Before going to Thailand, I really wanted to ride an elephant but was well aware of the animal abuse that is all too common in the industry at many of the places offering interactions in order to support the demand. There are horror stories about elephants being beaten and abused to train them to do tricks which made me very cautious to find an organization that emphasized protecting the animals. I did a lot of research before going on which ones had good reputations for their animal treatment and to my delight I found that there are several elephant sanctuaries around Chaing Mai that focus on doing rescue work. Of the ones that I found, the Ran-Tong Elephant Sanctuary stood out because of their emphasized mission statement for finding mistreated elephants and rehabilitating them in order to protect and prevent elephant abuse in the region.
It was quite a trek to get out to the farm where the animals lived after the van dropped us off by the nearest trail. A group of us literally followed a winding dirt path out through a rice field, but hidden away at the base of the mountain was the Ran-Tong Elephant Sanctuary. The friendly staff members provided each of us with a change of clothes (for when we got muddy later) and introduced us to the elephants we would be riding right before feeding time.
I was paired up with Am, a young rowdy elephant, who they warned me had a mischievous streak but they were working on training. Am most definitely had a mind of his own along the hike, occasionally giving me dirt showers with his trunk. At the end of the winding trail around the mountain, we stopped by a pond for everyone to scrub down their elephants and have some play time in the water. Am clearly knew that I needed to be cleaned up following our trek and proceeded to thoroughly spray me down, much to the amusement of all the staff.
It was apparent that the workers and volunteers running the sanctuary genuinely cared for each of the animals as they shared stories for how they were rescued while I was walking around meeting all of the other elephants. The sanctuary emphasizes the importance of keeping the baby elephants with their mothers, but guests are welcome to interact with the little ones as well. Getting to visit the elephant sanctuary and see the hard work that the staff devotes to protecting the animals was definitely one of the highlights of my trip!
Learn more about the Ran-Tong Elephant Sanctuary to plan your visit or find out how to volunteer there by visiting their website: http://rantongelephant.com