When you think of Thailand you likely think of beautiful beaches, delicious food, more temples than you can count and, of course, elephants. Spending time with elephants in Chiang Mai was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Southeast Asia and an experience I would recommend to anyone visiting Thailand.
When planning our trip to Northern Thailand, I knew this would be the best place for an elephant experience. Of course, it was very important to us that our time with elephants in Chiang Mai be ethical and responsible. Sadly, elephants have been mistreated in Thailand for years. To this day, they are still being abused by owners who force them to do tricks and wear painful metal seats so tourists can ride them. We didn’t want to be a part of any of that.
Luckily, the tide seems to be changing in Thailand. Of course, you do still see elephants being ridden. But more and more, tourism companies are becoming aware of the fact that most tourists do not want this. In fact, we saw many elephant encounters advertised with big signs saying, “No riding!” I think it’s so cool that the outcry against this practice has gotten so loud that the tour companies are taking note. Unfortunately, the sedated tiger tour companies haven’t quite gotten the memo yet.
The most popular, and beloved, program for elephants in Chiang Mai is Elephant Nature Park. I’ve never heard a bad thing about this place and actually planned to book a tour or overnight stay with them. But then I heard of another place (actually, I found some photos on Instagram), and I was intrigued. Chai Lai Orchid seemed like a more serene and less busy version of Elephant Nature Park with the same commitment to elephant welfare, as well as a non-profit organization that helped refugee women find employment. Plus, it was cheaper!
So we headed out from Old Town Chiang Mai to Chai Lai Orchid for a two night stay. Chai Lai Orchid is about an hour away from the centre of Chiang Mai. I was really looking forward to this break from city life and to spend all of our time in a beautiful place surrounded by elephants.
We arrived, and it was kind of like walking into a dream. You cross a suspension bridge over water and right in front of you, elephants are walking around and being fed bananas. It was already so magical! We then made our way to the restaurant/reception area and got to sit out on the balcony watching elephants walk by with a rushing river in the background. It was a pretty amazing view!
The atmosphere at Chai Lai Orchid is incredible. Elephants roam “free” (their handlers are always nearby) and you’re able to interact with them and feed them pretty much whenever you want. There are also resident dogs, and adorable puppies, wandering around. And then there’s the beautiful jungle setting. The Instagram photos did not disappoint!
However, some parts of our experience were a little bit disappointing. We booked a two night stay at Chai Lai Orchid. In hindsight, one night would have been perfect. We didn’t book any tours ahead of time, being told we could book them when we arrived. We took advantage of the free shuttle that picked us up from Chiang Mai in the morning. When we arrived at Chai Lai Orchid, we weren’t given too much instruction. Other people from our shuttle were ushered off to their booked tours. We slowly made our way to the reception and were essentially talked into booking our half-day elephant encounter for the next day. So we spent our first day kind of sitting around, as there wasn’t much else to do.
Don’t get me wrong – if I had to sit around somewhere, I’d love it to be in the jungle with elephants. It was quite nice to relax on the balcony, get some work done on my laptop, and have elephants wandering in front of me. We also enjoyed delicious Khao Soi (our favourite Northern Thai dish) from the restaurant across the bridge.
It just felt like we didn’t really have anything to do and that we weren’t getting the most of out the experience. In addition to their work with elephants, Chai Lai Orchid also has a program called Daughters Rising where they empower and employ refugee women. These women are taught English and hospitality skills and employed at Chai Lai. They also sell their artisan goods there.
This is a super cool program and another reason why I wanted to stay at Chai Lai Orchid. I just wish we had learned a bit more about it. I read through a booklet I found on the table, but there wasn’t a ton of other information.
I think the main reason why I still have a bit of a sour taste in my mouth about this experience is that it was clear that not everyone was having the same experience. Some people arrived and were greeted upon arrival, met by the founder or one of her employees/friends, and given a great introduction to the property and programs. They were then led on a catered experience with a mapped out itinerary. These people appeared to be travel bloggers, influencers, etc.
This rubbed me the wrong way. Even though I’m not an Instagram Influencer with thousands of followers, I still think Colin and I deserved to have the same experience. Especially because these influencers and bloggers will be telling their followers all about their experience – even though that isn’t the experience the regular person will have.
I don’t need to be treated like a VIP. I’m not under any illusion that I deserve star treatment or anything like that. But I think it is important to make an effort to give all of your guests a great experience and to be welcoming and hospitable. I also think it’s important that influential people in the social media or blogging space, who are often getting everything free of charge and then telling their followers all about it, have an experience that is true to what their followers would have if they were there. If a blogger is telling me how great a hotel is, but I arrive and I don’t get that same great stay, the influencer system is broken.
All that to say, we did not have a bad time at Chai Lai Orchid. As I mentioned, it was one of the highlights of our trip. But I didn’t want to paint it all with a rose gold brush, because the entire experience was not rosy or golden. But on the whole, we did enjoy ourselves. And that was mainly due to the elephants.
On our second day, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast out on the balcony and then set out for our half-day elephant experience. Luckily, it was just Colin and I – a private tour! We were led by Jackie Chan, the mahout (elephant handler), and Mae Nam, a 42-year-old elephant, and her baby, six month old Suki.
We started by walking Mae Nam and Suki over to an area where we could feed them bananas. The mom, Mae Nam, had the banana thing totally down. Suki, on the other hand, was too busy playing and causing trouble to worry about bananas. Her favourite game was tag, which involved her barreling into you. And even though she’s just a baby – she was pretty heavy! We walked with them through the jungle and got to learn more about their care and habits.
Next, we headed down to the river and got to bathe an elephant. This time we were paired with Chai Lai, a seven-year-old elephant and the namesake for the property. We had a lot of fun exfoliating her with sand, cleaning her off, and getting sprayed in the face by her trunk!
Last on the itinerary was rafting. We joined a group of students and headed a little ways down the road to where our river rafting would take place. Luckily, with the way the numbers worked out, Colin and I got a bamboo raft to ourselves. It was so peaceful to go down the river, admire the scenery and wave to a few elephants along the way.
Overall, I think it’s so worthwhile to spend some time with elephants in Chiang Mai. These creatures are amazing and it’s such a cool experience to get up close and personal with them. I think it’s important to support an organization that is ethical and responsible.
But I also think it’s important to acknowledge the reality of the situation. There are no true elephant sanctuaries in Thailand – no areas where elephants roam free completely independent of humans. After so many years of elephant abuse, this is simply not a reality in Thailand. It’s now about creating safe spaces for elephants to live in captivity. And the way to do that is through tourism. In an ideal world, elephants in Chiang Mai would be able to roam freely and wouldn’t be trained to eat out of humans’ hands or give people kisses on the cheek on command. Any interaction like this with an animal means the animal isn’t truly wild and free.
For more information and another perspective, check out Small Footprints Big Adventures’ post on their ethical elephant experience.
I also would say that I enjoyed our time at Chai Lai Orchid. The setting is picture-perfect, the breakfast and Khao Soi are delicious, and the programs they run and support are very worthwhile. Living amongst elephants for a few days is definitely an experience I won’t ever forget. Despite the few things that turned me off, I would still recommend spending time at Chai Lai Orchid (though only one night, not two). It’s a great place for getting out of the city and spending time with elephants in a small-group setting.
Have you visited with elephants in Chiang Mai? What was your experience like?
In case your memory isn’t as good as an elephant’s… Pin it!