Water For Elephants


The weather in Chiang Mai was beautiful all week, except for the day we’d booked to go to the elephant sanctuary. The rain was falling in heavy sheets when we woke up at seven, and continued all throughout the two-hour journey north in the open back of the pick-up. By the time we got to the sanctuary, we were soaking wet and the ground was slick with mud, but we could hear elephants in the distance and we were nothing but excited.

Elephants in Chiang Mai
sanctuary sign
elephant sanctuary cushions

Elephant tourism has a bit of a dicey history, you hear horror stories about elephants that have been chained and whipped in order to do acts at the circus, and we wanted to avoid any of that. The sanctuary we went to had about fifteen elephants, and most were rescued from those riding and entertainment camps throughout Thailand. Here at the sanctuary, they were free from doing any rides or tricks, and just got to hang out and get fed by tourists. (And considering how much elephants can eat in a day, we had our work cut out for us). We started off by feeding them bananas, one at a time at first, but they’d grab the entire bunch from behind your back if you weren’t careful. Next we brought huge bushels of corn down for them, watching as their prehensile trunks stripped off the leaves and shoved the whole stems into their mouths.

feeding the elephants
elephant feeding time
bananas reaching for the elephant
elephant trunk taking a banana
straw for the elephants
elephant touch
elephant in chiang mai

Later on, we made “medicine” for the elephants - a mixture of pineapple, banana, cooked rice, unhusked rice, and salt. We formed them into balls and were told to feed them to the elephants directly, not let the elephants grab them with their trunks otherwise the balls would just fall apart. This was done by raising your hand and yelling “BON BON!” - the elephants would raise their trunk, throw back their heads, and suddenly you’d find yourself wrist deep in an elephant’s weird mouth.

learning how to make medicine balls
making medicine balls for the elephants

Lastly, we gave them a bath - rubbing mud all over their skin in order to help regulate their body temperature and to protect them from the sun. It was fun, but it was also one of the most disgusting things I have ever done, and I am choosing not to think about what I’m sure was very high poop-to-mud ratio inside that pond. We washed off in the waterfall nearby, as the elephants threw water at each other with their trunks.

playing in the mud at the elephant sanctuary

Being around elephants is humbling, really - they’re just so big, and so tranquil too. They’re the largest terrestrial mammals that us humans haven’t killed off yet, and it’s hard not to feel very small while next to these gentle giants. They say an elephant never forgets, and I think we’ll remember this experience for a long time too.

looking at an elephant
elephant profile
touching mr elephant
playing with a curvy trunk elephant
Peter and I with the elephants
Group photo at the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary


Advice on visiting elephants in southeast asia


Please do your research! There is such a long history of elephants being subject to abuse and inhumane conditions in order to attract tourists - if a place advertises elephant rides or elephants that perform tricks (painting, throwing darts, headstands, etc), please do not book with that company! This usually means that the elephants have been harshly trained in order to perform these acts. Instead, look for sanctuaries that limit tourist interaction with the elephants, provides access to water, a diverse array of foods, and adequate space and shade.