HANGING WITH THE ELEPHANTS AT RAN-TONG IN CHIANG MAI, THAILAND
My name is Scott, and I have a fascination with elephants. While most kids are growing up, they develop a love for a certain type of animal; for most kids, it’s either dogs or cats. Well, my favorite animal growing up was the elephant. There was something about how massive they were, and the trunk that could drink water that I found extremely amusing. I mean, how can you not be curious about how that trunk could suck up water and then spray it back at you?
When I was planning my trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I knew I wanted to hang out with the elephants for the day. When I started doing my research online about the best place to go to hang out with the elephants, I found there was more negative than positive. I came across more bloggers talking about how you shouldn’t ride the elephants because it’s not good for their back. They would also talk about how horrendous the methods are that they use to train the baby elephants. Now, I saw the pictures and watched the videos of the torture that a lot of the elephants go through, and I still decided to ride an elephant.
Now I know this makes me seem like a hypocrite because I saw how badly my favorite animal the elephant was treated, and I rode an elephant anyways. It’s something I had wanted to do my entire life and I think I felt like this was the time I had to do it. If I had the opportunity to ride another elephant, would I do it again? Probably not. Did I have an awesome day at Ran-tong doing my elephant riding adventure? Absolutely. When you ride the elephants at Ran-tong you ride right on the back of the elephant, there is no chair or harness to sit on. This is supposed to a lot better for the elephant. Tourists from all over the world will still continue to travel to Thailand just to ride the giant elephants. I think it’s more important that if you’re going to go ride elephants in Thailand, you at least do it at a reputable elephant camp. For me, that reputable elephant camp was Ran-tong.
When Megan (sister) and I decided to do our elephant ride, we settled on Ran-tong after reading the countless fabulous reviews they received on TripAdvisor. We went with the Ran-tong riding program (full day) RIDING. Because we were going to share an elephant, it was only going to cost 2,500 Baht (approx. $72) instead of the 4,500 Baht (approx. $129) for the 1-elephant 1-person package. This ended up working out great, because Megan decided to only do the morning riding portion, so I had my own elephant the entire afternoon.
The morning of our elephant adventure, we were picked up at our AirBnB and taken to a local hotel in the heart of Chiang Mai, where we met up with a bunch of other travelers and were loaded into a nice air conditioned van and taken deep into the jungles of northern Thailand.
With some bad traffic, it took us about an hour and a half to get there. Just before we left the city we stopped at a 7-11 for a quick pit stop. I went in and bought some amazing wintergreen berry mints and a bottle of water for my adventure.
When we made it to Ran-tong, we were quickly taken to the main area of the camp where the elephants were kept. We got the chance to take a bunch of photos and feed the elephants some bananas before we had to change into our official elephant riding outfits. There are private showers there for you to change in, so you don’t have to worry about changing in front of everyone. It seems like the outfits are one size fits all, but the fit on me was just right. I’m not typically a hat type of guy, but I’m glad they gave me a spiffy hat to wear because the sun is so intense that without it I would have been suffering. Once you are in your official elephant riding outfit you can put your belongings in one of their lockers, but I would make sure you bring your own lock because they don’t provide those.
Once our group had changed into the official elephant riding outfit, we had a quick class on the different commands we could say to our elephant in Thai. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the elephants actually listen to the commands you give to your elephant. I said the commands time and time again and she never did what I said. Not to worry though, because you have your own personal Mahout with you the entire time; the instant they say something to the elephant, the elephant listens.
For those of you that don’t know what a Mahout is; a Mahout is a person who works with, rides, and tends an elephant. At Ran-tong, each elephant has their own Mahout and the bond between the elephant and their Mahout is incredibly strong; it’s very entertaining to see them interact with each other throughout the day.
During your morning elephant ride you go up a path, up the side of a steep hill. While going up, you feel like you are going to fall off, just stay calm and balanced, and you won’t have any problems. On the side of this hill, there are loads of trees that the elephants will eat along the way. I think the mountain ride is what made Megan uneasy about doing the afternoon ride, and I completely understand because when you are on the nine foot tall elephant, and he is moving swiftly, you do feel if you were to fall off, it would be the end for you. It’s just important to remain calm and if something does go wrong, have trust that your Mahout will be able to control the situation.
