Lonely Planet Writer

Chang Chill, an observation-only, truly elephant-friendly camp has opened in Thailand

While the best place to see elephants is in the wild, of course, visitors to Thailand will be aware that there are many elephant venues there. A hugely positive initiative has been the recent re-opening of a truly elephant-friendly camp that offers a better life for elephants, and provides a unique experience for visitors who don't want to support camps that engage in cruel activities.

Two elephants eating at Camp Chill elephant-friendly camp in Thailand
Chang Chill opened in June 2019, becoming the world’s first truly elephant-friendly commercial venue. Image: Chang Chill

Chang Chill opened in Chiang Mai in June 2019, becoming the world’s first truly elephant-friendly commercial venue. It offers interactions with the six resident female elephants, Mae Mun, Mae Yuen, Mae Too, Moleko, Mae Gohgae and Mayura, that do not stress the animals and don't put visitors or mahouts in harm’s way. It allows elephants to be elephants, does not allow breeding, riding or touching, and provides education on elephants’ complex needs.

Visitors don't miss out, because apart from watching elephants in a natural setting, they can spray wash them from the safety and comfort of an observation deck by turning on a newly-engineered sprinkler system. Chang Chill also offers guests the opportunity to feed elephants indirectly through a feeding tube system, which are stuffed with elephant treats such as sugarcane, corn and bananas for the elephants to find later. Guests watch the elephants from a safe distance burrowing inside the holes and tubes with their trunks to find their snacks.

An elephant at Camp Chill elephant-friendly camp in Thailand
Guests can watch the elephants from a safe distance burrowing inside the holes to find their snacks. Image: Chang Chill

The camp's story began back in 2017, when World Animal Protection, along with travel industry leaders, presented a business case to a group of around 15 Thai elephant camps. Its aim was to encourage the camps to move from offering rides and elephant tricks to observation-only elephant venues.

A man and two elephants at Camp Chill elephant-friendly camp in Thailand
There is a growing demand for observation-only elephant-friendly tourism. Image: Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom

"We demonstrated a growing demand for observation-only elephant-friendly tourism, and told them we were ready to support venues that banned elephant rides and put the needs of elephants at their heart," says Ben Williamson, US programs director at World Animal Protection US. "As a result, Happy Elephant Valley stopped allowing visitors to ride, bathe or directly feed the elephants. Now the camp has reopened for business as Chang Chill, becoming the world’s first truly elephant-friendly commercial venue."

A view of Camp Chill elephant-friendly camp in Thailand
Happy Elephant Valley has reopened for business as Chang Chill. Image: Chang Chill

Apart from being an elephant-friendly venue, Chang Chill aims to be eco-friendly by harnessing hydropower from the local river. The upgraded camp has also brought clean drinking water and septic tanks to the mahouts who live onsite. The mahouts at Chang Chill don't carry bullhooks as the elephants no longer pose a threat to their safety or that of visitors.

An elephant at Camp Chill elephant-friendly camp in Thailand
Elephants at Chang Chillare are allowed to express natural behaviors. Image: Chang Chill

Chang Chill’s transition is thanks to the Coalition for Ethical Wildlife Tourism, which includes; TUI Group and the TUI Care Foundation, Intrepid Group, The Travel Corporation, G Adventures, DER Touristik Group, Thomas Cook Group, QYER, EXO Travel, among others. To date, 245 travel companies have committed to stop selling and promoting cruel elephant entertainment.

Two elephants at Camp Chill elephant-friendly camp in Thailand
Visitors can watch elephants interacting with each other in a natural setting. Image: Chang Chill

"Thousands of elephants still live in unacceptable, captive conditions in Thailand and elsewhere," says Ben Williamson. "They endure harsh training regimes to become submissive enough to carry tourists on their back and perform tricks, which are cruel activities. The goal is to inspire other commercial elephant camps to replicate the model at Chang Chill, and help meet the growing demand from travelers for responsible travel experiences."

Two elephants at Camp Chill elephant-friendly camp in Thailand
Elephants live in natural settings at Chang Chill. Image: Chang Chill

To learn more about Chang Chill, see its website here, and to check out the World Animal Protection's elephant-friendly visitor guide, which includes a list of higher welfare venues, please see here. Lonely Planet has also published tips for responsible elephant interactions.