Riding Elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand

| March 2, 2011 | 27 Comments

Northern Thailand offers a plethora of travel adventures to travelers, but riding elephants in Chiang Mai is certainly amont the most enjoyable and interesting experiences you can be part of and certainly one of my favorite. It had actually been a dream of Liza for many years, and shortly after arriving to Bangkok we made our way to the train station hoping to travel overnight to Chiang Mai and ride the elephants the day after. Our plans changed once we learned that the train was full, but it was while deciding what to do that a lady approached us and offered all sorts of trips within the country. Realizing that she could be helpful we followed her to a nearby travel agency where many other backpackers were arranging their travels and after an hour of thinking and bargaining we found ourselves with a pretty good deal: for less than 100 USD/person we had arranged an overnight bus trip to Chiang Mai, 2 hotel nights with breakfast included, a trip to visit the Padaung ladies and transportation to the Golden Triangle and Chiang Rai. Sweet deal don’t you think?
elephants in chiang mai

We saw an elephant in a backstreet of Bangkok, and hoped the elephants in Chiang Mai we would be seeing were nothing like this one: the poor animal was completely out of place. We sat back, I pulled out my book and let time go by. The overnight trip in the sleeping bus was not too uncomfortable, but nevertheless we were deadbeat once we arrived Chiang Mai at about 8am, and were dropped at the hotel where we went straight to bed for a quick nap. The hotel staff was very welcoming as is that of almost every hotel in Thailand, and eventhough we woke up at around 11 am they were still happy to offer us breakfast, which we gladly accepted. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city, walked to Wat Suan Dok hoping to take a picture of this great temple during sunset (it was unfortunately too cloudy),visiting the night bazaar once it was dark and tasting exquisite food in what I consider one of the gastronomical epicentres of the world.

Exhiliarating as the previous day had been we were up early the following morning ready to leave the hotel as we would be riding elephants in Chiang Mai, an event we had been looking forward to for many weeks and an experience we were eager to enjoy. We hopped on a van at the hotel, and after picking up other travelers we were taken to the elephant camp, barely 34 minutes out of the city. The camp itself was rather simple, and after crossing a rope bridge over a river we were soon standing on a platform where the elephants would walk up to and we were on our way through the jungle shortly after.

The first few minutes are perhaps the most uncomfortable of all, but once you get used to the the animal’s rythim it is farely easy to relax and enjoy the ride. Sure, you musn’t forget that you’re in the jungle and there are branches sticking out to you at all times, but there is time to pull out the camera and take pictures or shoot video for as long as you want.

About 15 minutes after leaving, one of the mahout (elephant “drivers”) asked me if I wanted to sit on my elephant’s head and atempt to guide it through the jungle. Sure, why not, it can’t be that hard can it? Besides, it will simply follow the elephant in front and that’s it. Without a second thought I got off my seat and crouched to the animal’s head, and immediately regreted my decision. Why? You cannot imagine how tough elephant hair is! It felt as if dozens of razor sharp wires were sticking through my pants and right into my a”@##!! I of course felt like swearing and making my way back to the seat, but with all the mahouts and travelers looking at me and taking pictures all I could do was smile helplessly and pretend I was the happiest man in the world.

I got used to it shortly after, and had heaps of fun along the way although eventually I did move back to my seat. We crossed a river, made our way through what seemed impossible slopes, and fed the elephants dozens of bananas that were given to us at the end of the jungle trek.

Elephant riding tours in Chiang Mai cost about 450 Baht and last about 1-1.5 hours. You don’t really need them to be any longer as the ride is slightly uncomfortable and the animals will get stressed anyhow. Don’t be surprised if an elephant soaks you wet when crossing a river while the mahouts laugh, and you’ll be asked for tips at the end of the trip- remember you don’t have to give them anything if you don’t want to.

In my opinion the treks are very much worth it, and although many voices seem to disagree with the practice because of the stress and treatment the animals endure I have to say that I very much disagree. Most elephants in Chiang Mai are free to walk around, all are well fed and receive medical attention when needed. Sure, elephants are not meant to be ridden by humans , but I doubt ostriches are and nobody seems to have a problem with that. So don’t think twice about it: budget 12 USD for elephant riding in Chiang Mai because it will be an unforgettable experience- I’m typing this while I look at the photo taken there that now decorates our living room.

Have you ridden elephants in Chiang Mai? Elsewhere? What did you think about the trek? Do you believe the animals are being abused and treated poorly? Share your comments below, and this post too if you liked it!

