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Where can I ride Elephants Bareback? Chiang Mai Elephant Camp, Thailand

Chiang Mai Elephant Camp, ThailandI feel privileged to have had the opportunity to spend so much time with these majestic creatures. We went the whole hog with this experience… We are going bareback on the “Mahout” Elephant training adventure! 

Read about how we learnt to command the elephants to our whims, take them for their daily bath and then get them muddied up again – because they love the mud bath.

We overnight at The Chiang Mai Elephant Camp, The highlight of our time in Thailand, find out why this adventure is worth every penny… you better get saving because this is not a $5 adventure, but it is certainly VALUE!
Our little home for the night




After throwing our stuff into our bamboo hut we were staying in for the night (which actually was really nice, and a HUGE step up from the previous nights dwellings in the forest) we changed into our Mahout outfits (which really made us look like denim bandits) and headed back to the welcome centre to see what was in store for us.

It was here we met “Fie” the elephant who we were told to…..just hop on!!! This was our first ever time riding an elephant bareback and it sure was interesting!

We were pretty certain that the whole purpose was to get us used to being on an elephant rather than the elephant being used to us. You are quite high up and you have to quickly learn where to grip so that you don’t fall off! Most of the time was spent with Fie feeding on the surrounding grass but as soon as they decided to take her for a bit of a walk around, her elephant phobias kicked in.

You see it turns out that Fie has a fear of crowds (or so they told us) and as soon as she saw a group of people headed her way she began to bolt….with us still on top of her!!!
After they managed to stop her from her gallop….yes an elephant gallop! They thought it best they put us with a more tame elephant……………..60 year old Pui.

It’s worth noting that the insurance company we used for this trip to Thailand actually didn’t cover elephant riding! So, we actually came pretty close to some serious medical bills if we had been thrown off :-( We’ve since discovered that World Nomads insurance, does typically cover Elephant riding – but always make sure you read the policy. We actually have a 5% discount code for them too, use this link and the code FOOD5.

Chiang Mai Elephant Camp, Thailand

Yes, Pui was much more tame as we took her for a bath and then a bit of a walk around. But we were told we would be given a different elephant in the morning for our training.

Throughout the day we had seen selections of tourists being herded in, placed in little baskets on top of the elephants and then had the trainers ride them around for 15 minutes before being herded back onto a tour bus… Just seeing the looks on their faces when they were watching us commanding the elephants ourselves and riding bareback, made it pretty clear that paying for the overnight mahout experience was worth it… compare these two photos and decide for yourself!!

Tourist Experience…
Mahout Training Experience!

After our ride Our Guide Wan told us we would receive a Thai massage to help us relax before dinner! My lady didn’t speak much English but was really nice and gave me a very “western appropriate” massage: As in she didn’t apply too much force, but with the language barrier I figured just go with it and relax!

The farm cat decided our bed was her bed…
But we are happy to share!

Due to lack of space Tom’s massage had to be on the floor but he said he still enjoyed it.
If you’ve ever felt the strain of riding a horse just think how it is in an elephant twice the size…….we were thankful for the massage!

My massage finished first and it was at this time the camp’s cat decided to pay a visit, this cat became a bit of a friend to us while we were here as it loved cuddles and we were more than happy to offer them!
After all massages were completed we headed off to see what dinner was in store for us. Tonight it was Curry Soup and Sweet & Sour with rice….and of course some Chang to wash it down.

At the Elephant Camp it is a joke that when ever an elephant pees they say “Oh! fresh Chang” as “Chang” means elephant in Thai…….we still decided to drink it regardless!

It was here we met Simon, a local tour guide that was happy to sit and chat with us and show us some of his stick tricks. These are some of the tricks you may see on the back of a pack of matchstick’s but as we had a few chang’s by this stage we were a little clueless.

Simon, love Beer, whisky and matchsticks!

Simon was great and helped us achieve the authentic “local” experience we had been seeking. As we were the only white people in the entire camp, the employees busied themselves watching movies and hanging out as if we were meant to be there. Tom and I really enjoyed this experience as we  had a chance to see authentic Thai life, behind the scenes!

