Elephant Camps In Chiang Mai:
The best day we’ve ever had vacationing was at the Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand! When visiting an Elephant Camp you get to care for the elephants, learn about them, bond with them, feed them and bathe them. A visit will be a life changing experience far beyond just riding an elephant and we urge you to put it on your bucket list.
Fun Elephant Facts:
Here are a couple cool things to know about Elephants in Thailand. August 12th is World Elephant Day. March 13th is National Elephant Day in Thailand. Chang without an “i” means Elephant in Thai while with the “i” means City. A Mahout is a trainer who dedicates their life to their elephant often staying with them day and night. Many Mahouts come from the local Karen Hill Tribes and are so dedicated it becomes a 7 day a week 365 day a year commitment.
Ethical Issues To Watch Out For:
Not all Elephant Camps are created equal! With dozens of Elephant Camps near Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai it can be hard to choose one, but hopefully our insight and experience below helps out.
The main ethical issues to look out for is if you ride bare back by yourself which is better for the Elephants or if you ride in sets of two on a wooden seat strapped to them which is not good. Traditionally Elephants have been used as work animals over the centuries lifting and pulling logs. The strong animals are almost built for this type of work, but Elephant’s bodies aren’t for heavy loads pushing down on their shoulders. Most of the good places will only allow a single rider (if any) to ride bare back on the head and will have weight restrictions. You want to avoid any place that straps riding platforms on the backs of their elephants.
In addition to the riding style, you also should to find out how the Elephants are treated by the staff. Some things to look out for are if the company regularly uses circus-style bull hooks to harshly keep the Elephants in line or if they take the time to actually bond them. Good camps will have a Mahout assigned to each Elephant for up to 18 hours. The extra bonding allows the mahout to be able to gain trust and control their Elephant with voice commands. For a dedicated Mahout it is far beyond a job as caring for the Elephants and truly is a way of life much like they Elephants are an extended member of their own family.
Make sure to check into what happens to the Elephants after you leave. You may think this is a harder one to figure out, but living conditions you can see and a few questions will make it clear. Are the Elephants able to interact with one another and keep up on their social skills freely or if they are chained and penned up all night? Maybe the biggest red flag we have found is if a Camp does an Elephant show. Avoid any circus-like shows where the Elephants play soccer or dance on two legs as they can be pretty bad for the the Elephants’ physical and mental health. We have also been told that places that have the Elephants create painting with their trunks can be very stressful to them as it is unnatural.
The Best Elephant Camps In Chiang Mai:
1. Patara Elephant Camp: If you are only able to make it to Chiang Mai for one day, Patara Elephant Camp is by far the best place to spend it. On a recent trip we made to Thailand our entire detour to Chiang Mai was based on spending a day here, and boy was it worth it; life changing to say the least.
Patara’s main driving factor is on building up local elephant populations by rescuing adults they feel can be rehabilitated into potential parents and by facilitating natural style breeding. Although Patara has operated solely as a private Elephant Camp for many years, they recently opened their doors to a limited number of daily visitors as part of their day long Elephant Owner for a Day program.
The 1st thing that really sets Patara’s amazing program apart from other Elephant places is that they limit total daily visitors are to just 12 people per day which they break down into two groups of 6. This is done in a strict effort to never have more Elephants than daily visitors so both the bonding and educational experience can be much better. The way the Camp operates is also a lot better for the Elephants than the zoo-like atmosphere that many of the other Elephant places have.
Because of the limited amount of guests, each visitor is assigned their own Elephant and Mahout. A Mahout is an Elephant trainer who basically spends their whole life with an Elephant. They are with them 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, and when they take a break to sleep another worker fills in for them. This is a very traditional way of looking after Elephants and ensures that each worker has a vested interest in the physical and mental health of each Elephant. The program modeled for you to be able to step inside the shoes of your Mahout for the day to learn and interact with their Elephants as they would do daily. The program is specialized and meaningful activity to create trust and relationship between you and your elephant. In addition to your own Elephants and Mahout your group will also get dedicated Photographers, Videotographers, and a disc with the images at the end!
Patara will pick you up right at your hotel in Chiang Mai as you begin your incredible day. Once you get to the camp, you’ll have a little time to change your clothes, put on bug spray, sunblock, ect, then it is time to get learning! The staff starts with a big picture overviews about elephants in Thailand, Elephants in their camp and the heart-warming details of why they do what they do. After your intro it’s time to pick out you thrifty Mahout shirt made by the local Karen Tribes to make sure to look the part. Once you are ready to go its off to the jungle and they may even have a surprise Elephant feeding before you head out.
