When I first visited Chiang Mai in 2014, every tour agency in town was advertising elephant riding tours and elephant circus shows. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I partook in the past time. But in the last 5 years, the city has seen a drastic change in mentality toward elephant cruelty. Now, most of the tours now advertise “no ride, no hook”.
The hook refers to the method that was once used to train elephants. They would get a sharp poke to get them to obey. And elephant rides were generally done with elaborate saddles that included a bench seat to fit two people across. It was undoubtedly heavy and unnatural for the elephants and unfortunately, many received other types of abuse while in captivity.
But in the years since, these riding camps have been replaced by elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai. These elephants have been rescued from circus shows or other operations where they were mistreated and appear to have much better lives. You cannot ride these elephants, but you can feed them, interact with them, and bathe them during your excursion.
Our most recent elephant sanctuary excursion was with Maerim Elephant Sanctuary. Read all about our experience below!
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A Visit to Maerim Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Maerim Elephant Sanctuary Overview
Maerim Elephant Sanctuary has a common statement used in their marketing material – “where elephants are loved and respected”. And it shows! The sanctuary has six rescued elephants (you can read their stories here). At the time of our visit, they were working on rescuing another. They have to purchase these elephants from logging companies, riding camps, and circus shows. It takes time to add more to the crew.
You can really tell that the staff at Maerim absolutely adore the elephants that they care for. They are very knowledgeable about their behaviors. The energetic, English-speaking guides spend a lot of time educating guests of the sanctuary about elephant poop, their sex lives, their eating habits, sleep cycles, and everything in between.
The guides will also tell you all about the elephants that you’ll be meeting and give you plenty of instructions about how to properly interact with them. Your safety is their priority so even though the elephants are gentle, there is a trainer with them at all times.
Not only will you have a fun day of feeding and bathing the elephants at Maerim Elephant Sanctuary, but you’ll learn a lot along the way!
What to Bring
You don’t need to worry about coordinating an outfit to match the elephants. Maerim will give you clothes to wear when you arrive. The sanctuary uniform is a checkered t-shirt and large pants that tie so they can fit pretty much any size and shape.
But you will be bathing the elephants in a mud pit so you’ll want to bring a swimsuit to wear under your clothes. And preferably a swimsuit that you don’t mind getting dirty (it will most certainly need to wash it after your elephant adventure).
You should also bring flip-flops, a towel (if you don’t have one, you can rent one there for a small fee), sunscreen, bug spray, and your camera.
Getting to the Sanctuary
Maerim Elephant Sanctuary is located about 18 miles north of the old town of Chiang Mai. Transportation to and from the sanctuary from your hotel is part of the price of your elephant excursion. The drive takes about 45 minutes and you’ll be on a bench seat in the back of a covered truck. You’ll get a nice breeze going but no air conditioning so dress appropriately.
At the time of our visit, the Maerim Elephant Sanctuary had 6 elephants and was in the process of acquiring one more. They were rescued from various operations around Thailand, including logging companies, riding camps, and circus shows. They even had a rescue baby elephant – Sethi – who was rescued from a circus in 2017.
The elephants appeared well-fed, well taken care of, and happy. We never saw them chained in any way and we never saw the trainers use any force at all. Our guide encouraged us to ask questions about the elephants and seemed to be transparent in talking about their treatment at the sanctuary.
Overall, we got the impression that the elephants at Maerim are definitely loved and respected!
At Maerim Elephant Sanctuary, you can choose to do a half-day, full-day, or two-day visit. The activities and timeline of each program are outlined on their website. We chose the half-day morning excursion. We were picked up from our hotel bright and early at 7 am and driven 45 minutes to the sanctuary.
When we arrived, we found that there were going to be about 25 people in our group. We learned that the group size ranges depending on the time of year. And since we were visiting during Chiang Mai’s Yee Ping lantern festival, local elephant sanctuaries were in high demand. If you go during the low season, you may find that you have the whole place to yourself!
After changing into our elephant uniforms, we received an overview of the elephants and how to interact with them by our English-speaking guide. Then we grabbed our little satchels to fill with bananas, pumpkin, and sugarcane.
Pro Tip: Be sure to get both bananas and pumpkin because some of the elephants are quite picky and will toss the ones they don’t enjoy on the ground!
From there, we walked over to the elephants and were able to feed and interact with them. Due to the size of our group and the limited number of elephants, they were certainly well fed. We all got a chance to take some photos and had a great time. Eventually, we ran out of food. Our guide had us sit in a shady spot nearby to give us about 45 minutes of elephant education.
Next on the agenda was bathing the elephants in various pools and mudbaths. We stripped off our uniforms and waded right in with the elephants. If the thought of getting wet or muddy makes you uncomfortable, you can absolutely opt out of these activities.
And finally, you’ll head back to the reception area where you can purchase a refreshing cocktail and lounge in their pristine, elephant-free pool before lunch. Here you can rent a towel if you need one or shop for small souvenirs. They also have beer, soda, coffee, tea, and smoothies available for purchase.
Lunch includes a brief lesson on how to make Thai noodle soup. You can create your own perfect soup concoction! A vegetarian option is available as well. After lunch, you’ll be transported back to your hotel where you’ll undoubtedly need a nap!
We shopped around and read a lot of reviews prior to deciding that Maerim was the best choice for our elephant excursion. Most of the elephant sanctuaries around Chiang Mai offer a very similar program involving bathing and feeding the elephants. And most have a price point of around $50-100 USD per person.
We loved that Maerim had excellent reviews on both TripAdvisor and Google. Plus, they were at the lower end of the price range, at just 1600 THB/person (~$53 USD). And considering that it includes transportation and lunch – it’s a great value!
Maerim Elephant Sanctuary does have opportunities if you would like more time to get to know and love the rescued elephants. However, they ask that you dedicate a minimum of four weeks of your time. Learn more by submitting an inquiry directly on their website!
We hope you have an amazing visit to Maerim Elephant Sanctuary!
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