After a few too many beers and a drop of graciously donated Thai Whiskey (which looks more like Vodka and tastes like rum) we headed back to our bamboo hut for a good nights sleep.


Sunrise with the elephants

With the Chang beer of last night fully condemned to the past, i awoke early and headed out of our bamboo hut for some sunrise photos. I barely made it! but at least I caught a glimpse of the sun behind the mountains before it was too late…
We prepared ourselves for a huge day with our free breakfast of deep fried eggy rice with soy and fruit. Not your usual western brekkie, for sure! We clothed ourselves in the faux denim mahout costume and preceded to the training area. 

The face only a mother could love…

We were presented with a list of Thai words. The crazy thing is that if this course was run in England the commands would be as simple as “left”, “right”, “stop” etc. but because the elephants only know Thai, we had a bit of a learning curve.Not threatened by the unfamiliarity of the Thai language, we just went for it. Tom ended up commanding the elephant to lie down, just as a test, and it did!!! although some of the time the elephant required the familiarity of its regular mahout to get it to follow commands, if you got the phrasing and the pitch right it would do exactly as ordered without any assistance!!! Its amazing how well trained they are.

Not the most graceful way to mount your steed!

After a few hours of basic training and commanding the elephant around the camp we were called for an early lunch. Its interesting to note that it is DEFINITELY a wild creature, regardless of training. Sometimes you can shout and shout and its just too busy eating a local tree to have any interest in moving on. it will, eventually, but it takes persuasion!

For Lunch we had the best Massaman curry I have ever had! I thought Massaman was one of the “lesser” curries….. but after tasting this I will be giving it another chance!

The trainers have a sense of humour… Bucket of water in
the face! Thanks!

Some of the other Mahout “part timers” had arrived whilst we were eating lunch. A group of irritating English girls in there early 20’s. We were all sent to the Elephant bathing pool together as group bathing is something the elephants enjoy and adds to the overall experience for everyone. It did, regardless of the childish UK reprobates. It turned into a waterpark free-for-all with the mahouts throwing buckets of water at us and everyone ending up soaked.

You may reflect on this as slightly unhygienic, the water we are throwing contains the remnants of elephant dung…. in the moment it is irrelevant, and ultimately, as long as you don’t start drinking the water then you are likely to emerge unscathed! Its also a shit lot of fun!

The final stage of our training is what separates our slightly more expensive tour from the half-dayers. Time to take the elephant for a mud bath!!!

muddy elephant, Chiang Mai Elephant Camp, Thailand

Elephants love a mud bath. The filth actually has a variety of benefits to our trunked friend. Firstly it helps stop the mosquitoes (cheaper than bug spray!), it is rudimentary sun screen, and, I guess they just love filthing it up! Anyway, while everyone else was giving them a wash, we were getting muddy. the funniest part was as we emerged covered in mud, the random Americans taking the super touristic basic-elephant-walk-in-a-padded-seat option were shouting out “how do we get to do that?”…. too late my yankee chums, too late!


This was the highlight of our time in Thailand, in fact I would put it down as one of the highlights of my life! The basic 2 day tour with stay at the elephant camp and Mahout training (as well as a few other extras) is about $200. If you want to save money, don’t book in advance, go into the Panda Tours office in Chiang Mai and barter! Panda is not the only company who do tours like this, but they did a great job so I would highly recommend them.
Dealing with wild animals can be dangerous that’s why we recommend you always travel with insurance. We use World Nomads as they have always had our back. Please read your T’s & C’s to make sure you are always covered.

Some video footage, not of us :-(

If you need somewhere to stay in Chiang Mai I find these guys have a great selection of accommodation options: HotelsCombined

NOTE: This article was written in 2011, long before we became experienced travel bloggers. While we don’t think there is anything terribly wrong with riding the elephants bareback (as long as the animals are well treated and given plenty of rest) we in no way support the “tourist seats” that you see on elephants, and that we mentioned in this article. The best bet is to choose a sanctuary that treats these beautiful animals well and allows you to walk with the elephants and still bathe and play with them.

Muddy Elephant, Chiang Mai Elephant Camp, Thailand, Mahout Training, mudbath
Yes, it is as fun as it looks!