Update March 2017: A reader alerted me that Ran-Tong Save & Rescue Elephant Centre is now offering elephant rides. While I stand by my personal experience there, I can no longer recommend Ran-Tong in confidence. My suggestion is to check out Elephant Nature Park instead.
When I was brainstorming what I wanted to do in Thailand, I knew there was no way in hell I would be one of those tourists photographed hugging a drugged-out tiger. Yes, tigers are awesome, but I refuse to knowingly partake in any sort of tourist attraction that mistreats or abuses animals.
Chiang Mai offers numerous entertainment options featuring animals. This includes everything from the Chiang Mai Zoo to Cat Cafés. The most popular attractions are Tiger Kingdom and the region’s several elephant camps.
While Tiger Kingdom claims they do not drug their tigers, I had no desire to see caged tigers. My mind was set after reading claims of abuse at the popular Thai Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi.
I knew I wanted to interact with elephants, but I wasn’t interested in riding them either. After hours of research and comparing options, I decided to book a tour with Ran-Tong Save & Rescue Elephant Centre.
Their website promises that their elephants aren’t abused in any manner, claiming their herd consists of elephants rescued from poor treatment. Still, I decided to discuss my concerns with the hostel owner – a gentle older man who operates his own dog rescue. He reassured me that the centre had a positive reputation for treating their elephants well.
I opted for the Baby Elephant Care Tour, which included a tour of the camp, feeding sessions, lunch, elephant treat making, and bathing the elephants. When I arrived at the camp, it was clear that the elephants had a lot of space to roam and were well cared for.
We started the day by offering the elephants sugar cane, which of course they loved. A lot of time was spent feeding and petting the younger elephants. Our guide shared the camp’s history and explained the older elephants’ sad backstories. At no point were the elephants forced to do any tricks, and they were allowed to wander away from the group as they pleased.
After a delicious Thai lunch, we all worked together to make treats for the elephants. This consisted of sticky rice, mango and diced sugar cane. The elephants were thrilled and kept poking their trunks around in hopes of seconds.
After their treat time was over, we headed over to the camp’s flowing stream to bathe the elephants. Watching the baby elephants spraying themselves (and subsequently everyone around) was adorable. Elephants roll around while they bathe, and it was a bit intimidating to be so close to the larger ones as they were doing so.
I went in having mixed feelings about doing an elephant tour, but I felt good about the experience afterwards. It was humbling to be so close to such large, majestic creatures. The camp appeared to care deeply about the welfare of the elephants, and the elephants seemed to love their caretakers in return.
After that day, I was left with the impression that elephants are gentle, intuitive animals; the thought of one being mistreated pains me. Unfortunately, elephants are generally not treated well within the Thai tourism industry.
This post by Matthew from Expert Vagabond discusses why you should not partake in elephant riding tours, and explains the cruel training process involved. Matthew raves about his experience at Elephant Nature Park, which sounded almost identical to my visit with Ron-Tong.
Originally, I hoped to do my tour with Elephant Nature Park, as they are lauded for their sustainable, elephant-friendly practices. Unfortunately, their tours were sold out well in advance. Based on my research, Ran-Tong seemed like a suitable alternative.
The elephants at Ran-Tong seemed happy and well cared for, so I think I made the right choice. I hope the Thai tourism industry will catch up, and do away with elephant paintings, among other cruel practices.
In the meantime, I urge you to reconsider riding an elephant (despite how many likes the photo will get on Instagram) and to seek out kinder elephant tours instead!