Last week in Chiang Mai we visited Mae Sa Elephant Camp and Tiger Kingdom with another family we met at our hostel. All we can say is WOW! Feeding baby elephants and holding a 2-month-old tiger – definitely up there on our top 10 memories from the past 11 months of travel! I’ll get to the tigers in our next post, but for now here’s our trip report from Mae Sa Elephant Camp. Mae Sa Elephant Camp was a 20-minute Song-Thaew ride from our guesthouse, SK2 House in central Chiang Mai. Or as the kids like to call them “tuk tuk tuk’s”, as they’re bigger than a tuk tuk.
From what we’ve heard there are better elephant camps further away from Chiang Mai but we were pressed for time and aware that with a tuk tuk full of kids the closer the better! Greeting us at the entrance to the camp was surprisingly not an elephant … but a snake! Hayley thought it was a plastic one and ran up to grab it – she got a rude shock and stood there for five minutes just watching the snake trying to figure out where she went wrong. Noah eventually convinced her it was OK to touch the snake.
Noah and his new friend Diego were so fascinated by the snake though they almost skipped the elephants in favour of playing with it.
“Touch him Mum, he’s friendly”, Noah keeps urging me. Funnily enough I pass on this one, thinking I’d rather be in a classroom filled with snotty 2 year olds and no tissues. As someone that has a slight snake phobia, watching your five-year-old pat a snake and carry its head with his small hands is just a little nerve-wracking. But not as nerve-wracking as touching the snake myself.
Beware the floating poo
We arrived at 9.15am, just in time to see the elephants taking their morning bath in the river. As well as getting a good scrub down, the elephants were enjoying squirting each other and playing in the water. Its quite amazing to see an entire elephant disappear under water with just their trunk sticking out. The younger elephants were a lot cheekier, trying to squirt the trainers and playing tricks.
Take a close look at the pictures of the bathing elephants – see the ladies standing downstream with baskets? Their job is to catch the floating giant elephant poo to be dried and turned into paper. Not the most glamorous job in the world but its an important industry in the area.
We each bought a large bunch of bananas and three sticks of sugarcane for 20 baht to feed the elephants who weren’t bathing, thinking this huge hoard of snacks would give us at least 20 minutes of elephant feeding fun. What we didn’t count on was the fact that crafty elephants are happy to bypass the one proffered banana if there’s a whole bunch of bananas within reach. One crafty pregnant elephant managed to steal almost all our bananas and sugar cane. It’s a lot of fun watching an indignant toddler staring at a huge adult elephant trying to work out how to get their banana’s back as the bananas quickly disappear into the elephants mouth. A good lesson in futility perhaps! As the bathing elephants emerged from the river we ended up with elephants on all sides stretching out their trunks in search of bananas. Backing up from one greedy one I lost my bananas to that same sneaky pregnant elephant waiting patiently behind me in the knowledge that sooner or later I’d move back into her reach in an attempt to get away from the greedy elephants coming out of the water. I guess it’s true that you shouldn’t stand between a hungry pregnant female and food, no matter the species.
Time for the “tourist” show
The morning elephant show starts at 9.40am. We saw elephants playing soccer, thankfully from behind a huge net as they can kick those balls a lot faster and harder than you can imagine. The elephants also performed small trick’s like putting a hat on the trainer’s head, built a wall from huge sleepers and painted canvases with a talent that many adults would envy.
Was the show cheesy? Absolutely. Should elephants be trained to do these kinds of trick’s for the amusement of humans? Undoubtedly not!
Does it lesson the impact of the painting trick knowing the elephants have probably been trained for months and months on end to know exactly where to put each dab of paint ? Well a little, but it’s still a very impressive display of their intelligence. And we certainly have a lot more respect for their strength after seeing how far they can kick a soccer ball and how large a log they can lift with just their trunks. We’re also a lot more mindful of how intelligent an animal they are after seeing them painting. Even taking into account the hours of training it would take and the fact that each elephant probably only paints the same painting day in, day out, it’s still impressive.
Personally, I would have preferred to see them in a more naturalistic setting doing what elephants are supposed to do. Watching them bathe in the river and walk through the forest would have been just as fascinating. I had misgivings about the show but the animals also appear very well cared for by the trainers and happy to be doing what they were doing, particularly playing soccer. And I guess if tourists shows like this help educate visitors and prove to local people that its worth saving the elephants than its not all bad.
After the show we wandered down to visit the nursery where the 9-month-old baby of the park hangs out with his mum. He’s a cheeky little fellow that constantly tries to steal his trainer?s hat and the backpack of any tourist who gets too close.
The kids had a great time peeling bananas for him, as he was too young to peel them himself. Afterwards, boys being boys, Noah and Diego discovered a field to run in, sprinklers and a dirt pile. Possibly the most fun they had the entire morning!
Mae Sa Elephant camp was a great family daytrip outing. The forest land the camp sits on is huge, with large areas of natural forest. It’s a beautiful, green place to wander around.
The elephants appeared really well cared for by attentive trainers and the animals themselves seemed very happy. The trainers also appear to treat the elephants very well and truly care for them. The show, while cheesy, was certainly entertaining and a great conversational starter with kids. The only thing I didn’t like about the sanctuary was it did almost nothing to educate visitors on why wild elephants are endangered and what efforts are being made to rehabilitate, relocate and save elephants in Thaialnd. I believe that their mahout training courses do cover this and perhaps there was an information area that we missed, but we certainly didn’t receive any educational talks. It would have been easy to make this information more accesble around the park and include dialogue into the show. After looking at their website, many of the ‘tricks’ that we saw during the show were supposed to demonstrate how elephants lay down to sleep and how a mahout climbs on and off the animal. We didn’t realise that during the show as no one mentioned it. It certainly would have made it a lot more interesting and educative if they had of included this information in the show.
As I said, the elephant conservation further out of Chiang Mai receive excellent reviews but going to these is a full day trip and expensive in comparison. Many of the conservation centres only seem to offer the option of a full day mahout training visit. We’d love to do that but Hayley gets too tired for a full day and she’s frankly quite terrified of elephants unless viewed from a distance. We tried riding elephants once at Kuala Gandah outside KL in Malaysia and she literally spent the few minutes of the ride clambering up on Colin so that absolutely, under no circumstance was any part of her touching the elephant.
Kuala Gandah in Malaysia does a much better job of educating visitors. Of course Kuala Gandah is a lot smaller, with a lot less elephants and its still touristy – just in a different way. Kuala Gandah also offered one activity to just tourist visitors (as opposed to those there on a full day Mahout training course) that Mae Sa didn’t – helping to bathe the baby elephants.
When looking for a song-thaew to take you out to Mae Sa Elephant Camp bargain hard! A half-day return trip covering a visit to both the camp and tiger sanctuary should cost 200-300 baht. We paid 300 baht for two families. Most drivers will want 500 baht but ask around or walk away – you will find a better deal. Entry to the Mae Sa Elephant Sanctuary cost 120 baht for adults and free for young children. You can also pay extra to ride the elephants for 30-60 minutes. For a family its 800 baht for 30 minutes.