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Happy elephants in Thailand?

The Happy Elephant home

Would you support animal cruelty?

This was my dilemma. I couldn’t decide whether I should visit an elephant home in Chiang Mai.

I’d heard about elephant treatment in Thailand. Some are speared, whipped and chained up. Others are made to carry heavy saddles on their back so that humans can ride them. When they get too weak, they are left to die.

I knew I’d regret coming to Thailand and not seeing any elephants. However, I’d be more disappointed if I supported a business which harmed them.

After much research about ethical tours, I booked a trip to the “Happy Elephant Home”. The signs were positive, but I was still unsure if I was doing the right thing.

Time would tell whether I’d find happy elephants in Thailand.


The day began with serendipity.

I waited outside my hostel for pickup by the tour operator. The van arrived and I jumped in. Unbelievably, the only person sitting inside the van was a friend from back home in New Zealand.

What are the odds that she would be in Chiang Mai, and on this day, book the same elephant tour? The world’s a tiny place.

The elephant home was a two hour drive from Chiang Mai. Time passed quickly as we watched the countryside fly by. January is winter in northern Thailand, so the landscape turns sombre. The jungle is understated and solemn, a sea of amber and grey. Condensation sits heavy on the grass and looks like a coat of ash.

We arrived at the sanctuary — this was the moment of truth. I was relieved to see the elephants roaming freely in a big paddock. There were no chains for them. A good start.

The manager of the home, Omo, greeted us. A short, slight woman, her small stature disguised her fighting nature. Omo made us change into appropriate attire: a mahout outfit. These clothes would help the elephants trust us as they were familiar with its smell. I tried to forget about the video I’d watched the previous day of an elephant attacking a car in Chiang Mai.

With some baggy trousers as armour, we walked over to meet the elephants.

The elephants

The home had four elephants. Two adult females and two children. One of the females was pregnant and her stomach bulged. The beasts lumbered over to us gingerly, they seemed more nervous than we were.

Omo handed us some bananas and pumpkins to feed the elephants. I held a banana out to one of the adults. She took the banana with her trunk, then casually dropped it to the ground. Before I could react, she snatched the pumpkin from my other hand and swallowed.

Elephant with man

Who’d have thought that elephants were fussy eaters? Another surprise was their trunk’s dexterity. They could comfortably hold food in it while picking more off the ground. It was like a leathery hand.

The elephants were cheeky too. I stopped concentrating for a moment one of the children, named Bang Bang, grabbed the camera from my bag. Fortunately I recovered it, which spared me the embarrassment of an unusual insurance claim.

Elephant with man

Reality check

One of the adult elephants had grabbed my attention. She was smaller than the other adult, with sickly skin and a sadness in her eyes. On her belly was a wound covered by a poultice.

Had the Happy Elephant Home hurt her? I asked Omo, who told me the elephant’s story.

Elephant walking down hill

This elephant had just been rescued from an elephant trekking centre. The trekkers had sold her because she was nearing the end of her trekking potential. In other words, she’d almost been worked to death.

The belly wound had been inflicted by the trekkers, who’d let it fester. The Happy Elephant Home had treated her and applied the poultice to the wound.

Back of elephant

As I touched her leathery skin, I felt sad, but glad that she’d come to a good place. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said about the other elephants. They were owned by someone else, and were only temporary guests at the home.

Elephant climbing hill in Thailand

Omo told me that her goal was to give these elephants some happiness, even if only for a short time. I could tell that Omo cared deeply for these creatures. She hoped she could buy the elephants one day. I paid 1,800 baht to visit the home. At a cost of 400,000 baht for an elephant, it would take a lot more tourists to reach this goal.

Lessons learned

The elephants needed a drink, so we set out for the river. Despite being a short journey, it illustrated the elephant’s plight in Asia.

The route to the river was lined with foliage. And the elephants wrecked it. Plants were casually uprooted and swallowed whole. This became a big problem when we passed a corn field, which the elephants pillaged.

Elephant eating leaves

Elephant eating leaves

Elephant eating leaves

Omo explained that elephants eat about one tenth of their body mass a day. One of the elephants weighed three tonnes, so it needed 300kgs of food. This is a biblical amount. The destructive implications of this are why farmers view wild elephants as pests. It’s part of the reason so many are now in captivity.

Elephant eating leaves

Elephant sliding down hill

With the corn field behind us, the track led up a small hill, before plunging down to the river. For the elephants, climbing this was no easy feat. The beasts struggled to the summit, pulling themselves up one step at a time, as if they were walking through treacle. One of the adults had to rest halfway up the hill. It was painful to witness.

Elephant climbing hill in Thailand

Elephant climbing hill in Thailand

Elephant climbing hill in Thailand

This showed why elephant trekking is so cruel. After witnessing the elephants battle up the hill, I could appreciate how much harder this would be while also carrying a person. Add to this the saddle, which weighs around 100kgs, and I understood why the rescued elephant looked so tired and defeated.

Elephants in Thailand

Happy elephants in Thailand

We finally reached the river. The young elephants bounded into the water and started rolling on their backs like dogs. Their playful glee was infectious and we followed them in.

“Watch out for leeches”, Omo warned.

As if they understood, the adult elephants stayed on the shore, shoveling gallons of water into their mouths. We splashed the youngsters, who decided to get revenge. Bang Bang sucked some water up his trunk, then sprayed it at me with the force of a fire-hose.

Close up elephant head

As the water soaked through my clothes, I got the sense that Bang Bang was laughing at me. The mischievous glint in his eyes gave it away.

But I didn’t mind.

After all, I’d found happy elephants in Thailand.

Elephant eating leaves

Do you want to visit elephants in Thailand? What’s been your most rewarding travel experience? Leave a comment below


  1. Lalumbe says:

    Aaaahhhhh Marc Patterson referred me to your blog as I will be travelling to Thailand soon. I have never been there and I will be travelling alone. This is very helpful information!!! Might be asking for tips soon 🙂

    • youmustroam says:

      Hi Lalumbe, thanks for reading! Thailand is wonderful to explore and is one of the easiest places to travel solo. How long will you be traveling for? I can give you some tips on where to stay and visit if you like 🙂

  2. Angela Levinson says:

    Don’t do it…a true sanctuary lies across the river…don’t know the name…this had to be one of the saddest things I’ve done as a human. I understand the tourist industry in a third world country but the exploitation should stop.

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