On our list of things to do in Thailand, visiting an elephant sanctuary was at the very top. Once we arrived for a few days in Chiang Mai, we set about finding a sanctuary to visit. For us, we wanted to make sure that we picked the right one.
We wanted to select an ethical sanctuary that treated the elephants well. We didn't want anywhere where it was possible to ride the elephants. Find out why this was important to us on our blog post on how best to select an elephant sanctuary.
There are lots of tourist information booths / operator booths in Chiang Mai so it's easy to book a visit. If you are visiting in peak season then perhaps booking in advance would be worthwhile but it's really not essential. We settled on Kanta Elephant Sanctuary, which is about 45km from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
Kanta was relatively new when we visited having been founded a few years earlier in early 2015. It was Kanta's ethical and sustainable credentials that ticked all the boxes for us so we booked on a half day afternoon visit. Kanta is essentially a retirement home for elephants. All of the elephants here have previously worked in the logging industry or, more likely, spent years entertaining tourists.
We were collected in a small minibus at lunchtime and journeyed through the lush, green Thai countryside, arriving at the sanctuary around an hour later.
After a short welcome briefing, you are then allocated a fresh, clean "uniform". You are asked to wear this uniform as the elephants are familiar with this. Don't worry, the uniforms come in all shapes and sizes!
With the uniform comes a bag, which you fill with sugar cane to feed the elephants.
Top Tip: cram as much as you can in the bag as the elephants love to eat and you'll soon get through your supply!
Another short briefing followed telling us all about the elephants - where they were rescued from, the life they had before and how they now live day-to-day at the sanctuary. You are then free to wander amongst the elephant family. You can feed them the sugar cane - just hold out a piece of cane at arms length and a trunk will soon appear! There's a chance to pat them, stroke and even hug the elephants. If you prefer, you can sit back and simply observe their majesty in a wide, open space. There are no ankle chains. No riding. Just elephants in a natural habitat.
After around an hour getting close and personal with the elephants and lots of opportunities for photographs, you will walk with them to a nearby river. Here you can sit back and observe the elephants while they wade through and play in the water. There's even the chance to join them in the river and scrub their backs! (You will have to dodge the elephant poop though - don't worry it's too large not to miss).
Once the elephants are clean, they simply wander back up the river banks giving you a chance to take some final photos. There are showers and changing rooms for you to change out of your wet uniform and swimmers and into your own dry clothes. The experience ends with a delicious platter of seasonal fresh fruit and drinks before enjoying a leisurely drive back to Chiang Mai.
It's a phenomenal experience and one we will never forget.
Make sure your camera is well charged with lots of memory. There are so many photo opportunities, especially as you get so close to the elephants.
Bring a Towel and Bathing Suit, especially if you want to bathe with the elephants.
Don't forget the Sun Cream - you'll be in the sun for a good few hours.
You're in a rural setting, so insect repellent is a must.
A small amount of money for a locker to keep you belongings safe. There's also the chance to purchase digital photographs which you may wish to invest in.