Christmas in Chiang Mai: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Since we moved to New Zealand, we’ve spent every Christmas at home on the beach in Devonport. But this year, with a full two weeks of Thailand adventure planned, on Christmas Day we were in Chiang Mai. Or rather, in a jungle a couple hours outside the city limits, celebrating with a new herd.

While our Christmas didn’t involve any traditional celebrations, we leaned into having the most unforgettable experience of our trip – a full day at an elephant sanctuary. 

We did quite a bit of research prior to booking, to make sure we’d be supporting an ethical and sustainable cause – one that doesn’t allow riding the elephants, or any other mistreatment. We settled on Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and booked the All Day experience, that involves feeding, bathing and walking with the elephants. It was an absolute dream come true. They are such stunning creatures and we were just completely in awe of their size and gentle nature. 

We also learned so much about the elephants from the Mahouts who took care of them. They were able to explain how the animals have been rescued from poaching, being overworked or ridden previously, and the non-profit care foundation they run in parallel to promote elephant welfare. They also taught us so much about the animals in general – like how elephants only sweat through their toenails! Who knew? 

We met six elephants in our ‘camp,’ and got to treat them to healthy greens before rewarding them with bananas for dessert. They had the most fun opening their mouths wide and raising their trunks skyward in anticipation of a juicy banana when we said “bon-bon!” excitedly.

We then followed the herd to a watering hole and mudpit where the elephants cool off on hot days. The water was a bit chilly for them to want to bathe, but a few brave elephants (and people) took a refreshing dip. To dry off, the elephants promptly rolled in the dirt to add a protective layer of mud ‘sunscreen’. 

After a delicious lunch for the humans, the half day tours went home and left us full-day walkers to have the elephants to ourselves. This was when we really got to bond with them, and had them lead us on a windy walk up and down jungle paths. 

Finally, before we left for the day, the guides took our group of 10 to another camp to see two new additions. We met a teenaged elephant, Harry, who was constantly on the move, as well as a nearly newborn who had his big debut showing off to tourists for the very first time. His mamma tried to keep him tucked in close between her legs, but the cheeky little Charlie kept escaping her embrace to get up close and personal with the humans. While all the elephants were so amazing, it was such a treat to see a baby! 

At the end of the day, we were gifted a souvenir poncho like the ones we wore in the camp. Muddy and satisfied, we hopped back on our (very uncomfortable) Red Truck for the bumpy 1.5-hour journey home to Chiang Mai city.

A shower and stretching our legs after that ride never felt so good. Though we struggled to find a restaurant not fully booked for Christmas that night, it didn’t matter to us what we ate – we had the most amazing day, and one of the most memorable holidays ever. 

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