It’s not every day you get to walk an elephant through the forest. Or, maybe more accurately, an elephant gets to walk you through the forest. But that’s part of the heart-warming experience that awaits visitors to the Tong Bai Foundation in Chiang Mai. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to walk alongside these amazing animals as they gently meander through the trees and across the valley en route to their favourite watering hole. Each elephant has their own unique personality and getting to know them — and them getting to know you — is what helps make this such a special experience. This is ethical elephant tourism in action. Tourists don’t ride elephants at the Tong Bai Foundation. There are no shows or ‘entertainment’. And visitor numbers are strictly limited so the elephants never feel crowded allowing the elephants and their human guests to get the most out of the day spent together.
The foundation is named in honour of a bull elephant called Tong Bai. Sadly, Tong Bai died during a severe storm in 2010. When lightning struck a tree close to where Tong Bai was standing, he panicked and ran though the forest. The 25-year-old elephant tripped and fell down a slope leading to fatal injuries. The Tong Bai Elephant Foundation is a fitting tribute with the non-profit organisation aiming to improve the welfare of Thailand’s working elephants and at the same time helping the owners of the animals.
Providing a sustainable alternative
In an ideal world, all elephants in Thailand would be able to live freely in the wild. But the world we live in is far from ideal. Habitat has been lost and simply releasing working elephants into the wild is not a solution. Instead, responsible tourism provides a sustainable alternative for the elephants and their mahouts and owners.
I wish that all the elephants could live in the wild, but unfortunately, we currently have between 3,000 to 4,000 captive elephants in Thailand, all of whom need to earn some form of living in order to be fed . . . There is nowhere near enough habitat to release them back into – not by a long shot . . . Tourism is the only sustainable method so far discovered.
– John Roberts, Director of Elephants, Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF)
A safe home for working elephants
Arriving at Tong Bai Foundation you are met by knowledgable staff who take time to sit down with you and explain more about the plight of the Asian elephant. You’ll also learn some interesting facts and figures which helps provide some balance to the emotive issue of elephants in the tourist industry.
An elephant can get through around 250 kilos of food per day and the monthly bill for the upkeep of the average pachyderm is in the region of 1,000 USD per month. To help ease the financial burden on the owners, the Tong Bai Foundation rents domesticated working elephants. Tong Bai is a non-profit organisation, but works in co-operation with a commercial enterprise, Elephant Special Tours. The elephants that Tong Bai rent are carefully integrated into the herd and are able to be occupied in accordance with their age, health and abilities. This is important to ensure not just the physical well-being of the elephant, but also its mental well-being. These are highly intelligent and social creatures who need healthy mental stimulation in addition to physical exercise.
Caring for the elephants
Tong Bai are constructing a facility on-site where sick or injured elephants can be treated. When complete, all elephant camps in the nearby Mae Wang valley will be able to use this facility free of charge. The elephant hospital at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang will still be used for major ailments, but the work at Tong Bai means less serious cases can be treated closer to home.
Responsible elephant tourism means ensuring the safety of visitors and mahouts as well as the elephant. If people want to get close to working elephants there needs to be some parameters. The mahouts at Tong Bai Foundation do carry bull-hooks with flattened tips and Tong Bai make no secret of this. The sight of a bull-hook may alarm some people, but independent elephant experts say if used correctly these are not a problem for the elephant. During the first half of the day spent at Tong Bai, you will find out more about why bull-hooks and chains are sometimes used with working elephants and why they are often safer than the alternatives. Staff will be able to answer your questions if you still have concerns.
– John Roberts, elephant expert at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) writing on the Elephant Tails blog
An elephant-astic experience
After spending the morning becoming acquainted with your new-found jumbo friends, you can enjoy a filling Thai lunch ahead of your leisurely afternoon stroll. You will lead the elephants (or vice versa!) through the forest and along dirt trails. There are some gentle inclines on the route which can get a little slippery at times, but your guide or the mahouts can help you if needed. The walk takes approximately an hour with lots of impromptu stops on the way for the elephants to munch on vegetation.
The age of people in our small group ranged from 7 to 70, so it really is an experience that can be enjoyed by everyone. Just be prepared to get hot, sweaty and dusty. But the reward for you at the end of your exertions will be washing the elephants in the river. The elephant bath-time is the culmination of a day full of smiles and laughter courtesy of these adorable animals.
I’ve been fortunate to spend time previously with the herd at Elephants World Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi and with Somboon the elephant in Khao Sok. Both were incredible experiences. Even for an old cynic like me, there is something magical about spending quality time with these soulful creatures. And because group sizes at Tong Bai are limited and you spend most of the day with the elephants, the whole day feels even more intimate and special. I travelled with my mother and sister on the trip which we booked with Tong Bai Elephant Tours. We all loved the experience and can’t recommend it highly enough. From start to finish everything was professional and perfectly organised.
Book a visit with Tong Bai Elephant Tours
The Tong Bai Foundation is located in the Mae Win district of Chiang Mai province, just over an hours drive to the west of Chiang Mai city. Tong Bai Elephant Tours run on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year. The maximum number of people permitted in the group is ten and the price includes a tasty lunch and round-trip transfers by air-conditioned mini-van between your accommodation in Chiang Mai and the elephant sanctuary. An English-speaking local guide will accompany you for the day. Drinking water is provided and at the starting and finishing points of the tour there are toilet and basic shower/changing facilities.
More than half of the tour price you pay goes directly to the Tong Bai Foundation. You will also receive a donation receipt thanking you for your contribution. On the pre-trip itinerary that is sent through from Tong Bai Elephant Tours you are advised to bring a number of items including sunscreen, hat and insect spray. But the most important thing you are advised to bring with you is “a good mood to meet the elephants”. The advice couldn’t be more apt. A truly amazing day.
I was a guest of Tong Bai Elephant Tours. My family also received a discount on the price of their tour, but I was under no obligation to write anything about our visit. As always, views expressed here are my own.