Before I start talking about our incredible day with the elephants, I must do my part in the conservation of these beautiful creatures by explaining what it means to have an ethical experience with them. I plan on writing a full post on ethical elephant sanctuaries soon, so I’ll keep this brief.
Many people have a dream of riding elephants in Asia, but this is actually an unethical practice that’s finally ending across this part of the world. I’ll go into more detail later, just know that no matter how a person explains it to you, riding elephants is never ok.
Ethical sanctuaries let their elephants roam free without chains or ropes. They don’t force their elephants to put on shows like a circus. In fact, they should never force their elephants into anything at all. Elephants enjoy wandering through the jungle, cooling off in water, and eating. That’s all you should see if you are at an ethical sanctuary.
You might have already been to Thailand (or somewhere else with elephants) and have seen some of these practices. I would never shame anyone for visiting an unethical sanctuary because odds are they had no idea these practices were unethical when they visited. My hope is to educate and prevent these practices from continuing in the future.
In fact, it’s clear in Chiang Mai that more people are becoming aware of these harmful practices. When walking around the city we noticed many of the tourist booths (where people could book taxis and excursions) advertised “no riding”. This leads me to believe that travelers, like me, who have done their part to educate their friends, family, and fellow travelers are actually making a difference.
September 5, 2018 –
We knew we wanted a day interacting with elephants while visiting Thailand, but as you can see from above, I was concerned about picking the right place.
Blue Tao Elephant Village is the sanctuary we chose to visit through Blue Elephant Thailand Tours. Bottom line: no riding, no chains, no tricks, and elephants roam free but enjoy coming back to the village to get treats and a good scrub down. What set them apart from the other sanctuaries was that they were not as well known and kept their tour group sizes very small. There are some other great sanctuaries out there that treat their elephants wonderfully, but their tour group sizes were way too big in my opinion.
We headed down to breakfast around 7:30 am since Mr. Billy and Mr. Lit from Blue Elephant Thailand Tours would be picking us up at 8:00 am. This was our first breakfast experience at BED and it was amazing! It was a buffet but the foods were not what you’d find at your average breakfast buffet. They had all sorts of homemade breakfast items (European and Asian) along with local fruits and delicious coffee.
We had just sat down at the bar overlooking the pool when a beautiful European woman walked up to us. She told us her name was Eva and she worked at BED. She asked if we wanted a cappuccino and I took her up on the offer. When she returned we started talking about where we were from, what our plans were in Chiang Mai, and what we would be doing that day. Eva was from Estonia and moved to Chiang Mai after falling in love with it on a visit there many years ago.
Eva told us when we had more time, to ask her for some suggestions for restaurants and other things to do. We told her our last day was completely open so we would definitely take her up on that offer.
After breakfast, we quickly ran back to our room to grab everything we needed for the day. Just as we opened the door, our phone rang. It was reception and Mr. Billy was already there wanting to talk to me. He had called our room to make sure we didn’t forget our bathing suits, towel, and mosquito repellant. So kind!
We headed back down to the lobby where we met Mr. Billy, our guide for the day, and Mr. Lit, our driver.
Mr. Billy was so nice and cheerful. He was an older gentleman and from our conversation with him in the car, we could tell what a deep love he had for the elephants. He told us all about the different voice commands we would use. One command I remember was, “BON BON BON BON…” This was a command we were asked to use when feeding the elephants in order to ask them to open their mouths so we could feed them easier.
The ride to Blue Tao was about 1.5 hours. We stopped halfway at a gas station to use the restroom. To my surprise, it was very clean (just no toilet paper).
As soon as we pulled up to Blue Tao Elephant Village we saw the mama and baby elephants in their pen. Mr. Billy explained that the mama, Lucky, had just given birth to Valentine 7 months ago. In order to help her recover and ensure the safety of the baby, they were kept in an enclosure for a short period of time. During the day, their handler/caretaker (called a mahout), would walk them around the area so Valentine could get familiar with the land. This was to prevent Valentine from having any accidents like drowning in one of the many rivers in the surrounding the area.
Before we could meet the elephants, we had to get fitted for tall rain boots. We both wore our Teva sandals since those could get dirty/wet, but we were told the trail was extremely muddy and we would probably get stuck in our sandals. We gladly changed and to our surprise, they actually had boots that fit our big American feet!
Once we had our boots, it was time to meet Lucky and Valentine. Mr. Billy told us to follow him as he climbed over the big logs that made up the pen where the mama and baby were held. He immediately walked right up to Lucky and told us to join him.
I have to admit, being right next to an elephant for the first time was a little intimidating. I knew they were big but it’s hard to really get an idea for just how big until we were next to one.
Lucky was so sweet. She immediately wanted to know who we were when we walked up so she used her trunk to feel around and sniff us. Valentine was adorable and would keep very close to her mom but then would get a burst of energy and would run around almost knocking all of us over.
I was on high alert for any mistreatment, but I never saw any ropes or chains. There was no sign of riding on the elephants themselves (no scarring or indentions) and the pen where Valentine and Lucky were kept was very large with areas that were covered and non-covered. The village was tucked way back in the jungle far from any main roads. On the way there, we passed countless “sanctuaries” with the elephants on full display.
