The rainy season has been rather dry so far up here in Chiang Mai, ideal for daytrips – if you don’t mind baking in the sun shining right above your head at this time of the year. For a change, I decided to hop on a bus today and go on one of the easiest “do it yourself” outings around.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre is located in Lampang province, but it is actually less than 70 kms away from Chiang Mai. This prestigious elephant centre works under royal patronage, and is also the home of HM the King’s white elephants (the stables are not open to the public). The elephant hospital treats sick elephants from all over the country free of charge, and also works on important projects such as artificial fertilisation of captive elephants.
At the same time, the elephant centre is also a working elephant school where visitors may take an elephant ride, watch a show, and get close up with these gentle animals. For enthusiasts, special mahout training courses are available as well.
Novice mahouts take care of their elephants all day under the supervision of Thai mahout staff, including walking the elephants to their nighttime sleeping area, cleaning up their mess, and bathing them.
The elephant centre (Thais refer to it as “Sun Chang Lampang”) is actually very near the border of Lamphun and Lampang provinces, right on the main highway connecting the north to central Thailand, so, virtually every southbound bus leaving from Arcade bus station passes by the entrance, and it is a very easy, painless, 67-baht adventure to get there. Sadly, if you search online, it does not take long to find reports describing how tourists were scammed out of 1500 baht by taxis claiming it is very far and difficult to get to.
Living in Chiang Mai, it is so easy to forget that Northern Thailand is hill country – the elephant centre is also surrounded by lush jungle, and rolling hills in every direction. Elephants living here spend the most of their day free in the jungle, not chained up in the stables. It is clear from the very first minute you have contact with them that they are happy, calm and gentle, they enjoy interacting with people and are not distressed. This is actually supported by the many positive reviews written by trainee mahouts who spend days living in the camp.
In contrast to Mae Sa elephant camp, the elephant centre has a very relaxed atmosphere, and a slow pace. At the time of my visit, there were only about 80-100 other visitors, mostly Thai families, but also some small tour groups of foreigners who arrived in vans. There is time for everything and anything, there is no rush. The mahouts, both farang and Thai, answer all questions, wait until everyone takes their photos, every kid pats and feeds the animals, has a turn admiring the elephants very close up. The staff enjoy playing tricks on visitors: splashing them (us!) gently with water, snatching away bananas, poking people with curious trunks. I never once saw them soliciting the 20-baht banknote that was due for these special moments of attention at Mae Sa. I saw absolutely no tips changing hands (trunks).
Elephants love sugarcane
The elephant show is performed three times a day: 10:00, 11:00 and 13:30. It is a cheerful, slow pace event with the participation of about 15 elephants, and, surprisingly, mostly farang mahouts who are taking the course. It looks very much like the elephants can perform the entire show on their own, without any guiding. When I went to Bangkok last year, I enjoyed the colourful, professionally choreographed and sophisticated hi-so show at Samphran Elephant Ground; in contrast, the Lampang elephant centre has a laid-back “rural” show. There is live commentary in both Thai and English. The elephants greet the audience, the mahouts get on and off in different positions. They demonstrate dragging and stacking logs, play the xylophone and bells, walk in lines.
There are several very talented artists, and the paintings provide a major source of income for the centre. Now I wish I had asked how they train the elephants to paint. Obviously, their trunks are very dexterous and capable of fine movements, and elephants are very intelligent, but it took me by surprise when I saw one of them painting Thai letters! I have absolutely no idea how an elephant can learn that.
Nu rak mae – I love you mummy. Mother’s day is coming up on August 12.
Last year, I got an amazing red and green non-figurative painting for Christmas, resembling a jungle of Christmas flowers in full bloom, and I was delighted to meet the artist this time.
The show lasts almost one hour. The first and the last show is preceded by elephant bathing in a small lake nearby: both animals and mahouts seemed to be having a great time. I wish I could have jumped in as well – but even standing on the sidelines, we got a fair bit of muddy water from the playful elephants and their naughty mahouts.
Elephant riding is available from 8:00 to 15:30. Surprisingly, the short route is partly on a concrete road by a lake, in the direct sun (umbrellas and hats are provided). If someone would like a longer ride, they may be entering the jungle nearby, but I didn’t see that. It was also unexpected that the prices of the elephant rides were not clearly indicated – more exactly, I saw no signs whatsoever. There was a large group of people sorting out their details, I heard 100, 200 baht mentioned in Thai, but I couldn’t ask in the crowd, and later when I went back, it was already locked up. So, I cannot tell you more about the elephant rides.
UPDATE: The website of the elephant centre offers the following information: “If you would like to enjoy elephant riding, you will have to pay additional fee at the camp which is 400 Baht/elephant for half hour ride and 800 Baht for one hour ride. Short riding about fiveteen minutes is 100 Baht / person.”
Elephants eat 200 kg of food and drink 150 litres of water every day. (It takes me nearly two months to drink that much water!) All this input means significant amounts of output. Elephant dung is used to produce organic fertiliser. As it is mostly made up of undigested fibre, it is also ideal for making rough paper, which is crafted into notepads, postcards and envelopes. There is a small factory where visitors may observe the paper-making process, but I found it closed. I find this a fascinating and resourceful idea and I hope to check it out next time. You can check out the elephant dung paper website here – they explain the process with pictures.
The elephant centre’s newest baby is just a couple of months old. She stays alongside her mother in a pen, of course, but you can get up close and feed her with bananas. She makes a mess trying to grab the fruit with her trunk and put it in her mouth. She still needs to practise her fine motor skills – and an apron would be useful, too. Her fuzzy messy hair is prickly and she enjoys being touched. Just like a human baby. There is another very young elephant whose mother has died. Another female is scheduled to give birth any minute now.
You can easily spend 4 hours looking around, taking everything in, going for a ride, choosing souvenirs (the proceeds help the elephants too). There is an excellent restaurant as well near the show ground, and several snack shops.
A few practicalities: the centre is actually a 15-minute walk from the entrance. A tram ride is included in the ticket, which is 80 baht for adults, 40 baht for children, no double pricing. There are more shops and restaurants outside the entrance as well. You need to catch a bus from Chiang Mai at 11:00 the latest to be able to get there in time to take it all in, and not miss the elephant bathing and show. There is enough time to go on an elephant ride after the last show. In order to catch a bus back to Chiang Mai, you need to run across the busy 6-lane highway and flag down any bus passing by. Not ideal, but certainly beats relying on taxis.
This little boy was literally screaming and laughing with delight seeing the elephants.
All in all, I think the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre is good value for money. It is easy to get to by private or public transport, and is suitable and enjoyable for all members of the family. There are add-ons to the ticket price, such as food for the elephants (20 baht for a bunch of banana, the regular price at the market), nicely framed pictures taken by professionals of children feeding the elephants (99 baht), paintings (500-1000 baht). Food is reasonably priced. I really liked it that there was no pushing and trying to convince people to purchase things by yelling at them. In fact, one banana seller was fast asleep, another was totally absorbed in a muay thai bout on tv.
If you would like more information, the mahout program has a professionally managed photo blog at http://www.changthai.com, including videos of the animals as well. The various activities of the elephant centre are introduced at the bilingual official website.
This little trip can be easily followed by a visit to Lamphun’s famous temples on the way back to Chiang Mai, which is also simple to negotiate relying on public transport (most buses drop in to Lamphun bus station, which is just 5 minutes walk away from the city centre).
I have marked the elephant centre on our Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand map. If you can recommend us other sights around Chiang Mai, and send along a photo as well, your name will go into a hat and you may be the lucky winner of an elephant dung notepad. Don’t miss it.