After returning from our week long Mae Hong Son motorbike journey, we really wanted to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. We hunted around town and looked on the internet to locate the best elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
Luckily, we stumbled across Rantong Save and Rescue Elephants Center, a well reviewed and ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
What should you look for in an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai?
There are a few things that are very important when considering which elephant sanctuary to visit in Chiang Mai.
- An elephant sanctuary that is ethical and treats the elephants well;
- An elephant sanctuary that is completely honest about their practices and procedures;
- An elephant sanctuary that you get to interact with the elephants;
- An elephant sanctuary with well trained guides who are helpful and are willing to provide you with information about their practices and procedures; and
- An elephant sanctuary with a good price to experience ratio.
At Rantong Save and Rescue Elephant Centre we were satisfied with all the above.
For this reason, in our opinion, it is the best elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
Best Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai – An Ethical Elephant Sanctuary
A sanctuary that treats the elephants well
If you would like to see elephants in Chiang Mai, select an elephant sanctuary that is ethical and treats the elephants well.
We were satisfied from our visit to Rantong Save the Elephants that they love and take care for their elephants very well.
The elephant trainers (mahouts) are each assigned an elephant to look after at the sanctuary. They literally spend every waking minute looking after and attending to their elephant. For the mahouts, it is really a full-time job, like attending to a baby or a small child.
The staff at the elephant sanctuary told us that when the last baby elephant was born, the entire team camped out for two days to be there for the mother and to watch the birth.
This story gave us a lot of insight into how much the elephant sanctuary really care about the elephants.
We were only at the elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai for one day. However, we met a Swedish girl, who had been living & volunteering in it for a number of months.
She attested that over the months she has been living and working at the elephant sanctuary, it was a very ethical place that looked after the elephants extremely well.
Is keeping elephants in captivity ethical?
Some people argue that keeping elephants in captivity is unethical.
However, elephants have been living side by side with Thai & Karen people like any other domesticated animal for hundreds of years. By this line of logic, it is every bit as unethical to keep a pet horse or dog.
That is not to say that there are not some elephant practices that have been used in the past that are unethical and should not be continued.
Elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai that allow tourists to ride elephants using chairs, that get the elephants to perform circus acts or use hooks to control their elephants are unethical and should be avoided.
Rantong does not engage in any of these activities.
Circus performances are not good for the elephant’s well being as it involves the elephants being trained to do very unnatural activities, activities that often involve abuse to the elephants in order to teach them to perform their tricks.
Chair rides are also an activity that tourists should not engage in as the chair itself causes injury to the elephants.
Are elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai only around for the tourist dollar?
Tourists commonly believe that elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai are only around for the tourist dollar.
While this sometimes may be true, it is not the case at Rantong who are actually involved in rehousing elephants who, in their past lives, were involved in unethical treatment such as logging (which is now thankfully illegal in Thailand).
However, the care and rehabilitation of elephants who have previously been subjected to unethical treatment, involves a lot of money.
The elephant sanctuary has a number of elderly and disabled elephants in their care (including one with a broken leg from abuse in her past life).
To get the right medicine and nutrition for the elephants is very costly and may be impossible without tourists visiting the elephant sanctuary.
Tour fees also pay for food – a lot of food – as elephants eat 10% of their body weight everyday!
Why is Rantong one of the best elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai?
One of the reasons that we think it is one of the best elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai is that they do not hide their practice & procedures and instead, they explain why they need to do certain things that might seem unethical at first sight.
For instance, sometimes at the elephant sanctuary, you will see the elephants tied or chained up.
The elephant sanctuary explained to us that they are only chained up if their mahout is eating, showering or sleeping.
Chains are in place for practical & safety reasons as elephants are very powerful animals and could destroy neighbouring properties or get injured if let lose in suburbia alone.
After paying for the medicine and care for the elephants, the elephant sanctuary does not currently have the financial ability to pay for fences so the elephants are free to roam when the mahouts are not available.
Creating enclosures for the elephants to have mobility at all times is something that the elephant sanctuary intends to do in the future when they have the financial means.
Riding Elephants bareback – Is it Ethical?
There is a lot of information currently available that suggests that you should not ride elephants period.
We were not interested in an activity that would hurt the elephants purely for our own entertainment.
However, after some of our own initial research and after consulting our friendly guide, Adam, we determined that it is okay to ride elephants bareback if you do so correctly.
At Rantong Save and Rescue Elephant Centre, they do allow their customers to take part in short elephant rides (bareback only!). However, they make sure customers are doing so in a way that is not harmful to the elephants.
This means keeping the maximum duration to no more than 20 minutes and teaching their customers how to ride elephants bareback in the correct way.