After traveling to your Jungle location it’s off to find the heard before you are paired up with an Elephant based on which one the expert staff feels will best match your personality. It is amazing how good they are at pair your up! Once paired you are trained by your Mahout on how to approach your elephant correctly, know the elephant’s temperament, feed them and check their health. This health check goes quite in depth and you’ll be making sure your Elephant is hydrated and healthy through their sweaty toes and poop, will make sure they are sleeping correctly based on the dirt on their sides, and will be making sure both of their eyes and skin are infection free. During this general inspection and feeding time are the only time the elephants here are chained up which is only briefly and insures the larger Elephants don’t steal the food of the smaller ones. This is a big difference from other places that keep their Elephants either penned up or chained up for long periods at a time and we are glad Patara does it right.
Once feeding time and the health inspection are over your Mahout will teach you more about taking care of your Elephant and how to communicate with it through different spoken commands. Once you master some commands you will ask your Elephant to lay down so you can knock all of the loose dirt off of them before giving them their 1st bath of the day. Knocking the dirt off is hard at first as you’re doing it with a makeshift palm leaf brush, but once you get the hang of everything it gets easy and fun. Hygiene and skin care are very important to an Elephant’s health and riding a clean Elephant is always nice too. Once your Elephant is clean you learn how to mount them and ride on their neck bareback. Depending on the age of your Elephant they have different ways they will have you get on. It’s a little tricky to get used to at first but is 1,000 times better for the Elephant than other places that strap a wooden seat on the Elephant’s back circus style.
The first half of your ride will be up a steep jungle trail on your very sure footed Elephant. After about 45 minutes of riding you reach a series of rustic huts with a gourmet camp lunch ready and waiting for you on a palm leaf picnic table. The lunch is amazing and ranges from chicken, to local fruit, and even Thai Traditional favorites like sticky rice. After you eat, your Elephants will eat again as you give them all the the left over food that is elephant friendly like the fruits. Fully refueled, you continue on about another 35 minutes to a local waterfall to give your Elephants their 2nd bath. While getting in the water isn’t mandatory, we highly recommend it, because when else in your life are you going to be able to swim with Elephants? Being up close and scrubbing them while you get to see how much they love the water is magical. After bathing your Elephant the your group will have a ton of fun slashing around before riding back up to the vans to go home.
Group Size: Limited to a total of 12 full day visitors per day, so book early and expect spots to fill up far in advance. Riding Style: Bare Back, one person per elephant. Cost: 5,800 Baht per person for full day or 3,800 Baht for the 1/2 day. We suggest bringing extra to tip your Mahout. Reservation Inquires: [email protected] Full Day Program: Lasts 10-12 hours and includes your own Elephant and Mahout for the day, a long jungle ride, bottled water all day, a gourmet jungle lunch, transport to and from your Chiang Mai hotel, interactive training, feeding, care giving time, a trip to a waterfall, elephant bathing, and a disc of photos and videos their professional photographer takes for your the whole day. Half Day Program: Lasts from 1-6pm and focuses more on healthcare and communication skills for pregnant and small elephants with less emphasize on riding. Drinking water and transportation from Chiang Mai are included. Although it is a much shorter ride, you will still get a nice trip through the farm area near the river and a dvd of your time. What to Bring: You ride barefoot all day but we suggest water shoes for the waterfall as its a little rocky. They provide the Mahout shirt but you’ll want longer shorts or tights for a girl and the Elephants hair is bristly. Bug lotion and sunscreen are also suggested. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
2. Four Seasons Golden Triangle Tented Camp: The Tented Elephant Camp is an amazing experience where you stay in a luxury tree house and walk right off you deck onto your Elephant whenever you want to go somewhere. It is about 3 hours North of town near of Chiang Rai but if you have the extra days and money to burn it is worth every cent. Getting to the camp is awesome as they send your bags ahead of you while you take a traditional Thai bamboo raft down the river to your tree house. Once there you quick find out this isn’t your normal backyard tree house. No expense is spared in these luxury tent from the rich carved wood accents to the large outdoor waterfall-style showers. With private jungle pools and spa along with expert masseuses, the Tented Camp is definitely a place to relax and be pampered.
