To be completely honest, I wasn’t originally going to visit an elephant sanctuary when in Thailand.
I’m not sure what changed, and when, but I do know that about 2 weeks before flying into Bangkok I found myself researching elephant sanctuaries that you could do a tour of from Chiang Mai.
I spent hours on this. Why? Because I knew that I wanted to visit a smaller place. Elephant Nature Park, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary are all very popular (in Boon Lott’s case, fully booked until next summer!). I fully support the work that these places perform. I knew, however, that I wanted something…more intimate, for lack of a better term.
Cue the dissapointment.
Because it would seem that I would stumble upon the website of a supposedly “ethical” place, only to dig deep into the tripadvisor or facebook reviews, or even find a personal blog recollection, and find warnings that these places DID now offer rides, use hooks or chains, and other unethical actions.
My requirements were simple
-NO riding. Not even bareback. An elephant is seen as strong, but it’s backbone is NOT structured such that human bodies should be placed on top. That, and the terrible treatment the elephants undergo to become “submissive” to riders.
-NO hooks and NO chains
I was getting very disheartened as my research seemed to come up nill.
I don’t even remember how it happened. I think i had googled “ethical elephant sanctuary in chiang mai” or something similar. A few results down (it may have even been the next page) a link matching exactly with “ethical elephant sanctuary” appeared. I clicked. I read. I went to their facebook and tripadvisor site.
Ethical Elephant Sanctuary (more commonly known as Elephant Dream Valley) is run by a local Karen Hill Tribe and sees small groups of around 12 people on half day and full day tours. I signed up immediately. I knew that this was what I had been looking for. And so it was.
Deep in the Chiang Mai mountains, we met their 5 elephants. Two families; one consisting of a Granma, mom, and baby, and another family of two with one mom-to-be. We got an introduction on how to behave while feeding, where to stand, how to stay safe, and some background information on the elephents. As soon as we began feeding the sugar cane I couldn’t believe I had almost passed on this whole experience.
The half day passed way too fast. I wouldn’t hesitate to come here again, and cannot recommend Elephant Dream Valley enough to anyone reading this who is interested in visiting a sanctuary. One thing that impressed me was that the tribe members actually had elephants from the same family. While reading about how some elephants are captured for riding camps, it pained me that these creatures who live in family units spend the rest of their lives alone. I was so incredible happy to know that the elephants were literally family at Elephant Dream Valley.
Another thing that impressed me were the mahouts. They were incredibly kind by offering to take pictures and answer questions, and during the mud bath they were having so much fun! This did not feel like something that was done solely for money or profit. As a non-profit all the money goes back to buy food for the elephants. And by running small group sizes, everything about my time there felt very personal and…intimate!