The national animal of Thailand, elephants were vital to the country’s development and its battles in historic times. Elephants were employed in industries such as logging and the transportation of items too big or far for a buffalo cart. Thai people in days of yore cherished their elephants and they were immortalised in pictures and became central characters in legends and folk stories.
Already on the decline, Thailand’s elephant population has been further depleted since the government instigated a nationwide ban on cutting down teak trees. Although wild elephants are still common in places such as Khao Yai National Park, a decent proportion of the remaining elephants have found new homes at elephant camps dotted around the country.
These elephant camps provide tourists with a rare opportunity to meet and greet elephants, take an elephant ride or watch them take part in an activity such as painting or playing football. The mountains surrounding Chiang Mai have quite a few of these elephant camps. The elephant camp at Mae Sa Valley is the best known of them.
Established in 1976, Mae Sa Elephant Camp is an essential stop on any Mae Sa Valley tour. This camp stages daily shows in which elephants kick footballs and paint with their trunks. Tourists can also climb onto a throne-like howdah mounted on the elephant’s back and go for a ride in the nearby jungle. An onsite gift shop stocks an eclectic range of pachyderm themed souvenirs.
Back on the main road north to Fang, the Mae Taeng Valley has a number of elephant camps. The elephants at these camps are used in the region’s adventure trekking tours. Trekking and travel agencies in Chiang Mai typically offer one to two hour elephant rides as part of packages which also include jungle trekking, bamboo rafting and overnight stays at local hill tribe villages.
Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre is farther up the Fang Road and in a rural location where there are quite a few hill tribe villages. Visitors get to interact with both the elephants and hill tribe people. It is even possible to join a mahout training course at this camp.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre is just off the highway south to Lampang. Daily shows focus on showing off the elephants’ skills in handling huge logs as well as painting. Visitors will also see elephants bathing and can take a short ride on one around the complex. The Conservation Centre operates long-stay mahout training programmes. Souvenir shops and a nice choice of cafés round off the draws here.