Feeding an elephant by hand is tricky business for a rookie. You’re not quite sure when to pull your hand away or how rough the elephant will be when they take their food (answer – not very). Their tongues are surprisingly dry, and they are indeed gentle in this setting, but it can still be intimidating. It’s great fun watching people take turns, laughing as they interact, the kids squealing as elephants give them a kiss with their trunk. Yep, a day with the elephants is a great way to spend your time, and for me, it was one of the highlights of my time in Chiang Mai.
Spending a day (or half day) with the elephants is almost a cliche in this part of the world. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a phenomenal experience. If you haven’t spent time around these amazing animals – at least once in your life – give it a try. For me, this was an outing that exceeded my expectations (and they were high to begin with!).
If you’re planning a trip to Chiang Mai, as well as an elephant excursion, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably going to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find the best service provider to meet your needs. These days there are so many of them and it can seem a bit daunting.
So…who to pick?
My criteria in finding an elephant excursion provider were simple:
- They had to have a good reputation for treating elephants well, with no circus-like shows or streams of people lining up for rides.
- They had to offer an immersive experience, (hopefully) in small groups.
- They had to work with our schedule, as our group was only free after 11:30 am.
- They had to offer a comfortable ride to the site (some will slap you into the back of a songthaew for a couple of hours, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but air conditioned vans with comfy seats makes a big difference for the long and windy ride that usually accompanies these trips outside of Chiang Mai).
- They had to be affordable.
This list made it easy to narrow things down – some local companies looked fantastic on paper, but they didn’t meet our scheduling needs or pricing criteria. Others were a little dodgy on the ethical front, while a few of the more famous ones met our needs, but only offered tours in huge groups.
So when I found Blue Daily Elephant Care Sanctuary, I was thrilled. Small group tours, half-day options, comfortable transfers, ethical treatment of elephants, and excellent reviews on sites like Trip Advisor made it an easy choice.
Our time with Blue Daily began when our group was picked up from the Duangtawan Hotel in the middle of CM. We were three – me, my lovely wife Angela, and her co-worker Kathryn. We happily jumped into an air conditioned van where we met up with a nice family of four from Switzerland. Angela was thrilled when she learned they spoke French, so they all chatted away en francais, while I enjoyed the ride, picking up about half of the conversation.
We drove for almost two hours, winding our way upwards into the hills of Mae Rim. Eventually we made it to Blue Daily Elephant Care Sanctuary, a van full of happy people waiting with great anticipation to meet our elephants.
After slapping on some sunscreen and getting organized, we walked over and met a mother and baby elephant in a fenced off area.
The baby, Valentine, was obviously the crowd favourite. He was cute and playful, everything you want in a baby elephant.
After spending a few minutes getting acclimatized and learning some basic elephant rules, we were guided up to a staging area where they had small lockers and we could change into Blue Daily attire for the day.
As we were a small group of seven, it felt like we had this magnificent outdoors elephant oasis to ourselves. This was exactly what I was hoping for – a unique experience in a setting that didn’t feel too commercialized.
We were guided by our fearless leader, Lida, up to the food prep area. We pounded and mashed up ingredients (rice, bananas, and a few other goodies) until they were ready to be rolled into gooey elephant treats. It was a fun exercise that took about ten minutes.
Balls formed, we were then tasked with bringing these tasty morsels to the hungry trio of Asian elephants who were patiently waiting nearby. The plan, when you’re going to feed one, is to say clearly “Bom!” – or something like that – so they know it’s coming. Honestly, these elephants are pretty smart, so they probably knew it was coming when I held food up in the general vicinity of their mouths, but I digress.
After the feeding, we were informed that it was time to take the elephants for a walk. The upside to walking an elephant is that they’re pretty slow. The downside is if they go the wrong way it can take quite an effort to get them back on track, being the gargantuan creatures that they are. Thankfully we had help (meaning they did everything) from Lida and a couple of other staff. Without the help, those elephants would still be wandering around aimlessly in the hills of Northern Thailand.
The terrain at Blue Daily is steep – if you have an aversion to hills, this won’t be your favourite part of the day, but the pace is slow. Hills aside, to walk along with the elephants in nature is a really cool experience – it’s like being on a nicely controlled mini safari.
Walking along, Lida was instructing us on the local flora and fauna. There were plenty of little animals and creepy crawlies to keep the kids in the group on high alert.
The walk led us to a pond where it was bath time for the freshly walked elephants. Scrubbing them down was good fun, and they seemed to like the experience. Every now and then they would spray the group with their trunks, which I’m sure had the massive mammals laughing and laughing on the inside.
Animals clean as a whistle, we made our way out of the pond as our large friends went off to wherever elephants go when they’re off the clock. We said our goodbyes, and watched as they packed up their trunks and sauntered off into the sunset.
Lida informed us we could use the showers and change before supper. We did, then headed over to a table that totally exceeded my expectations…
Fried chicken (delicious!), sticky rice, veggie dishes, soup, salad, all kinds of options. Perfect for a hungry group of elephant trainers.
As were leaving I met one of the locals working at the sanctuary. Everyone we met was extremely friendly, and could not have been more accommodating.
Blue Daily Elephant Care Sanctuary is truly a local endeavour, and while they are known for treating the elephants well and for providing excellent group experiences, they also support farmers, hill tribes, and businesses in the area. The napier grasses, sweet corn stumps, rice grains, tamarinds, sugar canes, bananas, and shoulder bags used on a daily basis are bought from local businesses.
Our day over, we piled back into the van for the ride back to Chiang Mai. I think we all slept well that night, dreams of gooey rice balls dancing in our heads.
How about you? Have you been on an elephant excursion in Thailand? What were your impressions, and if not, what intrigues you about the idea? Comment below – cheers!