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Elephant experience - Chiang Mai

Have you ever scrolled through Instagram only to be extremely jealous when coming across a friend’s picture riding an elephant in some Asian or African country?

Maybe they were dressed in a colorful outfit or wearing a headscarf.

Maybe they were riding through a jungle or a desert.

No matter the scene, I’m sure they looked like they were having a blast and I’m sure you thought, ‘I can’t wait to do that someday.’

That’s exactly what went through my mind when planning my trip to Chiang Mai. Two friends had been there a few months earlier and I was so excited by their pictures. It looked as if they were having the time of their lives sitting on the elephants’ backs and even being lifted by their trunks.

Well, I’m sure they were, but after my day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, I learned the elephants in their pictures probably weren't having as great of a time as my friends were.

‘Ethical elephant adventure.’ That’s this sanctuary’s motto.

Ethical? I didn't realize elephant adventure could be unethical?

Surprisingly, elephants backs actually aren't designed to carry the weight of a human. Their enormous stature and thick build expectably lead most of us to think otherwise.

Horses are an example of an animal whose backs are perfectly suited to carry the weight of a human. But where’s the safari esque fun in that?

Also, though elephants are often portrayed as extremely gentle and overly loving, wild elephants don't naturally welcome strangers climbing on their backs or hanging on their trunks.

In order for an elephant to submit to the will of tourists, he has to be ‘broken’ or ‘crushed,’ which is the literal meaning of the word ‘phajaan.’

‘Phajaan’ is the elephant taming practice that has been used in Thailand for hundreds of years. Our friends at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary say this can most closely be compared to crushing the baby elephant’s spirit.

This ‘crushing’ involves separating a baby elephant from his mother for the first time, tying him down in a violent and painful way and depriving him of food and water for a number of days.

But it doesn't stop there, the baby elephant is also beaten and abused in unthinkable ways, sometimes causing permanent damage to the ears and trunk.

It isn't uncommon for a baby elephant to pass away during this torture. Others can become completely aggressive and dangerous. But those babies who feel they have no other option but to submit to their new ‘master’ are then trained to be ridden and perform tricks.

The mistreatment doesn't end after the animals have been tamed. The fear of being abused is what keeps the elephants quiet while working in camps.

As horrific and surprising as this may come across, the good news is there’s an increasing number of elephant camps working to combat this epidemic.

No ride, no hook camps are providing sanctuary to elephants who were ridden and mistreated as babies. These camps are also raising elephant families in healthy and inclusive ways.

Sure, going to one of these camps means you won’t get a picture atop one of these beautiful giants, but you will get plenty of pictures with the elephants doing loving and productive activities.

My day at the sanctuary began with teaching the elephants to recognize and warm up to us by feeding them an endless supply of mini bananas. Exchanging the bananas for fond looks and trunk hugs, we quickly found our way into each other’s hearts.

Next we strolled into the jungle and hopped in a small pond, where we got to bathe the elephants and play in the water with them. Splashing around under the hot sun was a great way to help the elephants, and ourselves, cool off.

Then came the mud baths. As if playing in the mud wasn't fun enough, throw elephants in the mix and you're in for a surreal experience.

The mud serves as sun screen for the animals, and apparently for people as well. Along with the UV protection, rolling around in the mud is a great way to get down and dirty with your new elephant friends.

After spending a full afternoon with the elephants and the people who care for them, the love and appreciation shared between the animals and the workers was nothing short of obvious. After learning how poor these relationships can be, seeing this genuine connection was a breath of fresh air.

It’s hard not to leave the camp feeling inspired, and luckily if you feel that inspiration taking over, the sanctuaries have plenty of opportunities for volunteering.

Regardless of the setting, the chance to interact with these majestic creatures is something you'll never forget. Knowing you're taking part in a movement to rescue them simply makes the experience that much more fulfilling and worthwhile.

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