If you think about it logically, the weight of an elephant carrying 2 humans is actually much less than us carrying around a backpack.
Sure, a backpack would get uncomfortable after long periods of time but in short periods, worn in the correct manner, it does not affect our health & well being.
In the end, we decided that riding elephants bareback is no different to carrying a backpack or riding a horse or a camel.
However, if you are afraid or just don’t like the idea of riding elephants in general, there is a separate program called the Baby Care program that does not involve riding elephants at all.
In this program, you help make vitamins for the sick elephants including the pregnant, injured and old elephants.
An elephant sanctuary that cares about the safety of tourists
Not only is the safety and well-being of elephants important, but it is also very important to pick an elephant sanctuary that also has the safety of tourists at the heart of everything they do.
During our time at Rantong elephant sanctuary we felt 100% safe and always in the very best of hands.
As Rantong is a sanctuary that rehabilitates elephants, many of the elephants have had distressing pasts.
It can take a long time for the elephants to feel comfortable and happy to interact with tourists.
If the sanctuary does not completely trust the elephant or feel that the elephant is happy to interact with tourists, it will not allow it to happen.
This is a decision for both the well being of tourists and the elephants.
As elephants are extremely large and strong creatures, it is very important to pick an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai that priorities safety.
We read horror stories of other elephant sanctuaries allowing mentally unstable elephants to take clients for rides, ending only in disaster.
The Elephant Program
We were impressed with the program at Rantong Elephant Centre. This is one of the reasons we believe it is the best elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
We completed the full day program which consisted of morning elephant care and afternoon elephant riding.
You can also complete each of these programs separately as half day activities.
Half Day Elephant Care Program
A minivan picked us up at our hotel in Chiang Mai at 7.30am in the morning. From there, it took around an hour to reach the elephant sanctuary.
The morning care program began with learning how to prepare food for the elephants. We learnt how to properly cut bamboo so that we could feed the baby elephants.
It was so much fun getting to feed the elephants (who are certainly not shy!).
The Chinese tourists who accompanied us on our tour shrieked with joy as the adorable baby elephant and the mother fed right from their hands.
After the elephants were full of food, we were able to go for a mud bath with the elephants and to wash the elephants off in the stream.
What we learnt is that elephants are very playful creatures. It was so fun playing with the elephants as they rolled around in the mud and lovingly looked at you as you rub their belly and back.
After the program is finished, the sanctuary provides you with fresh towels and soap products to have a shower before lunch.
On our program, we were served Khao Soi, a traditional dish from the North of Thailand.
If you only participate in a half day program, you are transported back to your hotel in Chiang Mai after lunch.
Half Day Elephant Riding Program
Rantong has two elephant sanctuaries around 5 minutes drive from each other. We were transported from the morning care centre to the afternoon riding centre.
The afternoon riding program started with a safety & information meeting where we learnt some basic commands for the elephants. We then met the elephants and fed them some bananas.
Following the banana feeding, we were able to start the most anticipated activity of the day – riding the elephants!
As we prepared to get on the elephants, the staff directed us the correct way to sit on the elephants for our own safety and also the well being of the elephants.
When we first mounted the elephant, it was extremely scary. They are very large and as you are riding bareback, you only have a rope to hold onto. However, as the ride takes off you gain confidence and it is an extremely fun experience.
The ride goes for around 20 minutes through the mountains and finishes at a stream, where you are able to give the elephants a wash and cool down.
As with the morning program, the elephant sanctuary provides you with towels and showers to wash off following your elephant experience.
The afternoon program also concludes with a meal and transport back to your hotel in Chiang Mai.
Details of the the Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai
If you would like to get in touch with Rantong about an elephant experience their contact details are as follows:
- Email – [email protected]
- Phone – (+66) 053272023 or (+66) 0954424644
- Address – 92 walai rd, soi 2, Chiang Mai Thailand
Prices (Current as at 2017)
- Half Day Elephant Care – 1,800 Baht per person
- Half Day Riding – 1,600 Baht per person
- Full Day Elephant Care & Riding – 2500 Baht per person
- Full Day Elephant Care & Baby Care – 2500 Baht per person
If you have more time & would like to participate in a longer term activity, there is also volunteer programs available.
Overall, we had an unbelievable time and would recommend it to anyone who is looking for an elephant experience in Chiang Mai.
If you have any questions about riding elephants in Chiang Mai or the best elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, we would be happy to help, let us know in the comments below!
Note: Another fun activity to to rent a motorbike in Chiang Mai. Click here to find all you need to know about renting a motorbike in Chiang Mai.
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Disclaimer – We were invited to this elephant sanctuary as guests. However, it does not in any way influence our views or opinions of the experience. Our review is 100% honest and a true reflection of our experience.