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How to choose – Which Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai ?

Did you know there are over 30 elephant camps in Chiang Mai? How do you go about choosing which elephant camp to visit ? This comes as no surprise as visiting the elephants is the #1 Tourist activity in Chiang Mai.  These majestic mammals have become a symbol of tourism in Chiang Mai and it seems everybody wants a piece of the action.  So….how do you choose which elephant camp in Chiang Mai to visit ?

Well….its important that you do your research beforehand, to avoid disappointment. If you’re starting from scratch and have no idea about what type of elephant experience you want, or which camp to visit, we can help break it down for you.

First of all, they go by so many names…..Elephant camps, Elephant parks, Elephant sanctuaries, or Elephant reserves. Whichever name you want to use, they all offer the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with these majestic giant mammals.  The sites with ‘sanctuary’ or ‘reserve’ in their name, might convey a bit more of an eco-friendly type feeling (which might well be the case), but in general all these sites are fundamentally tourist attractions, but use the money from tourism to help sustain their elephants. Elephants have massive food requirements, did you know that it costs 1,000bt/30USD  a day to feed an elephant? (For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll stick to the term ‘Elephant camp’).

When choosing the best elephant camp in Chiang Mai, a big concern will be how to choose an ethical elephant camp….and we’ll cover this later on.

First of all…here’s a little background to elephant tourism in Chiang Mai

Which elephant camp in Chiang Mai ?

Elephants Chiang Mai

Elephant Tourism in Thailand – Background 

Historically, ancient kings of Siam used to ride on elephants and used them in warfare. Later on, they were used as work animals, helping to clear forests and carry timber. They played an important role in the once-booming teak industry of Thailand, until teak logging became prohibited in 1989.

Over the years, deforestation and loss of natural habitat meant that the Elephant population declined rapidly. Today in Thailand there are an estimated 5,000-6,000 elephants and over half of them are involved in tourism.  Allowing tourists to visit captive elephants for a fee, seemed an ideal solution to help sustain the remaining elephant population. It provided a realistic and practical way in which mahouts could sustain their animals.  And so the birth of elephant tourism and elephant camps began. The natural curiosity and fascination we have with these majestic mammals, simply led to the boom of elephant tourism. It still remains the most popular tourist activity in Chiang Mai today.

Things to consider

Is visiting an Elephant Camp Ethical ?

Is visiting an elephant camp ethical? Should I visit one? The ethics of elephant tourism are shrouded in controversy, much like the ethics of visiting the Long neck tribe. In recent years there has been increased awareness, about the cruelty of elephant tourism and the ill-effects caused by riding on them. It might come as a surprise, but an elephant’s back is fragile, unlike a horse, it is not built to support large weights on its back. So carrying a bunch of tourists (and worse still if a wooden chair attached to it), is actually very harmful to an elephant.

After growing pressure, many elephant camps stopped offering rides, and branded themselves as ‘no riding’ camps to be seen as ethical and cruelty-free. Perhaps some camps did genuinely stop rides, with the elephant’s best interests at heart. Whatever the motivation, there does seem to be a very real shift in the mindset of elephant camp owners towards making the elephant experience as elephant-friendly as possible.

What is sure, is that elephants in Thailand can no longer exist independently in the wild, and are dependent on humans to take care of them. And that elephant tourism and elephant conservation are now interdependent.

What is definitely not ethical though, are the elephants you see begging on the streets. This is actually illegal, and thankfully the Thai government has cracked down on this.

Elephants don’t belong on the beach either, this is not their natural habitat and it’s not comfortable for them. The salt water is not good for them and there’s very little shade. So if you ever see an elephant on the beach or street, then don’t support its mahout in any way.

Walking with the elephants Chiang Mai

Walking with the elephants Chiang Mai

What type of elephant camps are there ? 

When choosing the best elephant camp in Chiang Mai for you, you’ll want to think about how much time you have. Some camps offer 2 day experiences, full day, half-day or on a drop-in basis.

