Ethical Elephant Experience – Thailand with Kids

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Participating in an elephant experience is the quintessential tourist activity in Thailand. Whether it be riding elephants, or visiting sanctuaries to care for them, nearly everyone who visits Thailand plans to see elephants during their visit. Elephant camps have come under a great deal of fire in recent years due to elephants being mistreated, abused and neglected for the sake of a show and/or a ride.

We wanted to have an elephant experience that was kid-friendly but also not harmful to the elephants. On a recent long weekend away, we visited an elephant sanctuary known as Elephant Retirement Park which fit the bill completely.

Getting There and Getting Started

The day started with hotel pick-up at our hotel in Chiang Mai. Transport was in a 12-passenger, air-conditioned van. After picking up a few more tour guests, we started on our one-hour ride to the camp. We stopped about halfway there at a convenience store which sold snacks and had restrooms. The van was staffed by a driver and an English-speaking guide.

Introduction to Elephant Retirement Camp
Introduction to Elephant Retirement Camp by guide “Lek”

Upon arrival, our guide did a short presentation on the different species of elephants as well as the history of the camp and the work that they do. The group had about 20 people and Miss C was the only child. However, the group and staff were very sweet with her, and even tolerated her running around the room during the intro presentation.

Feeding Elephants

After the intro, we cut some sugar cane, gathered it and bananas into bags and purchased milk for the baby elephants to drink and headed off to meet the mighty beasts we came to see!

There are about 7 elephants at the park. Several of the more inquisitive elephants met us on our walk down. Miss C was beside herself. She laughed out-loud and kept saying “chang” (Thai for elephant) over and over again. The young ones were especially excited for the milk that we purchased. Joel got to feed a bottle to a young elephant!

Joel feeding a baby elephant a bottle
Joel bottle-feeding a young elephant

From there we interacted with a gigantic elephant they were calling “Big Mama.” She was the oldest and largest elephant in the park at 35 years old. I couldn’t believe how large she was as she towered above me. The trainer said that in the past she had worked in the circus and was quite smart but she wasn’t quite as exciting to visitors as the younger, more playful elephants so even though she needs to eat the most, visitors would often give most of their food to the smaller ones. We made sure to give her an extra helping!

Us with Big Mama
Us with Big Mama

Feeding Ourselves

Lunch at Elephant Retirement Park
Lunch at Elephant Retirement Park

After feeding the elephants, it was time for the lunch break. The lunch was buffet style, tasty and had several options: chicken, sweet potato fries, stir-fried mixed vegetables, fried rice and white rice. Lunch also included a free bottle of water. The water bottle could be refilled with drinking water for free or there were other drinks such as coke, beer and bottled water available for purchase (most around 20 baht).

After lunch, we got ready to get down and dirty with the elephants! We changed into clothes that they provided, although I would recommend wearing a swim suit underneath as the clothes may not fit correctly (many of them were very large).

Elephant Playtime!

Playing in the mud with Elephants

We then walked with the elephants down to a mud pit. We were invited to climb down in the mud with them and rub the elephants with the mud which cools them off and protects them from the sun. The mud was a bit stinky and hard to walk in, but who could pass up the experience of rolling in the mud with elephants?! We jumped right in. Miss C only tolerated the elephant mud bath, but then an elephant blew mud right in her face and she was “ALL DONE PLAY MUD!” We hosed her off with some clean water and then watched from the top as her Dada played in the mud.

After the mud bath, we played in the sand with the elephants. They seemed to be having a genuinely fun time, especially the baby elephant who was rolling and playing in it.

Baby elephant rolling in the sand
Baby elephant rolling in the sand

The final part was what attracted us to the elephant experience in the first place – the chance to swim with elephants! We later reflected that we were glad we went in the stinky mud because it definitely made us appreciate the pond later. We were given plastic bowls and brushes to wash and scrub the elephants. The elephants loved to splash, roll around and even go underwater. It was definitely a highlight of the trip. Miss C was happy during this time, but did not want me to let her go, which I was totally happy about! From there we all showered and changed and gathered our things to head back.

Bathing and swimming with the elephants
Bathing and swimming with the elephants


Ethical Considerations

While it’s impossible to tell absolutely everything that goes on in the camp from a few hours spent there, the appearances were all very good. The trainers seemed to truly love the elephants and enjoy spending time with them. They joked with them, rolled around with them, and treated them very sweetly. Several of them talked about how hard life was for the elephants before they came to live at the camp. There was no riding of the elephants and no hooks being used to discipline the elephants.

We never saw anything approaching abuse of the elephants, and they were free to roam and come and go as they pleased. The animals seemed to all enjoy being near people. At one point when the mama elephant with the youngest baby (6 months) wanted some time away from the group, they were allowed to keep their distance. One of the elephants wore a rope which the trainer said was in case he ran away because he was a little skittish. However, they never had to use it.

Kid-Friendly Experience

Miss C loved petting the elephants
After a bit of initial trepidation, Miss C got right in there and loved on the elephants

As with anything involving a 2-year old, I wasn’t sure how Miss C would do at the elephant camp, especially as we had booked a full-day experience which meant it would run through her nap time. However, I was pleasantly surprised. She was a bit intimidated by the elephants, but she loved watching them, and after just a bit wanted to pet them and feed them too. The staff was very accommodating and nice to her. One thing I appreciated the most about this camp in particular was that all of the activities happened fairly close to the lodge. Even though we didn’t have to, it was nice to know that if we needed a break we could step away and come back later without bailing on the entire experience.

I did feel like I needed to hold her any time we were near the elephants. Since they aren’t tied up, they roam pretty freely and can sneak up on you a bit. I was worried she would get trampled by an elephant who didn’t see her if she was walking around on her own. She was glad to be held, but is something to keep in mind if you are planning a trip there. We found the entire experience to be very kid friendly. As an added bonus, children under 3 are free!

Final Tips and Information

There is a photographer who took pictures of our group the entire day and they offer them for sale on a disc for 200 baht at the end. While we took our own photos as well, it is nice to be able to just enjoy the elephants while someone else takes the pictures.

You should bring sunscreen, a swim suit and wear flip flops or other easily removable shoes. You will not be walking a lot so you don’t need to worry about good-soled shoes.