When we are planning a new adventure a big part of our pre-trip research goes to what we can do that is sustainable and eco-friendly. Things were no different before our trip to Chiang Rai and Elephant Valley Thailand came up as an ecotourism option that ticked all the right boxes!
We had an amazing day watching the elephants of the sanctuary roaming freely in their home. They were happily playing with each other and there were clear relationships between the animals. It is still possible to enjoy an animal without riding it and it is places like these that we need to support as travelers. A place where the animal is just allowed to be itself.
Here is what we learnt about Elephant Valley Thailand and what we got up to during the day:
Elephant Valley Thailand
What they do
Elephant Valley Thailand, based on the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, is still a relatively new initiative, and they have only been open for about a year and a half. They are home to 6 elephants and there is 40 acres of land for them to spend their time.
They style themselves as a true sanctuary for elephants. 90% of the time the elephants keep to themselves and you can observe them from a distance. Occasionally a mahout (elephant handler) might have to step in to encourage them to not only eat at one place and sometimes the elephants may get a little destructive, needing to be guided elsewhere.
For the time being the elephants are still chained up to sleep to help with their sleeping habits but this is a necessary evil brought on by their life of servitude. The end goal is to never need to use chains again.
The elephants essentially need to be taught how to be elephants again. This is the sick thing about animal encounter tourism, it strips the animals of their identity. Once the elephants are able to look after themselves they will be introduced into a larger compound before finally being released back into the wild.
There are 2 times during the day that visitors are allowed to feed the elephants. Touching the elephants is discouraged. This feeding time is completely voluntary for the elephants, they are not forced or encouraged to go. It is also useful because it gives the staff an opportunity to feed the elephants any vitamins they may need and the elephants know that they will be getting a treat of bananas.
What you can do
There are several tour options you can choose with Elephant Valley Thailand. Monique and I chose to do a full day tour with volunteering. It cost 1800 BHT each and included hotel pick up and drop off in Chiang Rai, a full lunch and a whole day to enjoy the elephants.
There is also a half day option for 1400 BHT during either the morning or afternoon. It also includes pick up, drop off and a meal. We are glad we did the whole day because the morning group missed out on a great play session that the elephants had with a tyre. It involved lots of trumpeting and throwing the tyre everywhere!
You can also book an overnight stay at the Elephant Valley Thailand Homestay. This costs 1800 BHT and includes meals and transport.
The entire project costs about $30 000 a month to maintain and they rely almost entirely on tourists visiting. It is something really worthwhile to support so if you’re around, look into booking a day!
The Elephant Valley Thailand Ethos
At Elephant Valley Thailand you cannot do activities like riding or bathing with the elephants. An elephant sanctuary is a place where an elephant gets to live a natural existence and these activities have no place there.
The sanctuary promotes 5 freedoms for the elephants:
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
By providing fresh water and good diet to maintain health and vigor.
2. Freedom from discomfort
By providing an appropriate environment for the animal concerned.
3. Freedom from injury, pain or disease
By the use of appropriate handling techniques and the rapid diagnosis and treatment of injuries and illnesses.
4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
By providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
5. Freedom from fear and distress
By ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
Our Experience of the Elephants
Each elephant had such a distinct personality. There was a clear hierarchy and the older elephants looked out for the younger ones. Probably the best part of the day was seeing how the elephants interacted with each other! Here is what Elephant Valley Thailand has to say about their elephants and some of our experiences too:
Mo Dee (meaning good mother)
Mo Dee was the first elephant at the sanctuary. She looks out for the youngest elephant, Lou. She is the most advanced in rehabilitation and behavioral development. She was also the first elephant to sleep lying down and the first to be comfortable to lie down during the day.
She had stepped on a landmine in 1995 and her keeper had never got her proper medical attention. The sanctuary sent her to the elephant hospital in Lampang where all the shrapnel and scar tissue could finally be removed.
Mo Lou Por (meaning cotton)
Lou is the newest and youngest elephant at Elephant Valley Thailand. She is feisty and is full of life. She is easily spooked by loud noises and will call for Mo Dee. Mo Dee does not hesitate to look after her little adopted daughter!
Lou also loves bananas and we got to see her reach through the compound fence to pull out a banana tree that had been growing just too close to the edge. Despite the mahouts’ best efforts she got her prize and happily munched it while we watched.
Mo Ti Kla (Claire)
Claire is a big, confident elephant who is the guardian of the herd at the sanctuary. When she first arrived she did not get along with Lou or Jay but now she likes to stay within trunk and rump slapping distance with Jay!
She is either off on her own enjoying the delicious grasslands or else fussing over the other elephants. While we were watching them, Claire would trundle towards us causing the staff to usher us away. When she was happy with how far she had pushed us she would go back to her spot. We would walk closer and the game started again. We never got closer than 15 or 20 metres but she enjoyed forcing us to keep walking back!
Mo Jay La (Jay)
Jay is Claire’s best friend and partner in crime. Jay is only 13 years old which means she still has another 8 years of growing ahead of her and eats a lot. The sanctuary believes that she will become quite a large elephant now that she is on a healthy diet.
She is a lively, lovely elephant that is devoted to her big aunt.
Thong Inn (Old Thai for Ganesh)
Thong Inn is the only male at Elephant Valley Thailand and he is the fifth elephant to arrive. He was incredibly underweight and many of his muscles had atrophied from lack of use so the main focus is to build up his strength.
