We truly saved the best for last on our Thailand adventure: visiting elephants. Two weeks before our arrival in Chiang Mai we finally got around to booking some tours, and among one of my top requirements was an elephant encounter of some kind. Elephants are huge in Thai culture and a lot of that dates back to various wars with Burma (Myanmar) in which the Thai kings and military rode into battle on the backs of elephants. When I called to book a place recommended by some friends (Patara Elephant Farm), they were unfortunately already booked for the entire month of February. I imagine most of this was due to the fact that we were traveling during Chinese New Year which is always a busy time (especially since Thailand is so close to China). Next we tried to contact the Elephant Nature Park which had also come recommended by friends, but they only had one option available. Based on the description it sounded like we would spend more time in a car getting to and from the location than actually interacting with the elephants, so we decided maybe that was not the best option for us either. Luckily half way through our trip we checked again on a third place (Baan Chang), which had also come recommended by friends, and they had an opening come up in a morning session starting at 6:30am that was not previously available. Sold.
One note on elephant encounters in Thailand for any of you who may be considering it: please do your research before selecting a place. There are all manner of different places to see elephants and we were offered options to join several other tours that, upon further inspection, we declined. The tourism industry has lead to many different elephant related tours that vary in both how you can interact with the elephants and how they are treated. Some places that give rides have more or less a continuous line of people and do not provide the elephants enough rest while on the other extreme some places do not offer elephant riding at all because they do not wish to exploit the animals. The three mentioned above came recommended by personal friends and were the only three listed in the lonely planet travel book we had brought with us, so that made us feel a little better about their reputation. This was also likely the reason they were almost sold out.
The place we went (Baan Chang) is an elephant rescue center with ~49 elephants and 5+ that many trainers to work with them. The elephants were rescued from logging camps, circuses, and other tourism outfits. Their goal is to provide a safe place for these elephants to live, and the reason they provide a trainer for each elephant is to prevent them from getting into fights and injuring the other animals. They have to pay to rescue these elephants, so they try to make sure they can all live happy healthy lives. While it may not be ideal for them to live in pseudo captivity, many of the elephants were presumably taken from their mothers young and trained to do anything from work in the logging industry to give kisses at the circus. It is very likely they would not be well suited to going back to the wild after that. Baan chang uses these tours as a way to feed and care for the elephants while providing a living wage to the trainers who live there on site. We got a description of some of the medical care they have had to provide to some of their elephants, and they even have one elephant they purchased who is completely blind. The other purpose the trainers serve is to assess which elephants are safe for people to interact with and which ones should be kept separate. They also make sure to keep tour groups smaller so they can rotate through the elephants and make sure they have enough rest.
Our activities for the day included feeding the elephants sugar cane and bananas, learning how to ride them (with the help of the trainers), and giving them a bath after taking them for a walk. I have added all additional commentary below in the picture captions. Enjoy!