enough. Not only do you get to spend extra time with the elephants, but you stay with a local family, learning about their life and day-to-day interactions with elephants.
We booked our trip in advance, paying a deposit online and securing a date. There is no need to book way in advance, with a minimum of 24-hours booking acceptable. Changing dates are allowed and not charged for, as long as more than 24-hours notice is given.
Be especially careful who you are booking your tour with. There are stories of travellers thinking they are booking with EJS and instead are brought to an unethical sanctuary that is similarly named to confuse people. We booked online to make sure it was 100% legit.
It is recommended to stay in Chiang Mai the night before, as buses, trains, etc can be late arriving. Also, it is an action-packed day, and a good night’s sleep before is recommended.
When we arrived in Chiang Mai we then walked to the EJS offices, met the team, paid the rest of the deposit and gave them our hotel details.
DAY 1 – Morning
We were picked up from our hotel bright and early around 8.30am in a dual-cab 4x4s with bench seats in the back covered by an open canopy. The ride about 1.5 hours and is bumpy and uncomfortable, so just tough it out and you’ll be there in no time!
In EJS there are nine different camps (labelled one to nine) with nine different families of elephants. We were stationed in camp one and were lucky with only ten people in total in our group.
In camp one there were six elephants – the grandmother of the family (0ver 60 years old!), a mother and her young son, and her two sisters.
Once we arrived we were briefed by our guide for the day and told some information about the elephants that we would be meeting. With great English, our guide gave us an insight into the behaviour of the elephants and a little bit of their sad history.
I could barely concentrate on what he was saying as I glanced over my shoulder every few seconds to beam at the elephants wandering around in the valley below!
We were given the traditional Karen top to wear around the elephants. This, we were told, was to help the elephants with the presence of new humans. The Karen tops are a familiar smell to the animals and makes the humans more approachable. I suspect however, this is now just more of a gimmick for tourists, and it is, in fact, the bananas in hand that help the elephants adjust to strangers in their paddock!
Eager to meet the gentle giants, we were given a demonstration on how to appropriately feed and act around the elephants, and off we went to greet the herd, bananas in hand!
We were instructed to feed the elephants with a confident hand and to use the phrase “Bon Bon!”. Upon hearing this command the elephants eagerly lifted their trunks to allow us to pop the bananas straight into their gaping mouths.
They were mischievous characters with sneaky trunks that sniffed out bananas in every nook and cranny. It was hopeless with a pocket full of bananas not to hide them from the herd!
We interacted with the elephants for about an hour, just feeding them and watching them meander around their watering hole.
Day 1 – Afternoon
I couldn’t see how the herd could possibly eat anymore after the tonnes of food we just gave them, but we set about making some more for them that afternoon. An elephant can eat up to 300kg a day!!
Sitting in a circle, the group took part in preparing “digestion balls” for the elephants, to help with their tummies. Together we softened up barley, rice, banana and veg and mashed it all together into round balls to feed to herd as their daily treat.
Once they had their fill of digestion balls, it was time for an elephant mud bath. We all got changed into our swim gear and took to the mud hole to splatter the elephants with mud. If I’m being honest, this seemed a bit unnecessary. Unlike feeding the elephants, where they were happy to take the food, this seemed a bit staged and forceful on the animals (read more on this here).
We then took to the river next to the field to wash the mud off the elephants and have a bit of a splash around. The mahouts that looked after the elephants seemed to take good care of their individual animal, lifting gums and cleaning in between teeth, scrubbing behind ears and even inspecting toes and eyelashes to make sure no mud or tick was left to irritate the elephant in any way.
With the elephants all washed and fed, it was now time for us to dig in to our own grub! A delicious lunch was provided by the sanctuary, with vegetarian options available. Time really does fly when you’re having fun! It was after 3pm and about time to start rounding up the day. The day-trippers went back to their jeeps and we hopped into a different van, off to the local village where we would be staying for the night.
Day 1 – Evening Time
We had been extremely lucky with a small group during the day, and our luck continued when we realised it was only us and one other couple staying the night in the local village. The four of us were dropped off at our guest house where we met the lovely family who would put us up for the night.
The facilities were very basic with cold outdoor showers and mattresses on the floor with a mosquito net to cover it. While the family prepared our meal for the night, we set off on our own to explore the village. It was a small and rural set in the base of a valley, surrounded by jungle. Goats, pigs and dogs roamed the winding roads and there was no sign of any other tourist anywhere.