Cost: A 2 night minimum stay is in upwards of 80,000 Baht a night. Yes 80,000 Baht a night which is $2,500, but you get what you pay for. Getting Here: Typically you will have to arrange getting to Chiang Rai which is 3 hours North of Chiang Mai by car or a quick flight. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
3. Elephant Nature Park: Lets you truly volunteer with the elephants from anywhere from 1 day to a full week. Owner Lek has been featured on National Geographic. You do not ride elephants at all here and stick to feeding, bathing, cleaning up after elephants, and working on the grounds themselves. They don’t regulate the number of visitors as much as they should and you can sometimes have up to 5-9 people working with on elephant. Camp is located in Mae Rim just north of Chiang Mai. Group Size: Can be up to 9 people per Elephant. Riding Style: No riding, it a hands on volunteer learning experience only. For many visitors not being able to ride is a big let down but if you can’t get into Patara, this educational experience is a good back option. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
Tier 2 Elephant Camps:
If you can’t get into one of the 3 best elephant camps in Chiang Mai, here are s few that will feel acceptable although you may not feel totally comfortable with how the elephants are treated. We apologize if you have been to one of the camps below and had the time of your life, but for us after seeing the contrast in camps these ones are only mid-range in quality.
4. Thai Elephant Conservation Center: Located South of Chiang Mai in Lampang, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center does a good job of educated visitors of the traditional role of Elephants in Thai life. Their Mahout program isn’t as good as Patara but is still a very memorable experience. The all day program starts with a morning dip in the river around 9:30am followed by food and bonding time, a ride in the forest, and a final longer bath back in the river about 1:30pm. During the bathing they invite other tourists to come watch but only the visitors who are part of the day long program are allowed in the water to wash the Elephants. Visitors who want to get even more in depth are invited to stay at ECC for up to 10 day Homestay Programs. The quality of their longer program is almost enough to make them a top tier attraction, but their overall package was just a notch below the highest quality outfits.
Separate from the Mahout program they also do Elephant shows but not circus style ones that are bad like getting up on two legs or kicking a soccer ball. Their shows only have Elephants moving logs, ect which is a traditional use for the Elephants in Thailand. Tourists also enjoy stopping at the Dung Paper Factory and stopping by the Elephant hospital in the morning to see the ECC’s great work rehabilitating rescued Elephants.
Riding Style: Bare Back, one person per Elephant in their daily program. Program Cost: 3,500 Baht per day with 1-10 day programs available. You get to keep your Mahout outfit. Trekking: If you have the time their best program is the 2-6 Day Trekking program where you stay with the Elephants and Mahouts day and night away from the ECC. The program even includes camping in the Jungle with your Elephant and starts around 8,000 Baht. Tourist Rides: They also have short 2 person chair rides separate from the Mahout program which isn’t the best way to ride on an Elephant. 30 minutes rides are 500 Baht and 1 hour is 1000 Baht. Elephant Work Shows: At 10am, 11am, 1:30pm they have 40 minute work shows where they use about 15 Elephants to demonstrate traditional Elephant usage like moving logs. This is different than the circus like shows where they balance on two legs and can get hurt. Show is 200 Baht. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
5. Chai Lai Orchid Elephant Camp: The Chai Lai Orchid Camp is one of the the only true eco-resort style establishment in the area. Beyond the elephant experience they offer over night stay is modest private yurts and extra excursions like bamboo river rafting and trips to Tiger Kingdom. One of the things we really like is that most of the workers are from local hill tribes from the women at the resort to to the men serving as mahouts. It is not a fancy resort by any means, but it is clean, fairly authentic, and they seem to really care about the elephants. The camp also does a lot of great volunteer work to support local Hill Tribe women through Daughters Rising. The only reason they are ranked higher on our list is that it tends to get a little pricey and for the cost we’d rather visit Patara. If you are really wanting to stay out in the wilderness for a night this is definitely worth considering. We suggest staying 2 nights so you can get the full hill tribe experience.
