Given Chiang Mai’s location within Thailand and proximity to the jungles of Burma and southern China, there is a modest population of Asian elephants in the region. In the past, the vast majority of the elephants were killed for their tusks or worked to death in the logging industry (so I am told). Others were brought to the streets of cities like Chiang Mai to serve as entertainment for tourists, once that was discovered as a viable stream of income. Nowadays, you won’t see any (at least we didn’t) elephants in the streets, but you will come across several camps where tourists can feed, wash, and/or ride the elephants. In addition, many of the elephants will do tricks, like kick a soccer ball or play the harmonica.
When you start to look into these places, it becomes fairly obvious that animals are mistreated/abused in order to be taught tricks. In addition, the large seats that are sometimes seen on elephants to carry passengers are very heavy and quite damaging to the elephants back. So, with all that said, there are plenty of these camps on the outskirts of town, most of which we are told are shady operations. Initially, however, we were very interested in seeing some elephants up close. I mean, if you saw ‘Born to be Wild’ in IMAX theater, you would want to do it too. We did some research and found (at the time of our visit) there were two legit elephant parks that people recommended. The first, Elephant Nature Park, serves as a refuge for rescued elephants and is very popular. Although it is the most expensive option, it still stays ridiculously busy. As a result, all the days we were available to go were booked already. So, we dug into our next recommended option: Baanchang Elephant Park.
If you check out Trip Advisor or random blog posts, Baanchang is touted as an up-and-coming elephant park and a great ethical option. Like Elephant Nature Park, they advertise the standard activities of feeding and washing the elephant, but no tricks are performed. Unlike Elephant Nature Park, Baanchang does allow customers to ride the elephant, but in the ‘natural’ way of bareback riding (i.e. no big wooden/metal seat). Now, there are indeed a few bad reviews on Trip Advisor that talk about the fact the animals are chained while you feed them. This is also mentioned in the good reviews. After reading them it seemed as though it was only reasonable to chain a massive, once-wild animal while a bunch of tourists feed it with other elephants around. What seemed to convince us that this place was alright was a post we read from an animal-loving, blogger; even with a website called ‘iloveanimals.com’ or something along those lines. This guy loved Baanchang and blabbed on for days about the ethical nature of the park, why they are chained while feeding, and why you only ride them bare-backed, and blah blah blah. The point is: we went.
We were picked up early at our hostel and made the hour drive over to the Baanchang park, on the outskirts of town. As we pulled up with our six other tourist companions, we could see a dusty yard, devoid of any trees. In the yard, there were roughly twenty elephants, standing in the sun, while chained and being fed by other tourists. So, off the bat, not a very welcoming entrance, but we expected to see this based on the reviews. We were given a quick introduction to our itinerary for the day and given a ridiculous uniform to put on. The uniforms are apparently pretty standard among these elephants camps and are used to ensure the elephants aren’t suddenly frightened or angered by an unusual-looking critter who wants to feed them sugar cane (for example, a sun-burnt, trustafarian, with a Chang Beer tank top, and those even more ridiculous ‘poop pants’, as Nanners and I like to call them). We shed our city clothes, put on the uniforms, and regroup out front looking like frumpy versions of New Kids on the Block band members.
Next, we are introduced to our first activity: feeding the elephants. Our guide explains to us what they eat (sugar cane and bananas), how much they eat (one metric shit ton per day), why they are chained, and where the elephants come from. He explains that the reason they are chained while feeding is for their safety and ours. In the past, some elephants began fighting during the feeding process due to the fact that (a) they are massive wild animals, and (b) most have been rescued (i.e. bought for lots of money) from harsh environments and their behavior can become hostile when in the presence of many other elephants or people. Which leads into the next topic: where the elephants come from.
As I mentioned before, there are a lot of elephants in the region surrounding Chiang Mai. Some of the elephants are purchased from failed or banned tourist operations, such as those that used to offer elephant rides in the streets. From the sounds of it, the elephants used in these other tourist attractions can be pretty awful. So, score one for Baanchang. Another key source of elephants are from the logging industry in Burma (i.e. Myanmar). The elephant park offers to purchase the elephant and/or provide full-time employment and lodging for the mahout (a.k.a. the guy who owns/rides the elephant). This is also a pretty good deal for everyone: the elephant is removed from a potentially harsh environment, the mahout and his family can find a stable income and living space, and tourist-folk like me get to look at these big guys. Aside from rescuing elephants and providing mahout employment, it’s also hard to ignore how much income these guys must be generating. Elephant parks are hugely popular and even while we were there, there were at least a dozen guys constructing another building on site. So, this attraction is also giving the local economy a boost by driving traffic to the remote area and providing jobs to the community.
