After my quick overnight stay in Huay Xai it was time to cross the border into Thailand and more importantly Chiang Mai for what would be an unforgettable elephant experience at a sanctuary called Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Before that happened though I needed to take necessary transport to Chiang Mai. I had arranged my travel through an agency that was open late last night. I reported for departure at 8:30 and my journey would be a tuk tuk to the Laos border, a coach to the Thai border, a tuk tuk to the bus depot and then finally a coach to Chiang Mai. Even though I was quoted 6 hours I knew this would not be the case and as we arrived into Chiang Mai early that evening it was more of a 10-hour journey.
Immediately on arrival I booked my elephant experience for the following morning. It cost £50 in total for the full day but it was something I had been waiting years to do and the price wasn’t going to stop me. My accommodation in Chiang Mai was CM City Hostel, which was centrally located and offered a cheap, clean and comfortable environment for the next two nights. As I was up early the next morning for the elephant sanctuary it was a quick bite to eat before returning to the hostel to confirm my Christmas arrangements and charge all of my electronics for the next day.
At 8:30 the following morning I was collected from my hostel. There was already a Dutch/Spanish couple in the tuk tuk and we continued around 2 other hotels collecting the other members of the group for today’s adventure. The journey to the sanctuary was to be around 90 minutes and initially we expected to be transferred to an actual bus of some kind but after 20 minutes or so outside of Chiang Mai we realised this would be our transport for the day. We travelled through farmland, jungle and mountain roads bumping all over the shop in the back of the tuk tuk, which we all had a really good laugh about. It was certainly a lot of fun and everyone could not wait to get to the sanctuary.
We all of a sudden came to a stop and turned off onto a dirt track for the bumpiest part of the journey. Our vehicle had already struggled to make it up a hill prior to this but the driver had complete confidence in getting us through the rough terrain. Again it was a lot of fun bouncing around and trying to lean out of the window to get footage. The risk of falling out or losing a camera didn’t stop us. A bumpy 15 minutes later we had reached the sanctuary and jumped out of the tuk tuk to be greeted by incredible views.
After taking the path down to the main building there must have been 10-15 other people there as well. We all sat down and awaited our instructions to begin after being handed a kind of knitted sleeveless top to put on. The guys who would be looking after us today got us all together and explained the plan for the day.
Whilst it was being explained I could see the elephants being gathered together. They are an eco friendly site here and communicate with the elephants through commands and do not use sticks or any other tool to control them. This was the reason I had picked this particular sanctuary. Firstly, we were told the safety side of things and how to feed the elephants. They then explained that the command to use when feeding the elephants was ‘Bon Bon’ this meant the elephants knew it was feeding time and would lift their trunks for us to feed them.
After taking a few pictures of the elephants being gathered we all carried boxes of bananas down the bank to the field and each grabbed a bunch before shouting ‘Bon Bon’ across the field to the elephants. All of a sudden before any of us had time to prepare ourselves for what was going to happen there was a herd of about 7-8 elephants almost running towards us. The sizes ranged from baby elephants that were just as tall as me to the full grown adults that simply towered over everyone. Each of the elephants separated off and went to the little groups of people that had formed to get their food. It was a lot to take in within such a short space of time, I was feeding wild elephants bananas. I had hidden the bunch of bananas behind my back and fed them one at a time but then every time I tried to take another off the elephant would try and take the entire bunch off you.
Within about 15 minutes the entire crates of bananas had gone. An elephant normally eats around 300 kg of food and drink 1200 litres of water a day. It was like they hadn’t been fed for weeks the way the bananas were being grabbed. A few more crates soon arrived and we continued the incredible experience of feeding these huge animals and also trying to take photos/video at the same time. Our group from the bus had stuck together and we helped each other with capturing these unforgettable moments.
Once all of the food had been demolished we were all ordered to the top of the hill to collect a big bunch of sugar cane each for the elephants to also eat. On the way back down to the field the photographer was snapping pictures of us going past, I noticed this before I go within sight and gave a little thumbs up for the camera.
