That’s right, I swam with elephants. Five of them, in a river, near a waterfall, surrounded by mountains covered in dense jungle foliage far from civilization. It was the definition of a bucket list experience. And you need to go.
Thailand, elephants and their interaction with tourists has been a hot debate for ages. Three types of elephant experiences exist, I learned. The first, and saddest, are elephant camps that chain the animals by their ankle to walls so tourists can pay to take photos. The ankles are usually bloody, rubbed raw by the chain that is likely never removed. Their chilling desperation rips through your soul as you look into their eyes.
Next are the more thrilling options. This category features facilities that allow tourists to ride on the elephant’s back and facilities that are strictly against riding, instead placing a focus on animal care.
We chose the riderless option. As amazing of an experience as it looked to ride, elephants aren’t built to hold human weight on their back or neck, and you never know when they’ll turn on their rider. Numerous injuries and deaths have occurred when a good elephant went mad.
Choice made, we’d embark on a half-day tour at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chang Mai. The tour promised round-trip transportation from our hostel to the sanctuary, an educational lesson about elephant care, a swim in a river and a mud bath with the elephants, and finish with a dip in a waterfall followed by lunch. It cost 1,400 Baht, which converts to about $40.
Our ride arrived at 11 a.m. to pick us and 10 others up from the hostel. I was the only guy; apparently guys are too cool to spend the day swimming with elephants and half naked girls or something. We piled in the bed of a pickup truck and for the next 90 minutes I’d make friends with four girls from Britain and a couple from Spain.
“The last 20 minutes will be a bit rough,” our guide told us when we boarded at the hostel. He wasn’t lying. Those last 20 minutes took us deep into the jungle down a mountain road that no car was designed to safely traverse. All part of the experience, I repeated in my mind, 100 percent scared for my life.
Then we arrived.
Five beautiful beasts stood before us, milling around in a clearing. We piled out and joined four truckloads of smiling European backpacker girls who were almost as majestic as the elephants themselves. We were asked to sit under a bamboo hut so we could hear a lesson about elephant care.
Our guide explained the history of the sanctuary, which has six camps spread across the area, each with about five elephants. He explained the damaging effects of elephant riding and confirmed that we would not be doing any of that during our adventure. All the while, he cracked jokes, smiled wider than the sea and made our group of strangers feel like instant family. And like families do, he told us it was time to eat. Bananas and cucumbers were ready to be served, but not for us – for the elephants.
I walked over to a bin, reached in and picked up a handful of ripe fruit. As I turned, an elephant reached its trunk to my hand and tried to rip one away. They were cute, but carefully aggressive toward food. After about 15 minutes of feeding, we walked down a slippery slope to the river and were handed a brush and bowl, then told we could help bathe the elephants.
All five of the majestic beasts were lying in the middle of the river – some were completely submerged. I never knew elephants could breathe under water until then.
Our group walked up and brushed their tough, yet soft, skin. We then moved to a pool of mud along the riverbank. Elephant skin doesn’t sweat, so the animals depend on a mud coat to keep them cool, and we’d help lather them up.
Looking at the pool, I knew it was filled with more than just mud. The ground beneath my toes was much too soft, slippery, and weirdly soothing to be anything but natural animal poop. And it’s not like elephants give a shit where they shit. This thought didn’t pop into the minds of many. They jumped in, covering not only the elephants, but also themselves. Our guide told us it was healthy – elephants are vegetarians and their poop does wonders for skin.
Maybe he was right. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I had an opportunity to wade in a pool of elephant poop, and you better believe I was going to embrace it.
I rubbed the mud on one of the younger elephants, then the oldest. Out of nowhere, the guide came up and poured a handful of mud down my back as the elephant nearest me dropped its load, splashing by my side. The guide picked it up and told the group not to be afraid. “It’s healthy,” he repeated, passing it around. People loved holding poop that day.
Once the elephants were covered in mud, we made our way back up the slippery slope to a rushing waterfall about one-quarter mile up the river. We jumped in, rinsed our bodies and soaked in the beauty of the area. Our final stop was lunch – a homemade chicken curry, rice and steamed vegetables from a cookhouse overlooking the rushing river below.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was a magical place. I knew immediately I’d remember this experience for the rest of my life. And you will too.
- Wear sandals, not shoes
- Wear your swimsuit. Don’t plan on changing once you arrive. Facilities are limited.
- Bring sunscreen
- Bring a towel
- Bring a GoPro with wrist strap
- Great for all ages
- Book at least one day in advance. Half-day morning and afternoon tours offered daily
- The car ride takes you through weaving mountain roads. Car sickness is possible.
- Don’t be afraid of the poop