Feeding the elephants is unarguably fun. You walk around with bananas and sugarcane and when you least expect it, a long trunk sneaks up from the side and snags one of your treats. All of the elephants are usually pretty stoked when you are feeding them, so there are ample opportunities to pet them and otherwise hang-out. Sure they are chained and standing in the sun, but they are getting fed and interacting positively with denim-covered humans.
As we leave the feeding grounds to move on to our next activity, learning to ride the elephant, we are introduced to the mahout’s magic stick: the ankus. An ankus is a massive, sharp hook on a stick use to help direct the elephant by giving it a gentle stab in places like its head, mouth, and inner ears. Our guide continues to explain that the hooks are still used by the mahouts to maintain control over the elephant while they walk around the compound. Without the ability to stab, smack, and smash the elephant sensitive parts with this magic stick, the animal could overpower the mahout and become violent towards the customers. Ehh, okay. I’m sure they don’t need to use it too much…?
So, while we were gathered around learning how to say commands (i.e. up, down, stop, go) to the elephant in the mahout’s native language, I started to look around the compound to take in the sights. There are the elephants. Chained and standing in the sun. Some of them swaying slowly as they stand: a sign that the animal is distressed. Then there are the mahouts. One of them walked off across the field of elephants. As I watched, he stopped and spit on the trunk of one of the elephants. Okay, maybe elephants like being spat on…? There is also the mahout demonstrating commands in front of us. Just then, one of the elephants decides to finish the digestive process of its lunch, right on the ground in front of us. A mahout riding another elephant delivered a little tap from his hook and moved towards the pile of poo. The elephant stopped short of the poo and seemed hesitant. But don’t worry, that’s what the hook is for: the mahout convinced the elephant to pick up the poo with its trunk by giving him another generous poke from the hook. Classy.
After we learned all the commands and how to mount the elephants, we set out for our excursion: riding the elephant around the compound. These elephants already seemed big when viewed from the ground, but when you ride them, their enormity can really be appreciated. As we cruise around the property, we came along side a depressing concrete and sheet metal shack that serves as the elephants’ home. When they aren’t being chained in the sunlit field, they can be found chained here in the comfy shack. As we moved along the path, if the elephant tried to reach out to suck up a trunk-full of water, grab a bunch of grass to chomp on, or even stray from the path a little, the mahout didn’t hesitate to wind-up and smack the shit out of the elephant offender. One time, our elephant strayed a little too far right on the path and the mahout delivered such a smack with the side of his hook, I thought there had to be some bleeding going on.
After we completed the circuit around the property, we came to a small pond. It was now time to wash the elephants. Most of the elephants seemed pretty excited and the mahouts looked like they enjoyed washing their animal. Our elephant, however, just laid in the water, looking pretty bored. We start pouring buckets of water on her and gave a couple of scrubs from our brush. After a few minutes, our elephant decided she was done and wanted to get up. The mahout sat on her side to try to keep her down, but she still wanted to go. To convince her to stay submerged in the water, the mahout pulled back his stick as far as he could and cracked the back of the hook right on the elephant’s head. Hearing the sound that came from this blow was more disturbing than seeing it. It was right about then, we had quite enough of this place. Luckily for us, this ended the tour of the elephant prison camp.
So, I think I painted a pretty dismal picture. To be clear, there were some good parts of this day. We really did enjoy the times we were able to interact with the elephants (when they weren’t been smacked with hooks). I do think there are some positive things being done by Baanchang, like providing work to the mahouts and potentially removing elephants from harsh environments. Despite these positive aspects, it was really hard to look past the abuse of the elephants and the bleak living conditions. As a result, we felt pretty awful by the time we left the elephants and wished we had been properly informed ahead of time. So, if you are interested in seeing elephants, know that this option can be hit (no pun intended) or miss. Go see the Elephant Poo Paper Factory instead, or plan ahead of time to go to the Elephant Nature Reserve (although I can’t vouch for them).