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Into the Wild Elephant Camp Review: Chiang Mai

Into the Wild Elephant Camp Review: Chiang Mai

Making sure the elephant sanctuary that we chose to visit was ethical was something so important to me whilst researching our trip.

Into The Wild Elephant camp stood out as a small sanctuary that genuinely cared for the elephants they rescued, getting up close and personal with such a gentle giant is a truly incredible feeling and one that you want to ensure you feel happy about once you leave.

The jungles of Chiang Mai are scattered with elephant sanctuaries, it is by far one of the most unforgettable things you can do in Chiang Mai, but finding an ethical one is our responsibility as a paying tourist. 

An ethical elephant sanctuary is somewhere that values the well-being and happiness of their animals over profit, not exploiting the elephants to make money.

Throughout this Into the Wild Elephant Camp Review, I will provide you with a full overview of the day, my honest opinion about the sanctuary and why I recommend visiting Into the Wild Elephant Camp.

Into the Wild Elephant Camp 

How to Book

You can find all the information about Into the Wild Elephant Camp and the half and full-day tours on their website, you can book your chosen tour there too.

However, once we decided on the full-day tour I used WhatsApp to book directly, this way I got a very quick response and some information about the day.

So to book either:

What is included in the full-day tour

The full-day tour which we chose cost 2,400 baht (£55) per person – this is up there with some of the best money we spent throughout our trip.

Included in this price is:

  • Transport to and from accommodation in Chiang Mai (dependent on location)
  • English speaking guide
  • Lunch
  • Drinking water
  • Insurance
  • Photography throughout the day which is then shared with you after
  • Food to give to the elephants
  • Roughly 6 hours at the camp with the elephants

What to bring on the day

For the full-day tour, there are many different activities throughout the day to observe the elephants, make sure you don’t forget the below items to ensure you have the best time possible

  • Swimsuit
  • Towel
  • Change of clothes 
  • Walking shoes for the jungle hike
  • Suncream
  • Inspect repellant 
  • Jumper for the drive to/from

Firstly – Why are all the Thai Elephants in Sanctuaries?

The elephants of Thailand have a long history of domestication which is believed to go back as far as 2000 BC.

Throughout the centuries they have been used in wars and for the logging industry, however, following the ban on commercial logging in 1989 all of these elephants and their owners were suddenly left with uncertain futures.

No longer able to use their elephants for the logging trade meant that unfortunately many elephants were then trained to perform unnatural tricks such as begging and being used for rides.

In the last few decades, elephants have mainly been used for riding and entertainment purposes with many tourists taking part in this mistreatment, completely unaware of the abuse that happens behind closed doors.

Fortunately, through media coverage of this mistreatment, tourists are now more and more aware of the physical and psychological damage these animals endure to be able to have youride on their backs or perform tricks.

Luckily there are many out there who have changed the way we interact with elephants and because of this many sanctuaries are following suit, stopping unethical practices and educating tourists on elephants and how we should be treating them.

Visiting a sanctuary is not an unethical thing to do however, it is our responsibility as paying customers to ensure the sanctuaries we visit are ethical and that our money is going towards the well-being of these animals.

Into the Wild Elephant Camp Review

Pick up

The day before our trip we were told that pick up would be between 8.30/9 am and to wait in our hotel lobby.

Our guide was there prompt and on time, we introduced ourselves and headed to our tuk-tuk to collect the other guests and start the day.

‼️ Note that as the transport is in a tuk-tuk and takes about 1.5 hours I would recommend bringing a jumper as the sides are open and once you leave Chiang Mai and head onto the highways and up into the mountains it can get very chilly!

About halfway to Into the Wild Elephant Camp, we stopped off at a local market, where we could use the toilet, and buy coffee and buy breakfast.

The journey up until this point was not bad and consisted mainly of highways, however, once you leave the market you start heading up into the mountains. The last part of the journey is incredibly bumpy as you go off-roading to the camp.

Nestled deep within the jungles of Chiang Mai amongst a freshwater river and emerald hills is a large open space that the elephants and Into the Wild Elephant Camp call home.

First Impressions

Arriving at the camp I was full of emotions, I had read hundreds of positive reviews but when you care so deeply about the decisions you make to impact the lives of animals, you cannot help but wonder if you made the right decision.

Once we had all come back to earth after gazing at the elephants in amazement, we were given an overview of the history of elephants in Thailand, how they have been used for generations in the country and why they were originally domesticated.

Our guide then explained the different characteristics of domesticated and wild elephants and the history of Into the Wild Elephant Camp, what they do for the local community and how they are working to help the local elephants going forward.

After we were given a background on each of the elephants and told why they were at the camp

They have 4 elephants overall, two mature females and two teenage females. Both mature females had been rescued, one from logging and one from riding, one had then given birth and her calf lives with her here at the camp. The other teenage female was also a rescue.

Feeding

Once we were familiar with the elephants and their stories it was feeding time, the elephants were hungry and were definitely not as shy as we were.

The feeding is carried out across a fence to get us used to them because you think you expect to know how big they are but I promise you, you will be blown away.

Feeding the elephants was so interesting, some took a single banana while others gathered 5 or 6 before stuffing them into their mouths, the guides and mahouts were there ensuring the feeding was evenly balanced and everyone got enough.

💡 A mahout traditionally was an elephant keeper and rider, at Into the Wild Elephant Camp the mahouts are from the local communities and they now live on-site with the elephants. Each one has a strong bond with their elephant and they help care for them, ensuring they are healthy and happy.