Riding Style: Bare Back, 1 person per elephant. Standard Day Program: 2400 Baht for a 5 hour full day program which covers 1 person. It is hands on in all accepts of the Elephants day and including riding, feeding, and washing. Deluxe Day Program: For 3500 you stay overnight then have a completely full day of riding the elephants, elephant bathing, riding bamboo rafts on the river and visiting a hill tribe. Multi-Day Program: You can extend your stay from 2-10 nights and actually stay with a local hill tribe. Being welcome in is unbelievable and well worth the rustic accommodations. You can even join in with volunteer work if you like. Other Classes: If you are staying more than one night you can also add on Thai Cooking Classes or Muay Thai Lessons for 500-100 Baht. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
6. Baanchang Elephant Park: The Baanchang Park is actually a pretty good place to visit and does some great work. The main reason they are not rated higher on our list is that they keep their elephants in wooden pens a lot of the time instead of roaming free. Their mahout programs are quite good with small groups riding bareback and plenty of bonding time with the elephants. Their overnight programs are geared toward very small groups between 1-5 people and range from 1-3 days. They even have a pretty good nursing program where you help care for recused elephants that doesn’t include the novelty of riding.
Riding Style: Bare Back, 1 or 2 people per elephant. Mahout Programs: Mahout programs range from 1-3 days. You can join a group up to 6 people starting at 6,900 Baht or have a private program for 22,900 Baht per person which gets cheaper per person as you add people. Nursing Program: Their no-ride nursing program is great and ranging from 2500-4900 Baht. You feed, wash, and bond with recused elephants. Nursing Program Website: (HERE). Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
7. Ran-Tong: Treats the elephants decent and only does bare back riding which is good. Since 2011 the reviews of Ran-Tong have become increasing very good leading to a number of awards for the camp. Visitors looking for a shorter experience will like the half day programs but we strongly recommend one of the longer programs. Spending more in depth hours will give you better time bonding with your Elephant instead of the shorter program and photo opportunity briefly washing them.
Riding Style: Bare Back, 1 person per elephant. 2 people may ride together if they are under 60 kilos in weight which is good for children. 1 Day Program: 1500 Baht for the standard day program which includes riding, some bonding and bathing the elephants in the river. Half Day Program: More in depth 2-3 day programs also available starting at 1600 Baht a person, max of 2 people. 2 Day Program: More in depth 2-3 day programs also available starting at 5500 Baht a person, minimum of 2 people. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
8. Thai Elephant Home: The Thai Elephant Home used to get some bad reviews for using bull hooks, but has really cleaned up their act and gets very good reviews. Riders go bareback in small groups which is great but is kind of feels like a poor mans Patara event though it is mre expensive.. Cost: 2,500 Baht for 2 hours; 4,900 Baht for a day. They also have overnight programs up to 4 days long. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
9. Woody’s Elephant Training: This company is very popular with backpackers as it is a little cheaper. It’s not the most picturesque ride. If you are really on a budget, Woody’s at least treats their Elephants better than most budget places, but it won’t be a unforgettable as a nicer place. Riding Style: Two person wooden seat strapped onto Elephant with Mahout on its head. You also briefly go bare back two people per Elephant when you ride into the river.  Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
Tier 3 Elephant Camps:
Do yourself a favor and stay away from any of the Tier 3 places. You may have a good time, but if you ever go to a more respectable place afterward you’ll feel really guilt of how these places are run and how they treat their elephants. Because they don’t treat their Elephants well we’re not even going to take the time to write full descriptions for them.
10. Jumbo Elephant Camp: Jumbo is a little touristy with a two person seat on the elephants but they do a better job than some of the other touristy places of teaching you conservation. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
11. Chiang Dao Elephant Training Center: Elephants have a mahout on that rides on their heads and a wooden seat strapped to it for two guest to ride on. There is a forced labor feel to it with many elephants having a lot of chains. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
12. Mae Ping Elephant Village: This tourist trap takes groups of 50-80 people out at once with two people plus a mahout per Elephant. They also have Elephant shows where the Elephants balance on their front legs and head which is bad for them. The workers also use bull hooks.
13. Elephant Life Experience: Although these guys seems to care about their Elephants more then the other Tier 3 Camps, it is still a little too circus-like. They have Elephant painters which stresses the elephants and overall visits are pretty short and lack bonding time. Email: [email protected] Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
14. Maesa Elephant Camp: Near Tiger Kingdom, tourist trap with a seating circus ring. They have way too many people per elephant and takes groups of up to 50 people. Has elephant shows and they paint pictures which are both bad for the elephant. they have got a little better with their mahout style course which you can stay overnight but overall it is a tourist trap. Elephant Camp Website: (HERE).
15. Maetang Elephant Park: Place seems like a shady tourist trap which also has an elephant show.