Tell someone you visited Thailand and most of the time they will reply asking about elephants. Often people ask if I rode an elephant to which I would reply saying that is not actually very humane, but I did get to pet, feed and wash them.
While in Chiang Mai for a couple of nights we had a free day and opted to visit an elephant sanctuary. It's difficult to determine what is, and what is not, the best route to locate the most humanely managed parks, zoos, elephant encounters and etc in Thailand. With the language barrier and so many options to choose from you just have to trust your guides, your instinct and your research. People are desperate to make money out there and I am still a little skeptical if this was an actual legitimate "sanctuary" for elephants to roam free from abuse.
Often in Thailand elephants are working heavy labor or in the tourism industry; and now it's on many a bucket list to ride elephants. But, because of this Asian elephants must be tamed and this process could be very violent and abusive toward them. Also, they are large (not as big as African elephants) and they could potentially trample and kill you. PETA says "elephants must be emotionally and mentally broken before people can climb on their backs." And ultimately elephant rides are a bit archaic if you ask me. We were also told that it isn't good for the elephant's back because they install a chair-like device on their backs and it hurts them after years of torture. So what am I saying? If you want to visit the elephants try your best to see them in a place where they are loved, nurtured and taken care of. Do your research.
We were driven about an hour out of Chiang Mai to a mountain top and then guided on a brief hike down to what was called the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary. We could hear some other elephant activity nearby with people laughing, cheering, chatting with each other, although we couldn't see them as we hiked to another part of the mountainous area and down to a stream. We changed into matching red blouses, which is supposed to keep the elephants calm, and also kept the group unified in color and appearance. Our guide, Justin, brought sugar cane and called to the elephants to come and see us. Slowly they came out with their handlers and we fed them, pet them, took hundreds of pictures with them and they also kissed us with their trunks. It was a beautiful experience, although a part of me didn't want to make the elephants do anything they didn't want to do. It was very peaceful and serene, and for most the highlight of the trip. After a good snack we walked with them to the nearby stream and bathed them. Pouring water on their bodies and scrubbing them clean. Their skin is very rough in texture and although similar to leather it has a stronger more coarse feel to it. Once we were done washing them we walked back to the feeding area where they proceeded to grab the dirt dousing themselves in it to become dirty again. LOL That was funny.
It was truly an honor to be so close to these beautiful creatures. Being able to pet, kiss and hug an elephant is something I will never forget.