Chiang Mai is a northern city in Thailand that is surrounded by tropical jungle and hills. One of the most popular tourist activities in Chiang Mai is also one of the most controversial – visiting elephants and tigers. I was very skeptical about doing this during my most recent trip, but found what we thought were the most ethical options available. We decided we would not ride any elephants and only visit a tiger sanctuary that didn’t drug the tigers.
Now, how did we know any of what the websites advertised to be true? We didn’t. We read reviews and tried to make an educated decisions. In the end, I’m not really sure how I feel about the experiences given the conditions many animals are kept in and their use for entertainment. I support an organization called Animals Asia, a leading international nonprofit organization based in Hong Kong and primarily focused on rescuing bears, but also focused on animals rights in Asia. Here’s a great article from the Director of Animal Welfare about Elephants rights. You have to decide for yourself if visiting these animals is something you want to do.
We went to the Rantang elephant center in Chiang Mai where we “volunteered” with the elephants for a 1/2 day. The cost was 1800 baht per person (just over $50 USD per person.) The 1/2 day consisted of being picked up at the hotel, being taken to the elephant camp about 1 hour outside of the city centre, changing into borrowed clothing that the camp gives you for the day, getting sugar cane, feeding the elephants the sugar cane, watching the elephants walk around a field, walking the elephants to the water hole and “bathing” them and then returning to the main camp area for a Thai “lunch” before heading back to the hotel.
I love elephants, they are amazing creatures, and look forward to seeing them on an African safari next year, however, seeing them at an elephant camp wasn’t at all what I expected. They were big (even the babies), pushy and really wanted to the sugar cane so at times it felt overwhelming. I gave my sugar cane to a friend so the elephants would leave me alone. They were much more smelly than I’d imagined (my friends were lucky that they were sick and couldn’t really smell anything that day.) They were also much dirtier than I’d expected. I don’t know why I thought they’d be cleaner, but, they weren’t. I decided to just hang around and take lots of photos.
Rantang offers bareback elephant rides, though our program didn’t offer that option, thank goodness, because I don’t think elephants should be rides. If you want to take a ride, there’s a water park with slides nearby that you can check out. That’s my opinion and you may not agree, but ultimately, I was disappointed in Rantang elephant center.
The second day in Chiang Mai we spent visiting the Tiger Kingdom, the largest most well known Tiger centre in the area. Again, I had mixed feelings about the tiger visit. One thing I noticed off the bat was how bad the smell was outside of the “park” but once inside the smell was not as noticeable. You can choose what size tigers you want to visit with. We went with the very small, small and large package and paid extra for a photographer to join us and provide digital images for us.
I didn’t like having the tigers behind me. I felt very uncomfortable when I couldn’t see where the tigers were. I supposed that’s natural. There was only one moment where I actually felt scared and was startled by the tigers. I found the tigers to be amazingly beautiful and seeing them was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m quite glad I didn’t do any research before visiting the park because had I read some of the stories or realized there have been at least 5 documented maulings, I might not have gone. There are some documentaries about the various tiger facilities in Thailand and I’d suggest watching them or reading some of the reviews before deciding if you want to visit.
A competitor of Tiger Kingdom, Tiger Temple, was shut down in April of 2015 for keeping animals without permits. The closure came after multiple complaints of trafficking endangered species, illegally selling animals and possible mistreatment of the animals. The 147 tigers there were being turned over to the Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
After having visited the elephant and tiger centers in Chiang Mai, I don’t think I’ll visit those types of facilities again in the future. I would prefer to see animals in the wild, in their own habitats and not in captivity where they are obviously focused on money making and welfare of animals.