I am a huge lover of elephants, and the highlight of our trip to Thailand was seeing wild elephants in Khao Yai National Park. However, being an elephant lover, we also decided to visit Chiang Dao Camp and signed up for the full-day tour. Signing up was very difficult. They do not reply to your email (well, they did a month after our trip!) and we had to rely on a local friend in Chiang Mai to call them on the phone (many times to reach the right person). Our friend had to send them money to make our deposit. When we arrived, no one spoke English, but they somehow did know that we had paid a deposit.
First they allow you to buy bananas and feed two elephants, including the baby, which of course is exciting, and everyone loves to see the baby elephant.
But why are they breeding these elephants? I can understand why there are elephant camps so that the once-working animals can live out the rest of their lives. But I see no need to continue this way of life except for tourism. And I would rather not support this kind of camp. A week after our visit to the camp, we read in the Bangkok newspaper that a survey of all captive elephants in Thailand had just been completed, and the result was that 80 or 90% of captive elephants in Thailand are malnourished. The main reason is that elephants eat so much per day, and the poor owners of the camps can't afford the food. Some elephants are apparently only given grass to eat, which is not a complete diet for them. We did the elephant ride, which again is exciting, but our elephant was a bit sluggish, and the mahout was often encouraging him to keep up with the rest of the parade. He did not use the bull hook, but he did have to keep encouraging him. When I look at the framed photo of us riding him (purchased at the end of the day) I can see how skinny he was for an elephant. This saddened me greatly. Frankly, I wish we had not gone, or at least did not do the ride.
We also went to the hill tribe, and I agree with other reviewers, it seems like a set up. Do those people really live there? Don't know. Mostly it's an opportunity to buy things at higher prices than in Chiang Mai. Whatever. Those people need the money more than I do, and I like the carved teak elephants that we bought.
The raft down the river would have been pleasant, as it the jungle is very beautiful. But it started raining about 10 minutes into the one-hour trip, and progressively got more and more rainy. The mahout pulled out hats and crappy ponchos to wear, but it's hard to put them on when you're sitting on a flimsy bench on a flimsy raft. Once the bench shifted and started to fall through the bamboo branches, allowing water on the raft. It would have all been OK except for the rain.
Overall, I think the elephants are moderately cared for, but if you really care about captive elephants in Thailand, it might be better to support them in a different way. I am still looking for a charity to support that will make lasting changes to the situation. Haven't found it yet though.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.