Unfortunately we saw elephants chained up outside some of the homes. These must be the working elephants we’d heard so much about. It was so sad to see them standing in isolation on a tiny patch of dirt ground.
We arrived back to our homestay (after getting lost once or twice!) to a magnificent feast prepared for us! There was so much food to go around we could barely finish it all. Dinner and breakfast were included in the price we paid for the two days. The family gave us the option to drink their beers. They asked that we simply take note of what we drank and pay in the morning.
DAY 2 – Morning
Awoken while still dark thanks to the crowing cocks outside our door, we were up bright and early and eager to get going! The family provided a huge breakfast to et us u[ for the day, and off we went to the next elephant camp.
We visited two more elephant camps on the second day and got to meet the herds who lived in the camps. We joined in with the group of day-trippers at the camps, but as they left to make their digestion balls for the herd, we were left alone for some quality quiet time with our new friends!
Charlie the Baby Elephant
As if our luck couldn’t improve any more with this trip, we were given VIP access to Charlie the baby elephant! Born just three months ago (in September), Charlie and his mother are kept away from the main camp so as not to be overwhelmed by the tourists. Can you imagine the mayhem of screaming girls if a baby elephant was brought into the mix?!
Day trippers are not allowed view the baby, a privilege that is only given to those who sign up for the two-day package.
At just three months old, Charlie already weighed about 250kg and was a force to be reckoned with! As playful as a puppy, but about as heavy as a garden shed, Charlie packed a real punch when he came hurtling toward you!
Charlie took a liking to the two men in the group as they were strong enough to tostle with him. I, on the other hand, was knocked flat on my back when he playfully tackled my shins!
We played with Charlie for about an hour, while mama elephant kept a watchful eye in the background. We couldn’t feed him bananas yet as his digestion was not developed enough to handle food. Instead he suckled on mama’s teet when he was hungry, only to return even more energised for some more human fun!
Black and bruised by the end of our time with Charlie, we said goodbye with a heavy heart and made a mental note of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Day 2 – Afternoon
Sweaty and mucky from rolling around with Charlie and the other elephants we were in dire need of a cool down! We packed ourselves back into our jeep and drove to a stunning waterfall further into the jungle. We inspected our injuries from Charlie and refreshed ourselves in the freezing cold water!
It was time for one last visit to another elephant camp, our final one of the trip. It was late afternoon now with the sun high in the sky. The elephants were slow-moving and were lazily plodding around, enjoying snacks and back scratches from the tourists.
We lazed in hammocks and chatted to the guides and mahouts about their daily lives and living with elephants. Some had no English while others were fluent, but it was amazing to see and hear how these men’s lives revolved around caring for their elephant and sharing their lives with the animal.
We were also incredibly lucky to witness a vet visiting the camp. There is one vet per camp in EJS and they were intimately with the mahouts to provide care for the elephants. We watched as he gave injections of medicine into the hide of one sick elephant. We even helped out by following the sick elephant around and waiting for her to do her business – a job the mahouts gladly handed over to the eager tourists! We then identified the droppings for the vet to take samples.
There was no real itinerary for the second afternoon – we merely wandered around watching the elephants in the field, admiring even their smallest habits.
What To Pack For Overnight Visit
Be prepared to be very dirty and very mucky while at EJS! I came home after my two days with the elephant covered in elephant poop and dust!
We had to bring our entire luggage with us as we were changing hotels when we returned to Chiang Mai. However if you are returning to the same accommodation after the elephants, simply ask the hotel to secure your luggage safely for the night and pick up when you return. Luckily our backpacks are very small (read more on how I travel with just 7kg here!!) so they were easily stored and locked in the van that collected us.
Things that are a must-bring to EJS:
- swimsuit for washing the elephants and the waterfall on day two
- a towel for drying off
- mosquito spray and suncream – it’s the jungle so mossies are about
- clothes you don’t mind destroying – I had a pair of shorts on that were permanently stained after the elephant mudbath
- some cash – to pay for beers and if you want to buy a souvenir or tip your guide
- there’s no real need to pack decent footwear, I managed the walking just fine in flip-flops
- A spare change of clothes for the second day
To read my complete and honest review of EJS, including improvements that could be made, click here.
If you are planning a trip to Thailand, why not check out my Thai Islands Itinerary here.