After finishing off the bananas we gave them grains which we held in the palm of our hands and the elephants sucked them off like a hoover, this was an incredibly strange feeling and hilarious to experience.

Elephants spend about 80% of their day feeding, which means they need to eat around 150kg per day! Due to the amount they must consume the camp encourages the elephants to forage for a percentage of their food in the surrounding jungle, just as they would naturally in the wild.

This meant it was time to get our trainers on and head off into the jungle to observe.

Jungle Walk 

Watching these gentle giants not so gently trample their way through the forest and being so close to them was very special. 

We got to see them strip branches, push down whole trees just to get to the fresh new leaves at the top and throw dust around at themselves and each other.

It was so comforting to watch the elephants do as they pleased and behave completely naturally, the mahouts were never too far away but at no point were they guided in any direction or made to do anything they didn’t want to. 

The mahouts were mainly there to ensure we didn’t get in the elephant’s way!

Whilst exploring through the jungle our guide gave us so much information about the elephants, he explained the state of elephant care in Thailand and how sanctuaries are working together to try and ensure all elephants can live out their days with dignity in caring sanctuaries. He also pointed out what nutrients the elephants get from the jungle they are in. 

He was happy to answer any questions about the elephants, the sanctuary, his history and the future of elephants in Thailand.

Lunch

Once we were all back at the camp the elephants were given some food and headed off to the shade to eat in peace, at the same time our lunch was served.

Lunch consisted of massaman curry, sweet and sour chicken, morning glory, rice, fruit and water.

Taking part in the full-day tour means that nothing feels rushed, we were encouraged to take our time to eat and allowed to relax and observe the elephants going about their lives.

The camp is also home to some rescue dogs who had puppies, these were very funny and great entertainment.

Vitamin Ball making

The camp provides the elephants with a daily dose of vitamins to ensure they can help maintain their health, digestion and hydration.

To give them their vitamins they have the guests create vitamin balls, which are ground up with a traditional wooden pestle and mortar and then hand-rolled into balls.

Each vitamin ball is made up of grains, banana, sugarcane, turmeric, salt and bitter root.

The elephants knew what was coming as by the time we had finished rolling them into balls they were all lined up at the fence watching and patiently waiting.

Bathing

In the wild elephants will naturally bathe in mud and rivers to maintain their skin, this helps them to remain healthy getting rid of ticks and other parasites. 

Domesticated elephants are now observed and cared for by humans so these wild habits are not really necessary for them anymore.

Elephant bathing is a big part of elephant tourism in Thailand, if I am completely honest it was a part of the day I didn’t want to take part in, I just didn’t feel comfortable with it and I don’t know if the elephants are forced to take part or genuinely want to.

After watching for a little while and observing for myself that the elephants were not forced to be there I felt more comfortable and did take part, still intimidated by these giants though I didn’t get too involved.

Another reason is that the ‘mud’ you’re standing in and get covered in, is mainly made up of elephant poop and stinks!

After the elephants head into the river we were allowed to help get the remaining mud off.

Being in the water with an elephant is not for the faint-hearted, we were instructed to stay away from their legs and remain vigilant. They are very quick and when they want to get up and move they do regardless of where you’re standing.

I stayed out of the water for a while as I wanted to ensure I was comfortable with the situation and that the elephants were allowed to do as they wanted before taking part. 

Jack however was not afraid of the elephants and was in the water with them chatting to the guide, washing them down and playing with them.

It was pretty amazing to watch, he was cleaning the larger female and her daughter then he started to splash around to be playful and she started to play too, splashing her trunk and face around in the water trying to splash him.

After a rather smelly dip in the river, we all headed up for a shower to change back into our clothes.

Once everyone was dry and ready we thanked the guides and mahouts and said goodbye to the elephants before heading back to the tuk-tuks for our drive back to Chiang Mai.

The group at Into the Wild Elephant camp

My Ethical Dilemma 

Personally, I think that bathing elephants is something that should be phased out, elephants deserve enough respect to not have to do certain things for our entertainment. Simply being in their presence and being able to observe these incredible animals is enough of a privilege. 

I took part in the bathing at Into the Wild Elephant Camp after witnessing how they were allowed to behave and treated, when an elephant wanted to get out of the mud or water and be alone they were allowed to, they were not coaxed back in with food or encouraged to remain.

I would not take part in bathing again unless I could see that the elephants were allowed to come and go as they wished. However, given all the other activities and interactions we had with them throughout the day, I do not think it is needed and feel as tourists we should stop expecting it. 

Like riding, if we stop pursuing it, it will stop happening.

Bathing with the elephants in the water

Final thoughts 

I cannot recommend Into the Wild Elephant Camp enough, you can see that all of the locals and even the guides have such strong and unique bonds with the elephants.

They do truly care about them and the elephants are allowed to spend as much, or as little time with the guests as they like. 

Finding an ethical elephant sanctuary is something that many people are now prioritising, the more we spread awareness of unethical practices and the more people educate themselves, the better we can ensure the future of the famous Thai elephant. 

I came away from the day happy to be supporting such a great sanctuary, I felt very lucky to have been a part of these gentle giants’ lives, even if it was just for one day.

Visiting an elephant sanctuary is not an unethical thing to do, if you visit the right one your money is going to a good cause and will truly help the well-being of these animals and the communities surrounding them.

You are also having a transformative experience by educating yourself about these animals and getting to be in their presence. 

I had an incredible day at Into the Wild Elephant Camp but I would always recommend that you carry out your own research to ensure you find a sanctuary you are comfortable with visiting. 

Couple with elephant at into the wild

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