A visit to Mae Sa Elephant Camp

The elephant is Thailand’s national animal: its image appeared on the old flag of Siam. Nowadays, elephants are endangered, with their numbers dwindling constantly and less than 1000 elephants living in the wild. A couple of thousand more elephants are domesticated and live on farms such as the Mae Sa Elephant Camp near Chiang Mai. There is no better place to see these magnificent animals then in their natural habitat, even though they are not allowed to roam free.

Last week, we visited Mae Sa Elephant Camp with some children participating in summer school. I had also been there several times previously, taking visitors, as this elephant park is the closest to the city: it is about 30 kilometres from Chiang Mai, or 12 kilometres from the small town of Mae Rim, on the verge of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. They have around 70 elephants, ranging from babies to huge beasts in their 60s, their names and photos are displayed on a huge billboard. They need over six tons of fresh grass, bananas and sugarcane each and every day! Each elephant also needs 200 litres of clean water a day as well. The costs must be enormous to keep the elephants well-fed, fit and healthy. To cover these costs, they charge children 80 baht, adults 120 baht – the complete lack of signs at the entrance made me suspicious, but a few inquiries revealed that the prices are the same for foreigners and Thais.

There was a large crowd at the entrance before 9:20, with several tour buses, but then the large area of the camp swallowed up a couple of hundred people and it wasn’t really overwhelming. There are souvenir stalls right after entering, with reasonable prices, you can also buy a bunch of bananas or sugarcanes for the elephants for 20 baht. Then you cross a shallow stream, where elephants take their baths 20 minutes before each show, at 8:00, 9:40 and 13:30. The elephants are really playful and some enjoy splashing the watching crowd! If you sign up for a one-day mahout training, you may join the bathing as well. After the stream, you pass by a large pen, where you can touch and feed the elephants, they also enjoy snatching your hats and then putting them back on! You can also ask the mahouts questions, or have your photo taken with an elephant’s trunk hugging you. If you would like to give a tip, the trunks are dexterous enough to pick up a coin or a banknote and hand it to the mahout. I’ve even seen two elephants fighting for a 20-baht note held by a little girl at a distance, it was more funny than disturbing. The elephants and mahouts are happy to play with you even if you don’t give a tip.

Then we went on to see the show, which lasted about 40 minutes. To be honest, it used to be much better when I first visited in 2001, long bits have been cut and much of the fun is not in the show any more. But probably if you see it for the first time, it is quite entertaining. It is not amazingly spectacular, like the show I saw in Bangkok’s Samphran Elephant Ground, it is rather slow pace, relaxed, much like the everyday life around here. About twenty elephants welcome you dancing and playing music. Mahouts showed us how elephants obey commands, holding out their trunk or legs to help the mahout get on and off. Young elephants played football, hoops, darts, and relay picking up sticks: children especially enjoyed the football part, cheering for the strikers. Elephants revealed their personalities and temperaments, making both children and adults laugh, gasp, or clap.

One elephant demonstrated how to give a massage, elephant style, now, I wouldn’t like to be at the receiving end of its trunk, then feet! Older elephants, who used to be employed in the logging industry before logging was abolished, showed us how they used to drag and stack trees, working as a team with each other and with their mahouts. Their strength and accuracy is amazing.

Probably the highlight of the show is when seven or eight young elephants paint pictures. It takes only about five minutes, and the pictures are then quickly sold for 2,000 baht each, not bad for a wage! These were much, much cheaper a few years ago, but on second thought, I cannot really blame them for the price rise as there are plenty of rich package tour tourists buying these paintings happily for any price. I just really hope the income goes to caring for the elephants. Some elephants are abstract artists, favouring lines and a rainbow of colours, others paint pretty trees or flowers. They all seem to have their individual style. Eight elephants actually set up a world record in 2005, making the largest ever painting by a group of elephants. There is a gallery and a shop where you can admire and buy their artwork.

At the end of the show, the elephants came up to the audience, and there was another opportunity to feed them, take pictures, get hugs. The children were very scared at first, even though the mahouts made sure that we got youngster elephants at that section of the show area, not the huge fearsome males. After a few bunches of bananas, children dared to touch the elephants’ trunks, but hugs proved to be way too scary for them. We had a great time and shared quite a few laughs interacting with the animals.

After the show, you can go for an elephant ride: 600 baht for half an hour or 1000 for an hour, per elephant. The route actually takes you to some pretty steep sections of the surrounding “jungle”. Elephants have a funny stride, the ride actually becomes uncomfortable after half an hour. You can almost get elephant-sick! The mahouts are really nice and you can ask them to take your picture with your own camera, no extra charge. Or you can get professional photos taken, I think the price was 200 baht, these pictures come in a nice silk frame.

At the camp, you can always see a couple of baby elephants with their mothers in separate pens. One or two babies are born each year, and they stay with their mothers for two years before being separated and starting their training with their mahouts. Children especially enjoy touching elephants who are their own size! Two years ago, one of the mothers got really protective and had it not been for the mahout, there could have been a stampede. So, you need to be careful with the kids here. You can easily spend two or three hours at the camp, watching the show, going for a ride, visiting the pens, playing with the animals. Elephants come and go at all times along the footpaths, so you need to be very careful. Obviously, mahouts are very careful as well and they can control the elephants well.

The elephant camp closes at 14:30, so if you are not on a tour, you need to make sure you make your way here on time. You probably need to rent a car or motorcycle. You can also take a yellow songthaew (pickup truck converted into a taxi) that goes from Chiang Mai to Samoeng, and ask to be dropped off at the elephant camp. I think a rented motorcycle is cheaper though. Certainly for two people. You will need about one hour from Chiang Mai. Head north towards Chiang Dao for 12 kilometres, then turn left after the town of Mae Rim and continue another 10 kilometres. The roads are clearly signposted and not very busy.

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