Travel can mean growth through learning about other cultures, and about the planet we all share. So it’s maddening to me when I see people make closed-minded judgements about cultures different from their own. Many of these “tourists” compare cultures and demean traditions that are foreign to them, instead of looking for ways to relate and learn.
This blog entry is a case in point. It’s about elephant camps. One camp specifically – where my spouse Tedly and I lived for eight days and eight nights. I saw the animals at Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp in northern Thailand get great care. I never saw any abuse. That is contrary to many claims made against Thom’s camp.
If you want to spend time with elephants, go here
There is a ton of misinformation out there about elephant camps – Thom’s in particular.
I have read many “reviews” of Thom’s on Facebook, TripAdvisor and Google, and personal blogs. I find it irresponsible and sad that these “reviews” are written by people who never stayed one single night at Thom’s. Many “reviewers” also never went on an excursion with Thom’s elephants. They either confuse Thom’s with other elephant camps in the area, or they make wrong assumptions because of the title, “Elephant Camp.” I know because I’ve had a few words with some of them.
To refute the wrong information, this post shows what it’s really like at Thom’s. This is a full account of what I witnessed in the eight days and eight nights my spouse and I lived at the camp. We also made long daily visits over nearly two more weeks while we were still in Pai.
There are two elephants kept at Thom’s camp. Tutdao and Ot. They are middle-aged female elephants. They are fourth generation domesticated Asiatic elephants born in captivity. Tutdao is 25, Ot is 37. Thom played with them as a child, and considers them part of the family.
Tutdao and Ot are not chained while in their pens. They are not “inches from the road.” They have ample room to turn around. They are not locked up all day. They exercise frequently. They are constantly fed and checked and cared for, and their waste is cleaned up right away.
Are elephants chained up? Yes — at other camps.
Are elephants kept inches from passing cars? Yes — at other camps.
Are elephants pens left with waste? Yes — at other camps.
Tutdao and Ot have triple the space of elephants at other camps. Thick rubber mats can be placed into their pens to give their legs a break from the concrete floor. I didn’t see rubber mats at any other camp.
Curious tourists stop out front to inquire about an elephant excursion, or to take a picture next to two beautiful elephants in their stables. Baskets of fruit are set up for visitors to feed the elephants with a 20 baht donation (65 cents).
Tutdao and Ot eat all day while in their pens. Fruit, different grasses and parts of bushes and trees. As home stay guests, Tedly and I fed Tutdao and Ot often. We also walked with them, sang to them, played with them, bathed them, got trunk hugs from them, and (Tedly) cut down some food for them and shoveled their shit.
That’s a beautiful thing about Thom’s is that guests can get involved in elephant care, if they wish to. Otherwise, mahouts (trainers/handlers) are constantly with the elephants – even as they are penned.
We witnessed the intelligence of these animals. Tutdao knows how to open her pen, for example. She has quite a sense of humor. Tutdao and Ot both use a garden hose for drinking water. They position it into their mouths with their trunks. They both gently pushed us in the direction of where their favorite grass near the pens to encourage us to feed them more – they eat a lot.
I swear I saw them smiling. Many times, over many days, both in and out of their pens.
These animals are beautiful, intelligent, friendly, and well-cared for.
Thom told me elephants are somewhat like dogs in that there are some dogs you would not approach to pet; some elephants you should not approach, either. Not all elephants are friendly to people – but Tutdao and Ot certainly are. They are happy, gentle giants.
Many times their trunks would wrap around our bodies as we played with them and fed them snacks. Never once did I feel I was in any danger.
Tutdao and Ot are brought to the pens from their overnight area in the jungle at approximately 7:30 a.m. each day. But they don’t stand in their pens all day. They get exercise each day with – or without – tourist tours.
Thom’s does not promote rides. Instead, visitors can go on jungle mountain treks with Tutdao and Ot, and walk to the river with the animals, play with them and bathe them in the water. Tourists can walk alongside, in front of, or behind the elephants. (Thom’s tour variety is extensive, and these are two basic examples.) The treks are great exercise for the elephants. In the wild, they spend a lot of time foraging.
In past years, elephant rides were common in northern Thailand. This is because elephants are part of Thai culture. For centuries, Thai people – including the royal family – have ridden elephants for every reason imaginable – from war to construction to simple transportation. The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand.
