During our time in Africa we were very lucky to see thousands of elephants in the wild and the many national parks throughout the continent. While there are still wild elephants in Southeast Asia, seeing them is tough and rare. We love elephants and wanted to see them in Asia as well, but we strongly oppose riding them, which seems to be the most common way to interact with them in many countries. Luckily around Chiang Mai there are more and more elephant sanctuaries that are starting to replace the elephant riding camps. We asked in our hostel for a recommendation which of the many sanctuaries to visit, and they suggested Dumbo Elephant Spa. They offer full or half-day experiences, where you get to feed and wash the elephants and even have a mud bath with them during the full day experience.
After reading reviews and making sure that there wouldn’t be any elephant riding, chains, or punishing them with hooks, we booked a half day experience for $35 USD per person. We got picked up from our hostel and drove just over an hour and a half to Dumbo Elephant Spa. The minivan dropped us off at a dirt road and we had to walk for about 10 minutes before getting to the camp. At the time we visited, Dumbo Elephant Spa had five elephants, one of them being still very small and just over a year old.
They provided us all with some interesting poncho-type shirts to put over our clothes, so they wouldn’t get dirty while interacting with the elephants. We walked alongside the elephants to an area were we would get to feed them. The four grown ones were all lined up behind a wooden bar and were waiting anxiously for some food. We were given a bag full of cantaloupe, sugarcane, and bananas, and the elephant caretakers quickly showed us how to feed the elephants (either hold it up so they can grab it with their trunks or put it directly into their mouths). Most of the elephants were very well behaved and waited patiently for their turn to get some food, except for the smallest one called Dumbo, which kept running around and tried to steal everyone’s food bags (although he only seemed to like bananas). When one guy in our group didn’t give him a banana fast enough, little Dumbo pushed him right out of his flip flops with his trunk. Even though Dumbo was still pretty small, he had some strength and made the guy stumble back a few meters!
After that the caretakers led two of the elephants over to a sandy area were we could interact with them and have pictures taken. They even gave us a smelly elephant kiss on the cheek! We got to be around the elephants for more pictures and some cuddling for another 30 minutes or so, before we started heading toward the river.
We reached the riverbed after a few minutes and all five elephants were already starting to go into the water. A couple of the big elephants seemed to really enjoy being the water and laid down in the deeper parts of the river. At some point only the trunk was showing while the rest of the elephant was completely under water. Shorty after, little Dumbo followed suit and started climbing around on top of one of the elephants that lay down. That one didn’t seemed bothered by it and even kept pulling Dumbo back with its trunk when he moved away!
We were handed some brushes and buckets and washed a couple of the elephants and sprayed them with water. Even though they obviously didn’t need to be washed by people, most of them seemed to like it. When a few of them had enough, they were free to leave the river and wander around nearby. One of the grownups and Dumbo on the other hand, couldn’t get enough and only left the river when their caretakers signaled for them to head back.
We walked back to the main camp, where we were served a delicious late lunch and kept watching the elephants from afar. We were the last people to visit for the day, so the elephants were free to wander around the large camp. There was even a big forest area, where they apparently like to go at night. We were assured that they are never chained, bull hooked, or ridden at Dumbo Elephant Spa. There are fences around the area to make sure that the elephants don’t wander into other peoples’ fields, but the enclosed area they live in was significantly larger than some private game reserves we visited in Africa.
We had an amazing time at Dumbo Elephant Spa and were relieved to see that the elephants there seemed to be genuinely happy and well treated. We still prefer elephants to be free and wild, but in much of Southeast Asia that’s not very realistic, so for them to be kept in a well run sanctuary like Dumbo Elephant Spa is a good alternative. Compared with the many places throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia, where elephants are still being ridden by tourists for fun and chained up the rest of the day, this was a much better option. As soon as people start changing and moving more toward other kind of interactions with elephants, those kinds of practices will hopefully end.
-This was not a sponsored post, we just had a genuinely good time at this business!