In this Guest Post Matthew Barby shares his day with the elephants at the Dante Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, riding the elephants and playing with them in the river as well as enjoying the company of Do-do the baby elephant.
I spent some time, along with my partner, in the wonderful city of Chiang Mai in Thailand. Between us we had a long list of things that we wanted to do and places that we wanted to see, with seeing elephants being the prime focus of our excitement.
We had spent a lot of time researching into the best places to go in order to spend time with elephants as well as finding out information on how the elephants are treated in the camps. We decided to visit the Dante Elephant Camp which was around an hour drive away from our hotel, Lanna Mantra, and cost us 2,500 Baht ($85) per person. This cost included the journey to and from the camp, a really good lunch, water throughout the day and a full day (9am-5pm) with the elephants.
There are a lot of elephant camps across Chiang Mai and Thailand in general that really don’t treat the animals well. They are often trained to perform for the tourists, underfed and the mahouts (the elephant trainers) can be overly aggressive. The Dante Elephant Camp couldn’t be farther from this. They have a small amount of elephants on-site, around 15-20 in total, that have been taken in after the use of elephants for logging was made illegal 25 years ago (quite rightly so!).
It was clear to see that all of the mahouts on the camp had a very close, intimate bond with the elephants and would treat them with the utmost respect and care. What was also clear to see was that the elephants were all in really high spirits and were allowed to freely roam around the camp without the restrictions of chains. This was particularly good to see.
The journey to the elephant camp
We were picked up from our hotel at around 8am by one of the camp mahouts, and our bumpy journey up through the scenic jungle areas of Chiang Mai lasted for around an hour. In retrospect, the car journey to the camp was probably more treacherous than balancing on top of the elephants through the day!
Once we arrived at the camp we were told to put on some pretty jazzy clothes that essentially consisted of a top that looked like an old rug stitched together and some extremely baggy trousers. Needless to say, we looked pretty funky! It turned out to be quite fortunate that we were wearing these clothes instead of our own as the elephants seemed to have an unrelenting urge to squirt muddy water at us through their trunks. A charming welcome, I thought.
The first couple of hours were spent with a couple of the mahouts who educated us in the ways of the elephants, spoke to us a bit about the history of the camp and also told us some short commands that the elephants can understand. This was nice to hear because it really assured us and, not least, made us feel comfortable that the mahouts genuinely cared about the welfare of the animals and didn’t just treat them like a tourist commodity. Having said that, the harsh reality is that if they don’t bring in money from tourism then it’s highly unlikely that they will be able to sustain the camp.
Meeting the elephant family
Laura and I were the only ones on the trip so we literally had a free roam of the place without anyone else – which was awesome. I was given the daunting task of being the first to try and get on top of the big bull (oh, and when I say big I mean 3.5m tall big!). The mahouts were pretty good in showing me how ‘easy’ it is to do so, to avoid the risk of being emasculated, I marched up to the big guy, jumped onto his giant leg and, using his ear as a handle, threw myself over his back.
After some readjusting and a bit of a shaky start, (to say the least) I managed to at least look like I had a clue what I was doing on top of an elephant. At first I was pretty careful where I was putting my hands and how I was sitting, primarily because I didn’t want to hurt the elephant, but once I got into the swing of things I soon realised that my weight was nothing to one of these beasts. Bearing in mind that elephant skin is over 3cm in thickness, you can pretty much grab them anywhere to steady yourself and they will hardly feel it.
After some brief pottering around on the camp, we were ready to go off for a little trek through the forest. Laura was on-board one of the female elephants that was with calf, whilst I was on-board the bull. It was really great going out with the whole elephant family and added to the intimacy of the whole experience. ‘Do-do’ the young calf was like a human toddler; ambling around aimlessly under the close supervision of her mother, she was constantly looking for the next distraction to wander over to. She found particular interest in our shoes at the start of the trip which was really funny – well, it was at least funny for the mahouts as they watched me having to chase after Do-do to get my sodden flip-flop out of her mouth!
Bathing the Elephants in the River
After around 20 minutes of trekking through the forest we stopped by a river so that they elephants could cool off and get a drink. This also gave us the opportunity to grab a bucket and brush in order to give them all a good wash. This was great fun as we got to splash around with the elephants in the water and also get all of the dirt out of their skin.
When we first got to the river, the two adult elephants slowly crept into the water and started to submerge themselves. Once Laura and I had seen that they were in and comfortable we went to get in ourselves. The next thing we know, little Do-do has dived head-first between us and all that could be seen were her four legs up in the air along with her tiny trunk – like I said, just like a little mischievous toddler!
After some splashing around, we let the elephants wander off and share some valuable social time together. It was really amazing to see how maternal the mother is to her calf and you could see that as soon as little Do-do tried to run off and play with some stick that she has just found, Mum was there to reel her in. One thing that I didn’t realise until the mahouts told me was that elephants stay pregnant for around 22 months, so you can see why their bond is so strong.
Once the elephants had taken in some final slurps of water, we got back on top of them and rode them back to the camp, which was about 15 minutes away. By this point I felt a lot more comfortable and was riding my luck using no hands. That is until the big man decided he wanted to tear down a huge branch from the tree above me and nearly threw me down with it!
Final Impressions of the elephant camp
By the time we arrived back at the camp, both myself and Laura couldn’t quite believe what we had been spending our day doing. It really was a fantastic experience that not many people will have the opportunity of ever doing so I couldn’t recommend it more.
The Dante Elephant Camp that we went to actually brought down a photographer along with us through the trip and took some amazing shots along the way. We then had the chance to look through the photos at the end and pay a small price to get them put on a CD at the end. One of the mahouts also took along our camera and took a load of photos as we went, so they didn’t try to force you into buying the photos at all and we came back with hundreds of shots in the end.
All in all, a perfect trip. Although it may seem quite expensive at first, the Dante Elephant Camp prides itself in the correct treatment of its animals and it was clear to both me and Laura that this was definitely the case. My advice would be that if you do decide on going with a different camp, make sure that you do your research. I’ve heard of many people coming back upset about the state of the animals and the way they were treated at certain camps and that will just ruin your whole experience. On top of this, it is great to know that your money is going to a good and moral cause.
If you’ve spent any time at one of the many elephant camps in Thailand then let me know by leaving a message in the comments box below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the differing experiences that people have had that could also provide good advice to other readers.
Many thanks for this article to Matthew Barby, owner of the Melted Stories travel blog. He’s an avid traveller and loves throwing himself into new experiences. Alongside this he has a passion for music, online marketing and is a complete social media addict. You can follow Matt on Twitter and Google+ to hear all of his latest ramblings.
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