Most full-day packages, offer the chance to learn to be an elephant trainer (mahout) for the day. You can get really hands-on with the elephants, and learn to take care of them as a mahout would, through activities such as feeding and bathing them. Here’s an example of an outline for a typical full-day elephant package:

Sample 1 Day Elephant Experience 

  • Upon arrival at the camp, change into Mahout Clothes
  • Introduction about the Thai Elephant, lifestyle and behavior
  • Feed elephants with banana and sugar cane.
  • Lunch
  • Enjoy bathing your elephant in a mud spa
  • Drop off back at your hotel

There will be slight variations of this from camp to camp.  For example, some camps offers a short trek and swim in a waterfall, whereas others offer riding.

Drop-In Camps? 

Then there are the ‘drop in’ type camps, such as Mae Sa and Mae Taeng elephant camps. These offer elephant rides and shows, and you pay ‘per ride’ or ‘per show’.  This type of camp, is definitely more commercial and more for the package-deal type tourist who’s primary concern is entertainment.

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that such camps must be bad for the elephants. But then I came across this interesting page from Mae Sa Elephant Camp- one of the original and oldest elephant camps in Chiang Mai, founded around 30 years ago. When asked why their elephants are in chains, their explanation seems  like a valid one. Their elephants came to them from different situations, and from different herds, many of them rescued from redundancy after not being able to work in the forests.  As they came in from different families, no hierarchy existed for them, and so they will fight with one another and battle for dominance. Whereas in many of the new camps, many of their elephants were born there, and raised together as a family.   This shows the other side of the coin to a very complex issue. Perhaps the older camps, due to the confines of historical circumstances, cannot be as elephant-friendly as their newer rival camps.

Bathing Elephant Camp Chiang Mai

Enjoying a mud spa with the elephants @ an Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai

Elephant Camp Prices 

Prices range hugely from the most expensive ones such as Patara charge 5,800bt for a full-day experience, down to the Mae Rim Sanctuary which charges 2,000bt.  I would not necessarily say that the more you pay the better your experience will be.  You just need to do your research to find the right type of camp for you. Most elephant camps include in their price,  complimentary transfer service to and from your hotel (if staying in the old city) and lunch.

Small or Large Groups ?

When choosing the best elephant camp in Chiang Mai for you, you’ll want to consider if you want be part of a large group or prefer a more intimate experience in a smaller group.  Some camps are larger with 20 plus elephants and others are smaller with less than 10 elephants.  So before booking, ask the camp how big the groups will be.

For example, Karen Tribe Natives Elephants offers more intimate elephant experiences, they have only around 10 elephants in total, and you can opt for a private experience which is around the same price as being a group. What’s pretty interesting, is that their focus is on showing you the way of life of the Karen hill tribe, and how they live with the elephants. The Karen hill tribe are well known for their kinship with elephants, and historically have co-existed together.  As such the Karen are renown for their skills as excellent mahouts. Indeed most of the mahouts you come across at any of the elephants camps in Chiang Mai today are from the Karen tribe.

What to Bring: Hat, Sunscreen, Sandals/Flip Flops, Change of clothing as you may get muddy or wet, Swimsuit, Towel, Shoes for walking, Camera, Bug Repellent.

Tip! Most elephant camps become heavily booked up during the high season months of Oct –Feb, so its best to book in advance

Directory of Elephant Camps in Chiang Mai 

There’s so much information online about the different elephant camps, but it’s all spread out over the internet from different sources such as Tripadvisor reviews to travel blog posts. To help you choose the best elephant camp in Chiang Mai, we’ve compiled a directory of all the different camps. This lists out factors such; Elephant Camp Prices, Half-day options, whether they offer riding etc.

Download our Directory of Elephant Camps in Chiang Mai . The list is correct as of the time of writing, and not exhaustive.


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