Interacting up close and personal with elephants is one of the "must-do" items on pretty much every checklist of every visitor to Thailand - ever. And for good reason -- these beautiful giants are pretty magnificent, and hardly a daily sight for those in the West.
Trying to pick the "best" elephant camp to visit can be tricky when you take into account ethical considerations, type of activity that best suits your itinerary, and location.
We've picked some of the top elephant camps in the Chiang Mai area that employ various activities. We're aware that everyone has different opinions about what constitutes ethical treatment, so we've listed exactly what each center does and does not do, allowing you to choose what is right for you.
Patara Elephant Farm focuses on long-term elephant conservation and teaching visitors to care for the elephant as an "owner for a day" . Here, you'll be able to get the hands-on experience of taking care of an elephant, including learning how to approach an elephant, feed it and do a health check, bathe and brush it in the river, take an elephant ride, and communicate through various spoken commands.
The Elephant Nature Park has a variety of conservation programs, the shortest being a full day trip in which you will learn to feed, bath and interact with an elephant. There are also some longer stay programs which allow you closer access with the animals, in particular a week long journey in which you will participate in returning retired elephants to the jungle and hills near Karen villages, to enable them to live a more natural life.
Billing itself as an Elephant sanctuary, Baanchang Elephant Park is very strongly against separating baby elephants from their mothers, though they do accept orphaned babies into their Park. They are also very much against such activities as elephant painting and other tricks. Their goal is to teach visitors proper eating, sleeping, bathing, and exercising methods, as well as provide exercise for the elephants by allowing visitors limited riding bareback.
The Elephant Training Center in Chiang Dao take care to ensure their 32 elephants are as happy as possible, working them in the mornings only and allowing them to roam freely in the afternoons and evenings. Activities include their "Joy Ride" programme, which consists of learning basic care of elephants, elephant riding, painting with an elephant, bathing and feeding. Combine a trip to the Center with a visit to beautiful the Chiang Dao area.
The TECC is Thailand's only government-owned elephant camp and a lot more affordable than other elephant camps in Chiang Mai. Adults can visit for 200 thb and children for only 100 thb. In addition to activities such as the 40-minute show featuring logging techniques, elephant painting, and agility, you can also visit the Center's Hospital, nursery area and Dung Paper Factory. Elephant rides are available (TECC does use the traditional saddle), as well as 1 to 3 day home stay trips.