This post was kindly brought to you by Ambleside Cottages and Keswick Cottages in the lake district of north UK. Make sure you check them out if heading there!

Category: Destinations, East & SE Asia, Thailand


27 responses to “Riding Elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand”

  1. Rob Allen says:

    Chiang Mai is beautiful, especially with a tour guide!

  2. Courtyru says:


    Would you be able to communicate the elephant trek site name?
    I will be backpacking in Thailand and could not find anything but day trips with elephant riding + lunch + rafting + sightseeing for about 3000bht

    Thank you very much!

    • maitravelsite says:

      Hi there! I unfortunately do not remember the trek site’s name, but it is true that most are part of a day tour. This said I have looked around and found this organization that also rescues elephants: http://www.elephant-training.com/program-and-pricing/ where you can do just what you want. For only 600 Baht though you would do the rest of the activities as well, though who knows if they treat the animals fairly. There is also an elephant sanctuary you might want to learn about…

  3. It’s amazing, I have to travel Thai Lan to discover it. Thanks for your sharing

  4. erika says:

    THIS IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK! The training methods that you never see are BRUTAL. Elephants are highly intelligent, social creatures who do not belong chained up all day (except when they’re forced to carry tourists on chairs that ultimately do damage to their backs and are painful.) Babies are “broken” by mahoots to force them to submit. There are much better alternatives to these camps! If you knew how the elephants were treated you’d never visit.

    • maitravelsite says:

      I learned about these practices after I was there. Had I known I would have checked that this tour in particular was environmentally responsible, but then it would be difficult be absolutely certain wouldn’t it?

      • Stephen says:

        This is shameful. The methods used to train elephants to do this are cruel. If you want to see an elephant go on a safari and see them in their natural habitat. Carrying people is not natural and its terrible to support this.

        • maitravelsite says:

          Hi Stephen, I see your point and this was done quite a few years ago, I did not know back then what is going on with them. This said, the same could be applied to horses, ostriches, or bulls! It is not natural either, but has been made as such. It’s a matter of perspective…

  5. Riding elephants is a ton of fun, at least until they start moving. Once they start to walk all I can think about is that massage I need to get once the ride is over. These trainers that ride them every day, they must have spines of rubber or something.

    • maitravelsite says:

      I also recommend that travelers check out the reputations of the tour they are joining- reportedly many businesses misstreat the animals…what a shame.

  6. nicola says:

    hi do they take photos of you when your on the elephants and how much rougly are they going to thai land in 3 weeks cant wait

  7. Kai Yan says:

    Yeah, that’s a nice trip and i agree with you, the elefants at Chiang Mai are looking pretty well and fit. I did the efephant ride during a trekking trip. My best trip ever!

  8. Erica says:

    I’m not sure we’ll do the elephant rides around Thailand but I do want to be involved in some of the caretaking activities. 🙂

  9. I once read an article saying that elephants are more “feelings” than have dogs, and yes, I think some animals are abused.
    And, omg: $ 12 for a ride elephants? OAW, it’s super cheap.

  10. Ayngelina says:

    I didn´t ride them after researching a bit on it and found that they weren´t treated very well.

    • maitravelsite says:

      Don’t you think that perhaps not all elephants are being treated poorly? It would make sense to check the one you are going to try… dunno, just my thoughts 🙂

      • Ayngelina says:

        I suppose there is a chance that not all of them are treated poorly but its pretty well documented and a lot of people in sustainable tourism ask you not to ride them.

        • maitravelsite says:

          Truth is that I once saw a documentary on this issue too, though only now do I remember. In any case I did not feel the animals were poorly trated where we went, unlike some of the Tarsier viewing places in Bohol (Philippines) which we avoided altogether, visiting instead a sanctuary.

  11. that place look like sabah area in malaysia, they got nice hotels as well

  12. Lauren says:

    Hi! I’ve just discovered your site and I love it! 🙂

    That looks like an incredibly (and scary!) experience and I can’t wait to try it out when I go to Thailand later this year! And for only 12USD?! Bargain! 😀

    • maitravelsite says:

      Glad you dropped by Lauren! I hope the site performed well as I am working on the new design behind the scenes 🙂 You will love Thailand, and I’m sure you’ll also find great bargains!

  13. You look like Tarzan!
    I very curious, but i don’t think i could do it. Weren’t you guys afraid? An elephant can be dangerous if he doesn’t like something, and there’s the height… i’m too girly for my own good.

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