Elephants and Rafting: The Mae Taeng River


Boonlert Elephant Sanctuary

After a 90 minute drive into the hills we arrived at Boonlert (what we were told the Elephant Sanctuary was called, although I could not find any sign there that said this, nor can I find information on this sanctuary on the internet.  Boonlert being a common last name, appears everywhere, but almost nowhere is it connected with an Elephant Sanctuary).  We could barely contain our excitement as we walked right by the elephants.  The guide kept asking us to come to a hut for orientation, but we all stayed with the elephants as their trunks outstretched to sniff us for food.  The guide had us put on some dungarees and allowed us to feed the elephants banana trunk slices, sugar cane, and coconuts.

Sporting their new work clothes.  “Hey these are almost fashionable” – Alyssa

The elephants reached out and grabbed the food pieces with their trunks and popped them into their mouths.  The mahouts suggested standing right by their head and say “bom bom”.  When this was said the elephants would open their mouths and expect deposit of food directly into their mouths.  Most elephants were over 50.  One of the older ones had a single tusk that had been sawed off.

Their skin was surprisingly soft.
Sharleen feeds banana trunks to the elephant trunk
Kylie spent the first few tries attempting to put the food in the elephants’ nostril.  We had to explain that the elephant used its trunk prehensilely.
This young elephant’s mahout let Kylie lead it for a ways…using sugar cane of course.

While feeding our guide told us about the plight of elephants in Asia.  “Even though the Asian Elephant is the national animal, it is still hunted for its ivory.  People believe that if you have ivory in your house it wards off bad spirits.”

“Every elephant in captivity is microchiped with their DNA encoded it so it cannot be changed after an elephant dies.  Owners and mahouts have to go through a licencing process, and when elephants move to different regions they need to be registered.”

The elephants were unshackled and only had a bamboo clacker on.  “The clacker helps the mahout find the elephant in the forest.  We let the elephants roam and if they don’t come back in a few days we go looking for them.  The clacker helps us find them.”

“How far can they roam?”  “They roam up to about 10 kilometers away.”

“How long do they live?”  I knew the answer (48 year in captivity in Europe and between 60 years in the wild and 80 years with care).  “Our oldest elephant is over 60.  They die quicker when people ride them.  The chair irritates their skin and they bleed.  Because no one rides these, not even the mahounts, these elephants will live longer.”

We continued ofeed them, occasionally their trunk would knock us a little, sniff our arms, or blow snot on our dungarees.   We watched them poop and pee rivers.  Their eyes seem disproportionate to the face when up close, yet to gentle.

“Eyelash Goals” – Alyssa

Our experience wasn’t quite over, we walked with the elephant about a half kilometer to the river.  We were each given a plastic bucket and the elephants went down and submerged themselves.  A young elephant was there (only 5 years old),  played in the water completely going under except for its trunk.  Gently we were all allowed to splash water on the elephants.

Helping the elephants bathe.
Sharleen pours water on this elephant
Together with the elephants in the Mae Taeng River…..we would raft by this very spot 2 hours later.

“Many people use elephants as assets.  They are used for logging and labor.  They are only as good as the money they bring in.  Consequently, as the animals get older, they are worked until they can’t work anymore.  Elephant sanctuaries like this allow an elephants utility to go beyond.   Tourists come see the elephants and provide money allowing the elephant to do less labor intensive work.  Owners sell or rent their elephants to elephant camps, which extends their life.”

It was an amazing experience. I was guarded however. There were many elephant camps in this area, on our trip down the river we passed at least 6 in a 10 kilometer stretch.  According to this study (click here) there are over 26 in the Chiang Mai area many of which offer elephant riding. It was difficult to determine if this was its own camp, just low budget, or whether these were “off duty” elephants from another camp. I hoped for the best and solaced myself with the fact that we didn’t ride any, there were no circus tricks performed, the elephants had no shackles or scaring, or wear and tear from harnesses.

Rafting the Mae Taeng River

We rafted as a family in Costa Rica in 2016 (Click Here), but the girls were much smaller then.  Everyone wanted another go at it.

We drove a little farther up river to lunch and prepared for our rafting trip.  The paperwork on the site stated that there would be a 2 km section where Kylie would have to exit the river and rejoin later because it was too dangerous.

We lucked out, our rafting guide Jawam, was experienced and kind.  He has two kids of his own.  As we floated down he helped us understand the commands and directions we needed to be safe and successful.

Kylie was extra diligent and Alyssa dug in not wanting to be second best.  Our first rapid was a trifle, but good.  Jawan splashed us from behind: “What fun is rafting if you don’t get wet?”

During the wet season in July the river really flows with the rapids getting up to class IV+.  However after the rain stops the river drops to a bunch of class III with a few rapids being class III+.  The rapids were fairly technical, but Kylie did well enough to go the full 10 km.  I was impressed with the rafting company’s focus on safety.  At every rapids they had people on the rocks with throw ropes in case someone got bounced out of the boat.  There were also people in the rapids to push the boat in the right direction as the water level was so low.  Lastly, they had an expert kayaker going along with us who could zoom up and splash us with water (if needed).


The family cheered as we enjoyed the rapids.

Kylie and Dad posing for a snap between rapids


A sense of accomplishment after our first major rapid.


During the slow sections Alyssa and Kylie got to float down river.


Getting back in was not always a graceful feat …. the girls just flopped and slipped around like fish out of water. 


We booked a elephant sanctuary and rafting package with Siamrivers.  Several other options in the area are: Rafting and Trek, Rafting and Zip lines, and multi-day rafting.

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