At one point the baby found a spot in the dirt where she could lay down and scratch her belly. It was so cute. Mr. Billy told us we had to be careful because Valentine had recently started ramming people for fun. They said it was cute when she was really little but now she was over 600 pounds and it hurt! We saw her do this a couple times to Mr. Billy and the mahout, most likely because she knew them. It was really funny to watch as they ran to get out of her way.
After about 30 minutes of fun, it was time to hike to the second camp within the sanctuary. We said our goodbyes to Lucky and Valentine and made our way down a dirt path leading to massive rice fields.
The scenery was straight out of a painting. The rice fields were bright green and seemed to go on forever. Beyond the fields, we could see the rolling hills of the northern Thai landscape. It was breathtaking.
As we were walking, a little dog named Toto joined us. Mr. Billy told us Toto loved it when visitors came because it meant he usually got leftover food.
It only took about 15 minutes to get to the next camp which was up on a hill overlooking the rice fields. Mr. Billy gave us our “uniforms” to wear for the hike and told us we could change in the bathrooms. It was just a brightly colored shirt with the sanctuary’s name on it.
Eric and I both already had our bathing suits on, but we decided to change in the bathrooms anyway since we probably wouldn’t have a chance to go while on the hike. These were probably the most rustic bathrooms we used on our trip, although there was an actual toilet there. The massive quantity of spiders covering the wooden walls of the open-air stall did not comfort me. Nor did the chicken pecking at the door. But, when in Thailand, right?
Once we were dressed, Mr. Billy brought us over to the area where the mahouts made treats for the elephants. He had bowls of different grains, banana, dates, and rice that we would be mashing together to create the elephant snacks.
He told us to dump everything into the hollowed out stump and then we used big sticks to mash everything together. It was tough! Everything had to basically be pulverized so our arms were really sore after that.
After we mashed everything together, we had to create balls the size of a baseball in order to easily feed the elephants. Once that was complete, it was time to give the elephants the treats!
We followed Mr. Billy over to what looked like another elephant pen, only this pen wasn’t fully enclosed. Mr. Billy explained that the elephant would stand behind the fence just in case he got a little eager.
A couple minutes later, an elephant came wandering out of the jungle down the hill led by his young mahout. Immediately, he went behind the fence, likely because going behind the fence meant treats. Mr. Billy told us this elephant’s name was something like Himboon (that’s what it sounded like, I have no idea how it was spelled) and he was 3 years old.
Mr. Billy told us to say, “Bon bon bon bon…” as we were feeding Himboon. So we got some of the mushed food in our hands, said the magic words, and Himboon opened his mouth wide. It was sort of like feeding a dog but much more gentle.
Each time we would put food in Himboon’s mouth, his trunk would try to sneak into our baskets to get more. It was really funny.
After all the treats were gone, Himboon came out from behind the fence so we could get some pictures with him. Without even prompting him, he kissed both of our cheeks. It was so cute. I think he liked Eric’s beard because he just kept kissing his cheek over and over until finally Eric had to walk away. So much elephant love!
We made our way down a hill towards a path into the jungle and as we were walking down, another larger elephant appeared from behind the trees. Mr. Billy said this elephant would be joining us as well. Her name was Longcha (again, no idea of the spelling) and she was 19 years old. It was amazing to see the size difference between Himboon and Longcha.
We had to wait a few minutes before we could start the hike because the elephants were having a drink at the river. Nobody rushed them; we were on their schedule.
Once they had enough, they walked across the river to join us. I could tell Longcha was very curious because as soon as she made it across she quickly came up to sniff Eric and me.
Our hike through the jungle took about an hour. We went at a slow pace, allowing the elephants to stop every now and then to get a snack which was usually a tree branch full of leaves.
Walking with them through the jungle was a surreal experience. They were massive but gentle. Enormous but cautious and deliberate in their movements. Mr. Billy told us that the elephants communicate with vibrations in the ground. They would tap the ground with their feet to send signals. How incredible is that?
At one point the elephants decided to wander off the path to find some better food. Mr. Billy said we could go ahead to eat lunch while they did their thing and then they would join us later to bathe in the water.
We arrived at the waterfall and it was gorgeous but so muddy. Mr. Billy walked down the hill first slipping and sliding the whole way. I went down second followed by Eric trying our best to walk where Mr. Billy walked. It was a miracle none of us fell.
There was a bamboo bridge we had to cross in order to get to the little hut over the water. The hut was where we would be eating lunch.
I wasn’t sure where the lunch was coming from until Mr. Billy told us to look in the bags we were carrying. He had given us bags to wear over our shoulders at the beginning of our hike. I had no idea what was inside them; I guess I was too focused on the elephants. It turns out we had been carrying our own lunches the whole time!
Lunch was fried rice, fried chicken, and a fried egg thing. I had been eating mostly vegetarian this whole time and I completely forgot to tell them I was vegetarian when I booked the tour (I am not really vegetarian, I was just being cautious during this trip). Luckily, Eric ate a little bit of my chicken so I didn’t get questioned.