We were not going to be feeding the sugar cane directly to the elephants, instead it was placed in a pile on the floor before we all shouted once again ‘Bon Bon’ and they all came charging back over towards us. The guides gave us all little bits of information about the sanctuary as well as the elephants whilst they munched away at the sugar cane. I could not believe how relaxed and tame they were, we could get so close to them even stroking them whilst eating.
Some of the more immature ones were hitting themselves with the sugar cane along with the other elephants. As the food started to get less and less I found myself in the middle of the herd and the guide shouted for me to hug one of the adults so I grabbed him around the truck and he caught an absolutely incredible picture. It was without a doubt going to be my favourite picture of the entire trip.
As the elephants were out of food it was time for us to have our lunch. This was included in the price, so we returned back to the hut and helped ourselves to a traditional Thai buffet. Everyone sat down, looked through his or her photos and chatted about the unbelievable experience we had all just had. Once lunch was finished the guides gathered us all back together and showed us how they made medicine balls for the elephants. They gave these to the elephants to ensure that all of the right nutrients were being eaten. One interesting thing that we were told was that elephants know what nutrients they need and where to get it from but because the surrounding area didn’t have what the guides thought was enough the medicine balls gave a little booster just incase.
Once all of the medicine balls had all been made we were told to change into our swimwear, as it was now bath time for us and the elephants. At the side of the mud pool the command ‘Bon Bon’ was once again shouted. This time though because of the texture the medicine balls were we couldn’t simply let the elephant take it with their trunk. What we had to do was shout ‘Bon Bon’ once more when they were in front us and the trunk was lifted so we could try our best to place it on the tongue. I’ll be honest I had a 50% success rate but the one that ended up in a pile on the floor was quickly hovered up by the trunk.
Now it was time for the messy part. Everyone got to the mud pool and followed the elephants in and within a few seconds they had all led down and let us throw mud all over them. A few mud fights did break out between the staff and us but it was all part of the fun. I was literally standing no more than an inch away from the elephant rubbing and throwing mud onto its skin. I had seen them on safari numerous times but this was a completely difference kind of experience.
The mud bath was over once the elephants decided. One by one they would all get up and make their way further down the path towards the waterfall and get all of the mud cleaned off. With the temperature rising and the fact everyone was covered in mud it was a light jog to the waterfall and everyone jumped off the rocks into the nice cool and refreshing water.
The elephants were already there, some lying down and others completely underwater using the trunk as a snorkel. Everyone was handed a bucket to throw water to clean off the bits of mud that had been missed. We couldn’t get as close to them this time because of the depth of the water it would have been to dangerous if they decided to lay down or get up to quickly. It was so much fun playing about in the water with them, we got clean of the mud and more importantly so did the elephants. Once more the decision was left with them when it was time to leave and usually once one exited the remainder would all follow suit.
We all remained splashing each other and jumping of the surrounding rocks into the pool. It was so refreshing to cool off after spending the best part of 7 hours in 35+ degrees. Once we had got back to camp there was enough time for a quick shower before getting back into the tuk tuk for the journey back to Chiang Mai.
This had been such an unforgettable elephant experience. I had never imagined I would ever get closer to an elephant other then on safari but not only did I feed them I had bathed with them in mud and a waterfall. This day had without a doubt topped everything else I had done over the past 4 months. I could not wait to get back to the hostel and look through my footage!
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary are doing incredible work in the prevention of elephants being used for rides or kept as pets. There are now 8 camps in Chiang Mai and a newly opened camp in Phuket. They have a passion for these animals and in the future hope to breed more of these unbelievable creatures.
It was no time for me to have some chill out time and meet two friends in Phuket for Christmas. It was certainly going to be strange being in one place for the best part of a week but I was looking forward to seeing some familiar faces for what would be a pretty wild Christmas period.