Young bull elephants can get very aggressive so he has 2 mahouts who look after him day and night. His development has been slow and sometimes it is necessary to drag chain him or have a mahout ride him during his rehabilitation process. Although in the last 4 months of his first year he didn’t need a mahout or chain!
While we were there Thong Inn was in musk which makes him even more aggressive so he was kept chained far out of the way. This didn’t stop some of the other lady elephants trying to sneak up to him! He was kept happy with truckloads of food.
Ka Moon (Old Thai name for a lady)
Ka Moon is the sixth elephant to go to the Elphant Valley Thailand. It took a while for the sanctuary to negotiate for her to be brought there. Her development is also slow but it has been steady.
It took her a long time to make friends with the other elephants, preferring to just be off by herself, eating grass and scratching on trees. She can be quite nervous so her care is centred around having the peace and quiet she needs to re-engage with her environment.
The joy of observing the elephants
It was such a pleasure to just quietly follow these magnificent creatures and see them interact. From the brief descriptions above you can get a sense of each elephant’s own personality which comes across so clearly while you are watching.
It may be exhilarating to ride such a large animal but at what expense. An elephant, or any animal for that matter, is not just an object. Many wild animals have to be broken from a young age to allow human interaction. An experience that will haunt me forever is just driving past an elephant camp in Phuket and hearing a baby elephant screaming for its mother; all the while tourists are happily queuing to get the next ride.
The joy we got just being able to watch these elephants being allowed to be elephants was indescribable and it is why I will always advocate for places like Elephant Valley Thailand.
What We Did at Elephant Valley Thailand
We were fetched from our accommodation in Chiang Rai at 8am and driven roughly one hour to the sanctuary. When we arrived we were given tea, coffee and water and a short orientation of the rules. Shortly after that we were split into 2 groups of about 10 and we were taken by a staff member to observe the elephants.
We followed the elephants at a distance for about 2 hours. The guides were happy to answer any questions and offered many interesting facts about each elephant and their history.
At about 11:00 it was time for the elephants’ showers. We sat on a platform set away from the shower area and got to watch the mahouts give each of the elephant’s a shower. It may sound dull but seeing how each elephant reacted to its bath was fascinating.
After the shower we headed to the designated feeding area. We could take several bananas and feed them to each elephant. The elephants are not forced to attend this feeding but they all seemed super happy to get fed!
After that was our lunch. We were treated to a delicious spread of Thai foods. Vegetarians were also catered for. There were bottles of water, tea and coffee available for no extra charge all day!
After lunch everyone who had signed up for the full day had the option to join the volunteer portion. We were taken to cut down some banana trees and put vitamin supplements into bananas to give to the elephants at their afternoon feeding time.
We then had another chance to watch the elephants. By now we were recognising each one and their unique personalities were even clearer.
There was another afternoon showering session followed by one more feeding time that the afternoon guests could take part in. The elephants were given the vitamin bananas we had put together and happily munched through the banana trees we had cut up.
Afterwards we were taken back to our homestay in Chiang Rai.
Things to bring
You don’t need a lot to visit the Elephant Valley Thailand but there are 3 things I would highly suggest!
- Shoes you don’t mind getting muddy
- Bug spray
Animal Encounter Tourism
You may have guessed from parts of this post that we are incredibly against animal encounter tourism. There are cruelty-free animal encounters but the vast majority are not. It may give you a great Instagram post but the suffering of the animal in that picture is horrendous.
It may seem cute to watch monkeys performing, to handle snakes, stroke cheetahs or lions, ride elephants or any of the other animal encounters that are sold. Many of these animals are trained with punishments, kept in barren cages and high stress situations. This compromises their health and mental well-being. There are also other kinds or results, for example, in many cases of lion petting those lions end up in the canned hunting industry because they are comfortable with humans.
This post is not about the bad animal encounters; you can read about that in this article by nofixedhome.com.
In this post I want to advocate finding cruelty free options when you go travelling. Tripadvisor is a great resource to use if you’re uncertain about a place. Sometimes it can be hard. Something may look great but further digging shows that it isn’t. We found a great tour that was community based but saw they also offer elephant riding. We didn’t book with them.
If you’re uncertain what to look for here is a quick guide to make sure you are avoiding the wrong sorts of attractions:
- Check the entire range of experiences offered by the company.
- No riding of elephants (or any wild animal).
- Is tourist interaction with the animals minimal? Wild animals are not meant to be cuddled, go to a petting zoo if you want that!
- Do the animals come first? For example at Elephant Valley they will not change the elephant feeding times to accommodate tourists.
- Are the animals caged or are they allowed to roam free? Unless it is for the animal’s health they should not be caged or chained.
If we as travelers can support great initiatives like Elephant Valley Thailand then the tourism market will see that there is money in eco-friendly options and that industry will outgrow the cruel options. National Geographic has some great resources on cruelty-free animal encounters.
We need to be the change.
If you’re thinking of visiting Borneo any time there are great ecotourism options there as well. You can read up about orangutans and what you can do to help these gentle creatures in our article here.
We also have an article on the Bornean Sun Bear and what you can do to help the only Sun Bear conservation centre in the world by clicking here.
A lot of the stats you read about animal treatment and abuse can be depressing but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a change. If you’re around Thailand and Chiang Rai, take a day to visit the Elephant Valley Thailand and help be that change!
It also is really worth saying that Elephants are extremely costly to feed and house. This means that as eco aware tourists we actively need to seek out and support ethical elephant encounters and sanctuaries, to prevent owners from abandoning or killing their animals. This is one industry where your money really can make a difference!
Blue skies and happy travels
Like it? Pin it!