Want to visit elephants without paying through the nose or supporting cruelty? From what I hear, most elephant tours in Thailand are a little dodgy. Riding on elephants can actually hurt their backs (they’re “broken in”, like horses, I guess) and a lot of people saw their “masters” hitting them in the head with pick-axes. They also cost a lot for someone on a budget. We decided to look into visiting some elephants on our own, and opted for a conservation centre with royal patronage and the elephant hospital next to it – the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre.
To visit the centre, we stayed in Lampang. We got there on a green bus from Chiang Rai – it took around 4 hours and cost 143 baht (£2.60) – there are air-con and fan buses available from the “old” bus station in the centre of Chiang Rai. It’s between 8 and 9 hours to Bangkok by bus, making it a nice place to stop on the journey from Chiang Rai back to Bangkok. Also, if you’re in Chiang Mai, Lampang is pretty much down the road – it’s an hour and a half at most, and costs between 40 and 80 baht.
We stayed at the R-Lampang guest house, which we were actually able to book by sending a text message! It’s a cool little place to stay, with an outdoor seating area overlooking the river, drinks served, and interesting little rooms with stone floors. When you arrive in Lampang, you won’t be short of songthaews – there are yellow ones that park outside the bus station and will take you anywhere for about 20 baht. They might ask for more if you want to leave straight away, without waiting for it to fill up – in which case you might pay 50-100. I saw a few Thai people do this, so it isn’t just a tourist thing.
Our hostel gave us a nice little map of Lampang. Basically, it’s a small town with not a lot to do, but it does have a few interesting quirks. It’s probably the only place in Thailand where you’ll see people pulled around by horse and carriage (tourists, and very skinny horses).
It also has a great market on the weekends.. no motorbikes, very cheap food (some more 10 baht noodles) and we even found an ice cream sandwich.
During our day in Lampang we also grabbed some dinner at the Aynh One Baht, which was very close to the guesthouse. They make some pretty good food there, so give it a try. However, if you’re there on the weekend, I’d just recommend loading up on market snacks. I was even given some free lychees by a nice lady.
The nightlife isn’t the wildest in Lampang, but the Riverside bar did have some live music playing and a peaceful view. They serve pizzas and other Western comforts if you’re missing home, as well as slightly more expensive Thai food and nice cocktails. We met some random Americans on a tour, who told us they were going to the same elephant conservation centre the next day – but they were paying a lot more for it.
The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre is Thailand’s only state-owned elephant centre, meaning it’s a bit better than those nasty, for-profit businesses. The centres rehabilitate injured or abused elephants and although they still do “shows” and let you ride them, it’s supposedly all a lot better than the other centres.
Getting to the Elephant Conservation Centre is quite easy. Shuttle buses (white minibuses) run from Lampang’s bus station and will drop you off there if you make it clear to the driver that you’re going there. These are the buses bound for Chiang Mai, so you could do the same coming from Chiang Mai to Lampang. I took a screenshot of the website, making sure the Thai description was there, and showed it to the driver. It was 70 baht to get there, and the driver dropped us off across the road from the centre. The journey took around 40 minutes, I think.
Once you’re off the bus, the signs to the elephant centre will be clear. Cross the road and walk up. It’s quite a walk and you’ll be given the choice of going left, to the main centre, or right to the elephant hospital. We visited both while we were there, but started with a left.
When you arrive at the centre, you’ll have to buy a shuttle ticket to actually get to the main conservation centre. The shuttle is 20 baht each and takes a few minutes. When you get there, you’ll see that everything you do can be at your own pace (unlike a tour) and that you don’t have to take part in all the activities. If you want to take a half hour ride on an elephant’s back, you can – it costs 500 baht (£9.25) for two people. You sit on a bench attached to the elephant’s back, poor thing… and it takes you through the jungle (with a man riding on its head, directing it, of course). It’s all pretty crazy/scary.
The elephant shows run two or three times a day, so make sure you’ve got this sorted out as part of your plan. According to the website the shows are at 10am, 11am and 1.30pm, so you’ll want to start your day early enough.
The show is fascinating. They demonstrate a lot of elephants’ “original” jobs, such as pushing logs around, but they also show how intelligent these creatures are. They’ll play dead, bend their knee to allow humans to hop up onto them, throw balls into a basket (which I was meant to catch them in and failed!) and then, at the end… they paint pictures!
The paintings are for sale, of course. But, whoa! I wish they’d painted these spontaneously… but, of course, they’re just following directions while there’s a brush in their trunk.
You can feed them bamboo sticks and pet them a little at the end. The centre also has a programme where you can stay for a few days and learn how to “train” the elephants, but that’s very expensive, of course – in Thai terms. It’s £73 (4000 baht) for a one-day homestay programme, going up to £184 (10,000 baht) for a three-day programme. Considering that this includes accommodation, bathing the elephants, training them and taking part in the show, it’s not bad!
You can also walk around the centre and see the baby elephants. This is probably the best part, because they’re just so cute!
After grabbing some pad thai, we took the shuttle back to the entrance and walked over to the FAE elephant hospital on the other side. The Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital looks after injured elephants and is famous for constructing the world’s first artificial elephant limb – when a poor elephant called Motala stepped on a landmine and lost a leg. We were able to see Motala and other elephants, read about the centre’s work and donate some money to them.
Getting back to Lampang was a little trickier. We stood outside the elephant centre and didn’t see any buses for a long time. A random man offered to drive us back for 100 baht but we declined. Eventually, a bus pulled up and drove us back for around 20 baht.
After our little stay in Lampang, we took a night bus back to Bangkok. Our hotel allowed us to check out in the morning and leave our bags at reception, which was nice of them. We headed over, took our bags, grabbed some food at the Riverside and headed to Lampang’s bus station again. The station sells bus tickets for a few companies, and I’m not sure which one we went with – bus the bus left Lampang at 8.20pm and arrived in Bangkok at the lovely hour of 5.15. We were given a blanket on the bus and stopped at a service station along the way for a meal that was included with our ticket. It’s about 450 baht for a second-class, air-conditioned bus or 690 for a special “VIP” bus, which probably isn’t necessary. The drawback is also that you get dropped of at Mo Chit, which is quite far from everything in Bangkok and means you’ll need to get in a taxi to go anywhere. A taxi to the nearest metro station is only £1 or so, but you’ll be waiting outside it until 6am, when the metro opens.