Riding an elephant has become a common tourist activity in Thailand. Some elephant camps are better than others, and Ran-Tong seems to be one of the better ones. The mahouts don't use chains or sticks to command the elephants; they only use verbal commands. Additionally, the elephants aren't asked to do anything un-elephant like (they don't perform tricks, nor do they paint pictures as is common in other camps).
Ran-Tong guides will pick you up at your Chiang Mai hotel. The drive to the camp, in the mountains north of the city, takes about an hour. Once you arrive, you'll be able to feed the elephants a morning snack and change into "typical peasant clothes" for your ride. The mahouts teach you basic elephant commands and help you practice getting on/off and riding the hulking animals bareback, just holding onto a rope. The elephants are gentle and kind, but they're also quite smart and aren't likely to listen to commands from tourists who are just there for a day! Each elephant has a mahout who accompanies you and your steed as you hike through the hills. It's an extraordinary experience to feel the powerful elephant walking beneath you and to feel its leathery ears beat against your shins as it wiggles them to communicate or to cool itself. Lunch is a home-cooked meal at the elephant camp. The afternoon brings a trip to the river where you can play in the water with and bathe the elephants.