I posted a little bit in my Thai islands entry about the unethical treatment of elephants. Elephants are regularly forced to provide rides and perform tricks, many are separated from their mothers as babies, faced with a lifetime of abuse and left with scars and a broken spirit.

Of course it is natural when in Thailand to want to be face to face with these majestic animals, maybe feed them or pet them… There is opportunity to do this without riding them or funding mahouts that train them through physical abuse.

High up in the unspoiled mountains of Chiang Mai, at the end of a winding and dusty dirt track, there’s an elephant sanctuary which rescues these gentle giants and provides them with the respect, safety and freedom they deserve. There are about seven elephants at the sanctuary, including babies that have been born here.

Yes, this is a tour, but it is exceptionally reasonably priced and offers day tours homestays and extended stay for volunteers.

I opted for a homestay overnight visit. I was collected from the hotel and brought to the sanctuary in an open backed truck, which was an experience in itself. The scenery was beautiful and it was great to see the local village and how they live.

The group were shown how to make medicine rice balls for the elephants, given banana and sugar cane for feeding and then we hiked up to the clearing where the elephants were. There was a rescued elderly female elephant, a pregnant elephant and also a young bull elephant who bounded over to us. Feeding them was an amazing experience, they were so calm and casual despite magnificent. The baby was playful and adorable, cheekily stealing food from the pockets of the handwoven tunics we were given.

After some photos and cuddles we went to lunch, whereby another elephant casually strolled over to our canopy to look for more food! Next we got changed into swimsuits and gave the elephants a mud bath. This involved flinging handfuls of mud at the elephants and each other. The mud protects their skin from the harsh sun. We then went to the river to scrub the elephants clean, as they squirted us with water from their trunks!

The local villagers provided tea and biscuits and we were given an opportunity to buy handicrafts. The overnight visitors went back to the homestay, which consisted of bamboo shacks on stilts. The residents cooked traditional Thai food for us made with local ingredients. They made a campfire, where we gathered and chatted, even the neighbours arrived to practice their English.

As it got later, they temperature plummeted, thousands of twinkling stars came out and we retired to our floor mattresses and bundles of blankets. I don’t think I ever slept so soundly or snuggly. Just make sure to close your bags because you never know what will crawl in!

Roosters awoke us to a glorious sunrise, and after breakfast we went to feed the elephants once again. This time in a much smaller group. We walked the pregnant elephant to give her exercise and brought bananas to tempt her along when she stopped to laze or graze. It was quite surreal to just sit on a log beside a wild animal! We then continued on a fantastic hike through the jungle.

The whole experience was wonderful and I highly recommend it. However, there are many unscrupulous companies who run similar sanctuaries, but offer rides and may abuse the elephants. If you plan to visit, try to choose the authentic and original Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.