After lunch, it was time to swim. Eric and I got into the freezing cold water to wait for our elephant friends to join us. The temperature would have been fine if it was warm out, but it was overcast and a little cool in the mountains.
We quickly got used to it and forgot about the temperature as soon as we saw the elephants walking down the hill.
As soon as the elephants were in the water, it was bathing time. We scrubbed and washed them as best as we could, but we weren’t really given any instruction on where to scrub them so I’m not sure if we did a good job or not. The elephants seemed to be enjoying themselves so I guess it didn’t matter.
At one point, Himboon decided to suck up some water and make himself a fountain. His young mahout ran over and pointed Himboon’s trunk at Eric and got him all wet. Himboon and his mahout thought it was hilarious.
We played in the water with the elephants for about an hour and then the elephants had enough. We all climbed out and started our trek back to camp.
Going back was a little more difficult because the elephants had made the ground even more muddy with their heavy feet. Still, no one fell. I am so shocked since I’m the clumsiest person alive.
On the way back, Longcha was being a bit mischievous. She was behind Eric and could smell the leftover food in our bags (we took everything with us since there’s no trash collection in the jungle). Every now and then we both would see a trunk sneak over our shoulders and into our bags. We kept having to push her trunk away and then she would give us a little tap on the head like she was saying, “fine! I guess I’ll starve!” It was really funny. Mr. Billy told us Longcha assumed anything yellow/orange was food so that’s why she kept trying to grab my shirt (and why I said she thought my shirt was a banana).
Once we were back at camp, Mr. Billy gave us more baskets of food. This time it was bananas and sugarcane. Himboon and Longcha went behind the fence like before so we could feed them. It was harder to keep the baskets away from their sneaky trunks since we were so close to them.
After the snacks, we sadly said goodbye to our elephant friends and made our way back to the hut to change and clean up.
Mr. Billy had snacks of our own waiting for us once we had changed and rinsed the mud off our hands and arms. Our snack was watermelon and french fries. It was a strange combination, but we were so starving it didn’t matter what it was.
Sitting in that hut on top of the hill with the cool mountain breeze blowing almost brought tears to my eyes. The day had been so incredible and the landscape we were in the middle of was so beautiful. I didn’t want to leave.
Sadly, we did leave and Toto was right there with us. We stopped to take a quick picture standing above the rice fields before heading back to the first camp in the sanctuary.
As we were walking back, Eric noticed a group of elephants walking together up on a ridge above where we were. Mr. Billy said that group was a few of the other elephants within the sanctuary. They had a total of 8 elephants at this sanctuary and the only two that currently stayed in a pen were Valentine and Lucky. The rest of the elephants roamed free and would come to the camps when they wanted a snack or if their mahouts called them.
Mr. Billy also explained that the elephants would only listen to their mahout and would not listen to anyone else. This was why the mahouts had to go with us trekking in the jungle. The elephants knew their mahout’s voice and specific commands. Much like a dog is loyal to their “person”.
We got back to the first camp, rinsed off our boots, changed into our other shoes, and then it was time to leave. The ride back to our hotel was quiet; we may have even dozed off a bit (it was a long day).
Finally, back at BED, we said goodbye to Mr. Billy and Mr. Lit and tipped them both well for such a fantastic day.
It was around 4:30 pm and we were exhausted. So we decided to hang out at the pool for a little while. I finally had a little time to write in my blog!
Around 6:00 pm we were starving again. Eric really wanted to try the star dish of Chiang Mai, Khao Soi, so we looked up some places with high ratings for this dish specifically. Kat’s Kitchen looked like the best place near our hotel so that’s where we headed.
Kat’s Kitchen was very small but looked to be a tourist favorite. We saw quite a few people eating there alone that were either expats or backpackers. We learned that Kat is an actual person and she cooks all the food on her own. So no matter what we ordered, Kat would be making it.
I ordered shrimp and pineapple fried rice and Eric got Khao Soi with chicken. Both of our dishes were enormous but delicious.
After dinner, we couldn’t quit. So we went in search of ice cream. I found a rolled ice cream stand and had to get some. It wasn’t the best ice cream I’ve ever had, but it was really hot out so I didn’t care.
Our ice cream stop was just about the tipping point for both of us. Around 9:00 pm we made our way back to BED to get showered and ready for our next adventurous day taking a Thai Cooking Class.
*As I’ve done a bit more research I’ve learned that even bathing elephants is considered unethical. I still believe Blue Tao is an ethical village because they limit their visitors. Many of the so-called “sanctuaries” that promote elephant bathing do this with groups of 10 tourists or more several times a day. Blue Tao limits groups to 4 (or 6 if it’s a family) and the elephants only see that one small group a day which means only one bath that they would have received whether we were there or not. We were the only two visitors there that day.
I want to mention this now to avoid backlash and assumptions that I am uneducated when it comes to ethical animal encounters. Although, many would argue that an animal encounter isn’t truly ethical if you are able to touch the animals at all. These elephants were rescued and are used to human interaction. I am not an expert in animal welfare so maybe I am naive in thinking this village could be ethical, but I believe I did my absolute best to choose a place that treated their animals in a humane way.