Enter Western tourists, who claim “animal activism” and cry foul at “rides” offered by camps.
Some years ago, a debate began over weather elephants can really handle more than 300 pounds on their backs. It is one thing to have a single Thai trainer on an elephant back – but it’s another to have a metal basket with a family of four on top of an elephant. And so, in a humane move, some camps stopped offering these types of elephant rides — Thom’s included.
The problem is: tourists do not realize there are differences between camps.
Take a close look at the picture below. It shows Tutdao on her way back from a river trek, with nothing on her back. She passes another elephant, from another camp, with a basket of people on her back. Also note the people on the scooter in the photo.
The tourists looked horrified as they witnessed the “elephant ride.” As we passed by them, I pointed out we were walking alongside Thom’s elephant – we weren’t in baskets on her back. Immediately the tourists broke out into smiles. “Oh good,” the guy said. “We would never ride them.”
I don’t know how to be any more clear: you will not see baskets of tourists on the backs of Thom’s elephants.
If you want to play with friendly elephants, walk next to them, and get in the river with them, and enjoy them in ways other than riding them – then run to Thom’s.
Here are some pictures and video of us with Ot and her mahout in the river on a trek, followed by pictures of us with Tutdao on a different day.
On the rare day there are no tourist excursions, the mahouts still take the elephants for a trek to ensure Tutdao and Ot get exercise every afternoon. They also get exercise every morning and evening, to and from their night spots out in the jungle. (More on that in the next section.)
Prices for a simple one-hour excursion to the river start at 1,000 baht per person ($32.50), and go up from there. The prices include pictures the manager will take of your experience, and also use of the hot tubs and changing facilities back at camp when the tour is over.
The mahouts carry hooks. These hooks might look scary to westerners, but let’s get real, these animals weigh several tons. In the eight days and eight nights I lived at the camp and went on walks and river trips with the elephants, I never once saw any discipline that looked out of line.
Thom explains why the mahouts must carry the hooks:
It is necessary for the mahout to carry a bull hook at all times, when out with his elephant — in case of an emergency.
It is impossible to control a scared animal with your bare hands.
Mahouts at other camps may sometimes use the hook to give the animals directions, but we at Thom’s disagree with this entirely.– Thom’s website
The mahouts seem like they are yelling at elephants when they shout commands. Again, be real, these are elephants that weigh four tons or more – they aren’t newborn puppies – and the trainers need to use a strong, firm voice.
One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life, and in my nearly four years of world travel, is a compassionate mahout interacting with his elephant. If you accept the hook and the shouts, you’ll experience this delight, too.
Sleeping area: what most tourists do not see
When 5:00 p.m. rolls around, Thom’s elephants are walked back to an area on the property that is a good distance away from the road. I’d guess at least a kilometer. It is peaceful there. There are no roads or cars, no other animals or people.
The elephants graze on the way, not in any big rush, so here again Tutdao and Ot get some exercise. The get more exercise on the walk back down to the front of the property each morning.
The tourists who stop to simply take a picture or look at the elephants don’t see this. Not even tourists who buy an excursion at Thom’s see this. Only Thom’s home stay guests get to be a part of this special walk. And here I am showing it to you.
There are “sanctuaries” near Chiang Mai that do not show tourists and volunteers where the elephants spend the night. I have to wonder, why not?
Elephants need to lay down now and then, and this space at the back of Thom’s property is a great place for them to do that.
Tutdao and Ot must be chained for safety — theirs and yours and everyone else’s. They are shackled on one foot. They each lift their hooves once they are walked to their overnight spots. The chains gave each elephant several hundred feet to roam.
Around 7:00 a.m., the mahouts start the process of bringing Tutdao and Ot back to their stables. By 8:00 a.m., Thom’s elephants are enjoying a breakfast banquet of grasses, leaves and fruits.
Is this ideal? No, and yes.
In an ideal world, all animals would be free, including horses, camels, dogs, cats, birds, fish. But another animal has taken over their kingdom — us humans. If you are going to be born as an elephant in captivity, you’d be lucky to have a life at Thom’s. From what I saw, it was a much better arrangement than a zoo, where the animals never get such extensive time out of enclosures or cages.
