An in-depth review of Into the Wild, a Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary. See what to expect when you visit from start to finish.
I’ve always wondered how it would feel to be so close to an elephant, to stand in front of this almighty creature and realize how tiny humans are compared to them.
In Chiang Mai I found many tour organizations offering day trips to one of the sanctuaries. Before I booked any tours, I did my research. I wanted to know how the better ones operate and if my visit would contribute to the well-being of the elephants.
Which elephant sanctuary to choose?
While researching I read that many sanctuaries give the elephants chains or use hooks. They use those tools to make sure the animals behave towards the visitors and to force them to do tricks.
The only way to discover a sanctuary’s practice is by reading experiences from other travelers. I’ve read so many sad stories and negative accounts of sanctuaries, but I haven’t found many featuring the positive side. Don’t get me wrong, elephants belong in nature and should be completely free. But in some cases, elephants have been abused for a long time and are not able to survive on their own anymore. They’re forced to give tourists rides, to do tricks or to carry wood for days straight. These elephants aren’t the wild animals they were at birth, either, and they deserve a safe place. A sanctuary can be just that.
Elephant Nature Camp or Into The Wild Elephant Camp
I decided to go with either Elephant Nature Camp or Into The Wild Elephant Camp. There were more sanctuaries that probably also treat them well, but for these two sanctuaries, I was convinced that they weren’t involved in bad practices. Neither sanctuary has any known history of abusing the elephants. My first preference was Elephant Nature Camp, but it was fully booked. So I contacted Into The Wild by phone. What I really liked about Into The Wild is that they kept the tour groups small.
Although there was still a spot for me when I called two days before, I would definitely recommend booking even earlier. Over the phone, the sanctuary gave us some information about what to expect and what to wear while visiting. You can also find this information on their website: ‘Into The Wild’. I could choose from two different programs: a half day or a full day program. Doing a full day meant you would leave a little later, and you’d learn to make vitamins from herbs and feed them to the elephants. Since I’m traveling on a budget and it didn’t seem too exciting to make vitamins, I chose the half day visit. That cost me 1700 Baht (+/- 50USD). A full day would cost 2400 Baht (+/- 75 USD).
An Unforgettable Experience
My alarm went off at 6:00. The elephant sanctuary had arranged transportation, and they picked me up at my hotel at 6:30. I hadn’t been up that early for a while, and it took me some time to wake up fully. We picked up more people along the way. It was almost a two-hour drive to the sanctuary, which was located in a jungle just outside Chiang Mai.
We stopped to get coffee and breakfast. After that, an employee of the elephant sanctuary took our names and entrance fees. We continued the journey, and it became bumpier as we went through the jungle!
We arrived at the sanctuary at 9:00, where Pai, the owner, was waiting to welcome us. He was very friendly and told us some background information. He led us towards a big open area surrounded by water and trees. I immediately got a happy feeling when I saw this wide area and saw with my own eyes that they were not kept in captivity in a small area.
There are no fences, and the elephants even have a river, they can play in. The area was so big and open that I couldn’t even see the elephants! Pai wasn’t using any hooks or other tools with which he could hurt the elephants, which confirmed the things I’d read. He asked us to be very kind to him, since the elephants can be very protective over their care takers. He took us to the center of the area and instructed us to stay calm when the elephants were with us. He made this strange noise, a loud roar, and then the elephants started running towards us. Quickly, we climbed onto a platform high off the ground, it was higher than the elephants. Pai educated us on the history of the elephants (two old and two young ones), how they take care of them, and how we should behave during our stay there. Being told this much information made me trust the sanctuary even more.
When the group was ready to have contact with the elephants, we came down from the platform and divided into smaller groups to give the elephants some food. Locals were there to assist; they all worked together to make our experience the best it could be! When the elephants finished eating all the bananas and sugar cane, we went for a walk. The elephants listened to Pai, and he guided them only using his voice. We could choose which elephants to follow because they had the freedom to go where they wanted. It was funny to watch elephants listened the young elephants play.
Next, it was time for a mud bath! The little ones went in immediately, and we had the best time getting them completely covered in mud. When the elephants went into the river, we followed them for a swim. As we all cleaned ourselves off, I realized that it was so good to see everyone (including the locals and the elephants) enjoying themselves. We had a simple but tasty lunch, and then it was time to say goodbye. I arrived back at my hotel around 14:00 after this incredible morning of interacting with elephants.
Looking back on this experience
It made me very happy to see that the elephants were treated so well. For the first time, I realized how much money it costs to take good care of the elephants. Elephants may eat up to 300kg a day and can drink up to 50 gallons of water a day. The tour fees are used to feed the elephants, maintain the land and to pay the workers. Most of the elephants had been used in a circus or badly treated as a tourist attraction before they were saved by the sanctuary. It was reassuring to discover that there are several sanctuaries that give them large, safe areas in which they get healthy food and are treated with lots of love.
How to get to Chiang Mai!
There are multiple options to get to Chiang Mai. You can take the bus, train or fly to Chiang Mai. I travelled from Sukhothai (a city that’s on the route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai) by bus. Most roads in Thailand are good, so travelling by bus is an easy option. A bus is also convenient if you want to visit places between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, or if you are coming from Pai. If you want more comfort, you can also take a flight to Chiang Mai or travel by train.
Once you arrive, I recommend staying at Chiang Mai Shangri-la.
Tip: For an overview of all travel options, have a look at the in-depth travel guide from GeckoRoutes of how to get to Chiang Mai. This website was incredibly useful when I was planning my trip to Thailand!
Guest Author: Maarten Cox is the author of GeckoRoutes, an online travel guide for transportation and activities in South East Asia. Their detailed guides explain step-by-step how to get from A to B for hundreds of different routes. Visit their website to start saving lots of time and money on your next trip to South East Asia.