My Mahout’s name was Doh-Doh. He was absolutely fantastic in every way possible. Not only did he make sure that I didn’t get tossed off of Kamoon, my elephant, but he was also my personal photographer. He held my Sony A7RII most of the day and took FANTASTIC photos. Besides using my camera for taking pictures, you also have a member of the staff going around taking their own photos as well. At the end of the day, you can buy all of the pictures they took on a photo CD for 300 Baht (approx. $9) It’s well worth it because you want to make sure you have every shot possible to show all of your friends back home!
After our morning elephant ride, we had our lunch break. I was a little worried about lunch, because my sister and I are both quite picky eaters, but I was pleasantly surprised at how tasty lunch was. At Ran-tong they served Khao soy, which is crispy egg noodles, coconut milk, limes, chilies, and a floating chicken egg; all of this is cooked in oil. I don’t think there were many chilies in our dish because it wasn’t spicy at all; it was more sweet than anything. The dish is served with bottled water and I was very happy with the lunch.
After lunch, I watched a baby elephant interacting with its mother. The baby elephants that they have at Ran-tong are extremely cute, and I wish I could have spent some time playing with one.
After everyone finished their lunch, we hopped back on our elephants and went on another ride up and around another steep hill. This ride lasted about an hour, and once that was over, we headed towards the bathing pond.
Now for those of you wondering what Megan did, since she didn’t ride on Kamoon during the afternoon session, she was walking right next to me, acting as my personal photographer.
Once we got to the elephant bathing pond, she joined me in the water to give Kamoon a complete scrub down. I rode Kamoon right into the pond and I ended up sliding off into the water. They give you some buckets and brushes to use on the elephants to help get them nice and clean. Be aware that elephants like to spray themselves with dirt to protect themselves from the sun and bugs. They will do this whether you are on them or not. Kamoon did this while I was on her, but I just put my head down and the dirt would hit my spiffy hat.
When you look at the pictures, I can’t believe I actually went into the water. Think about it: you are in the water with these giant elephants and there is poop floating everywhere. Now in Ran-thong’s defense, there are staff members in the water collecting the poop as it pops up, but still, there is a lot of poop, so don’t even think about drinking the water!
After bathing time is over, you get to ride your elephant back to where you started your day. You give your final goodbyes to your elephant, and it’s now time for you to go and take a nice relaxing shower. After you are showered and changed, you get a nice snack before heading back into the city. When I went the snack just happened to be Oreos, which are basically one of the best cookies ever, so I was beyond happy.
If you choose to do so, you can give your Mahout a gratuity, but that is completely up to you. My experience with Doh-Doh was so amazing that I decided to give him a few hundred Baht, which was well worth it seeing as he took hundreds of pictures and video. Most importantly, he ensured that Megan and I always felt comfortableand safe while on Kamoon.
There is a tiny gift shop type deal setup there, and you can even buy a similar outfit to the one you wore while riding your elephant. I know I ended up buying an outfit for around 200 Baht (approx. $5.75). I haven’t worn it since I’ve been back in the United States, but I’m sure I will one day. Maybe.
After your group is all changed back into their clothes, you load back up into the van and head back into the city. This time you won’t be stopping at the hotel, they are going to drop you off directly at your own hotel/AirBnB. During the way back I slept because I was exhausted from this day’s elephant riding adventures. It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.
I can’t recommend Ran-tong enough! Everyone that we encountered was beyond helpful and they made us feel safe and comfortable every step of the way. They have a huge focus on safety and if they notice that you are looking uncomfortable or unhappy they say a lot of reassuring things to you to try and make you calm. The staff there also won’t try and force you to do something you don’t want to. If you tell them that you don’t want to do something they will explain the safety behind the activity and if you still say no, you will respect your wishes.
So if you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai, Thailand and you do decide that you want to ride an elephant, defiantly be sure to check out Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Centre. Check out the video that we made about all of our adventures at Ran-tong
If you’ve ever ridden an elephant in other parts of the world, we would love to hear about your experience in the comments below.
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