Thom’s arrangement also is much better than many “sanctuaries” – especially around Chiang Mai. Those are huge money makers. They can ask for donations in the name of “saving the elephants.” And yet, there are stories about how sometimes the elephants fight, even kill each other; stories about volunteers not being able to see where the animals are kept overnight; stories about how the elephants are fed processed food because it’s cheaper than giving them fresh grasses and leaves and fruit.
I will share something else, from my time working in the news business. Whenever our newscast had a story about an animal in danger, our newsroom would be flooded with calls from people offering help. Just imagine how easy it must be for some fake “sanctuaries” to collect money from well-meaning, but misinformed, people.
Does Thom’s family make money from the elephants? Sure, but they’re not getting rich from this. And this small business certainly is not getting any donations. Elephants eat a lot, there is a farm to run to support Tutdao and Ot, and mahouts have to be paid.
There will be people who protest the current arrangement, people who claim anything other than a refuge or a “sanctuary” is not fair. To those people, I say elephants are sacred animals in Thai culture – a culture vastly different from your own that you fully do not understand (nor do I). And I challenge you on this — do you not have any problem with chickens, goats, cows, horses, pigs as farm animals – as opposed to roaming free? Farm animals you might eat?
Also to the so-called “reviewers” who share uninformed opinions about Thom’s without taking treks or without staying at the camp, I say this: why don’t you live at Thom’s for a week like we did, and then you can share your opinion. It’s mind-boggling to me how many “travelers” have no firsthand experience with Thom’s – and they admit that – yet post their “opinion” anyway.
I’m an open-minded person, and I choose a humane approach to all animals. If I felt like there was anything amiss at Thom’s, I would not have stayed eight days and eight nights. Thom is kind, knowledgeable, and open. Ask any question – and you will get an honest answer.
Our stay at the camp was unforgettable and unique. We are grateful we were so welcomed onto the property and into Thom’s home, and we will go back one day to learn more about the culture.
Thom’s home stay accommodations
There are bungalows and single and double rooms at Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp. The rooms are housed together in one structure. We stayed in a double room for $18 a night, and it included a hearty breakfast each morning.
There was a fan, hot water in the shower, a small table and chairs in the room, and an awesome (shared) decks with more seating and tables, including hammocks with great views. No big comforts like air conditioning or TV.
Thom’s also has single rooms and bungalows with air conditioning. Thom’s Airbnb listings are here.
There is a restaurant at the camp, and Ae made us those hearty breakfasts. She also cooked many of our dinners for reasonable prices. She’s an excellent cook – and such a kind woman! Some ingredients came from their organic gardens. And the dining area has a view of the elephant pens.
The hot tubs on the property are great. This is the same hot spring water that flows to the Pai Hot Springs less than a mile away. People who stay on the property can use the hot tubs anytime, included in the rental price. (Admission to the Pai Hot Springs, with the same water, is 300 baht per person, or nearly $10.)
Also, people returning from elephant excursions are invited to use the hot tubs and changing facilities for free on their return to camp.
Of course, the main attraction is to be able to spend time with the elephants. I spent hours just watching them, hours more reading about them. (There is decent wifi for surfing at all buildings on the property.) I fed Tutdao and Ot, played with them, I was “hugged” by them, went trekking with them.
I loved my time at Thom’s! If you have a realistic, open mind, and if you are a true traveler who wants to learn about other cultures, you will love Thom’s, too.
Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp website is here.
Thom’s third elephant
Thom recently rescued a working elephant named Nguan. She is now retired and on Thom’s farmland, also in Pai but a few kilometers away from the home stay camp.
Thom has decided to eventually move Tutdao and Ot to the farmland with the mahouts. Keep updated on their future plans, through this page of their website here.
I did not meet Nguan on this trip, but tourists can and do visit. Thom showed me many pictures and videos of Nguan. She smiled broadly when she told me, “Nguan will never work again.”
As always — this is an independent review.
We get nothing in return for sharing our experiences and opinions, unlike other travel bloggers who try to get clicks for income, or kickbacks and freebies from the places they visit or review. As early retired budget travelers, we don’t have to work!
Guests who stay at Thom’s can get as involved as they want with caring for the animals, as Tedly demonstrates below in a video taken by a local young girl. LOL