Elephants playing soccer at the Maesa elephant camp in northern Thailand. // (c) GTH & Nathan DePetris

Less than a half hour ride from the center of Chiang Mai, the Maesa elephant camp sits in a rustic park by the river. This renowned camp has won acclaim for its sustainable programs blending tourism and the caretaking of elephants, seamlessly. They are the first Thai elephant camp to earn the ISO 9001 certification standard for quality management.

Three daily shows present many options for any itinerary in Thailand’s northern provinces. Elephant performances will amaze and delight spectators of all ages with parades, soccer game, dart throwing, dancing and musical instrument playing. By far the most amazing part of the show, however, is the elephant painting demonstrations. Each elephant and their mahout assistant (who only hands each its brushes) will paint different styles ranging from realistic to impressionistic painting. In fact, one elephant was so engrossed in the details it took twice as long as the others to paint its impressionistic landscape painting which was drawn layer by layer, brushstroke by brushstroke for over 30 minutes. Paintings are sold in the store, and each piece is authentic (no two alike), strongly suggesting that they are not merely repetitions but rather independent works of creativity by these most gentle of majestic creatures.

Make sure to participate in feeding the elephants after the show: the price is miniscule, while the experience is quite memorable. Lastly, a ride atop one of the elephants will make anyone feel like ‘Anna and the King’. There’s no comparing the feeling of majesty striding these gentle behemoths as they trek their way up and down hilly roads, through light underbrush and forests.

Paintings drawn by the elephants help raise funds for the community. // (c) GTH & Nathan DePetris

The entire community here is based around the elephants; trainers, handlers, those to farm the food, those to prepare the food, washers, cleaners, dung collectors, dung paper makers, weavers, and nameless others. Yes, even the dung of the elephants is used to make a paper that is highly prized. Somehow, we resisted the urge to purchase a pad of poo poo paper, though. The gift shop also sells items and handicrafts produced by the locals that work in the elephant camp, with all proceeds benefiting the protection of the elephants and supporting the local community there.

For a truly interactive and unique experience, the Mahout training courses are an ideal experience offered over one or multiple days. You will be taught the history, biology, and caring for elephants. The course culminates in elephant handling, feeding, bathing, riding and painting.

At the MaeSa elephant camp, visitors are struck with how elegant and gentle such massive creatures can be. The show blends comedy with acrobatics, and mixes skill with jesting. Above all else, the painting demonstration will warm and touch the heart.

If You Go:
Maesa Elephant Camp
Be a Mahout
Thailand’s gay travel information website
Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Western USA