Summary: Elephant tourism is rightfully controversial. Elephant Legend and others in the area (we heard) house rescued Elephants and from what we could tell, they are well-cared for and well-loved animals. We absolutely loved our time with these beautiful animals. We started the day with preparing their food and then fed them (by hand!). We also spent time with them in a mud bath and then rinsed off in the river. It's hard to truly appreciate how amazing kind animals are without a close encounter such as this. $60/person, small group (not private). Lunch, time at water falls, and transportation included.
Arrival at Elephant Legend. We were picked up from our AirBnB at 8:30 a.m. and taken by small van to the Elephant Legend Sanctuary about 90 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. Along the way we stopped at a rest stop, where everyone was asked to change into the outfits you see in the photos below. We were advised that the outfits were a training tool for the elephants to let them know we were friendly and meant no harm.
Preparing the Meal. Upon arrival at the Sanctuary, we were taken the meal preparation area where we prepped large baskets of bananas, sugar canes, and a vitamin mix. Asian elephants can eat 10% of their body weight per day. That means that a sanctuary like Elephant legend prepares up to 800 lbs of food per elephant every day. In processing even just a fraction of that food for the four elephants we spend time with that day, we gained a real appreciate for the effort and cost involved in maintaining these amazing creatures.
Feeding. Apparently the way to an elephant's heart is through their stomach. This we learned as we hand fed the hundreds of pounds of food we had just prepared. First, it should be noted that the elephants are free to roam wherever they wish. The barriers you see below are more like an outpost. They are trained to walk up to the freestanding fence when it is time to eat. The handlers do this effortlessly. So much so, that at first I did not even catch that they had been giving subtle cues to the animals. To be sure, they were happy to oblige as clearly this was one of their favorite times of the day.
During the feeding, the elephants, in a rapid-fire motion pull the food out of your hands. If you want to feed them directly in their mouths, you simply lift your hand up first and then place the food directly in their mouth that they have opened for you in anticipation. It's truly a remarkable experience. As there was plenty of food, and very willing elephants, we spent a fair amount of time with this activity.
Photo Opportunity. Next, seemingly without assistance, two of the beautiful elephants traveled down hill to a grassy area. One came up to what was obviously a place for everyone to get their photos. Just like the feeding area, the elephant was free to roam but she willingly sidled up to the post for the photo op, during which time she was given more sweet treats while everyone took a turn.
Free Time to Roam Free. After photos, we went for a short walk with two of the elephants. They roamed free in an area where we could watch them eat and just spend time with them. The elephants seem to love their handler, sometimes walking up to him, just to say "hello." (see photo below).
Mud Bath, Creek Rinse and a Hug. There's absolutely no elephant riding here. In fact, these elephants sanctuaries are mostly house elephants rescued from such operations. That doesn't mean you do not get a close encounter. Instead, if you so wish, you may take a mud bath with the elephants, following by a cool rinse in the creek where everyone helps the elephants rinse off. Mud baths are an essential part of an elephant's skincare and this sanctuary encourages you to join in on the muddy fun. Admittedly, it was not a clean experience (elephants poop all the time, you know). But, if you can handle getting pretty dirty temporarily, it was definitely amusing, especially for the kids that aren't used to seeing their mother covered in mud from the to toe. After the mud, we had a short walk to the creek where we washing ourselves and the elephants off.
Loving these animals. These hands-on, life experiences are priceless. Is there a better way to teach the next generation to preserve and protect these gorgeous giants than a day like this? We hope our kids will be forever imprinted by this day in Northern Thailand. It's times like this where I appreciate ecotourism when done right. We know there are downsides but honestly, look at that face in the photo above. You can't tell me that, when the opportunity presents itself, he won't help preserve they amazing creatures.