An Unforgettable Day with Elephant Nature Park.
I have long adored elephants. When I was a kid, I’d call them ‘eff-a-lents’. A beautiful, graceful and intelligent animal, I had always wanted to experience them first hand.
So on my first trip (read holiday) to Thailand at 20 years old, I rode one.
I remember feeling uncomfortable. Something was not quite right. The way the mahout (handler) handled the elephant. The way the basket dug into their skin and the way they almost ‘plodded’ along, like they were downright exhausted.
It’s because they were.
Something was not right. These beautiful animals were being tortured day after day. Made to carry hundreds of kilo’s, god knows how many times a day, through thick, steep jungle. Just so tourists could have their elephant experience.
But how were we supposed to know?
This was about 6 years ago, and back then, I would never have thought to look into the responsibility side of any kind of animal tourism. I also don’t think there was too much education out there about what was really going on in Thailand. I could be wrong though.
My day with Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chiang Mai, taught me so much about elephants. About the way they’ve been treated, what it does to their bodies, their behaviours, feeling and emotions, their anatomy and how they are meant to live their lives.
I am not going to bang on about responsible animal tourism, or lecture you on things you’ve done in the past (as I have done to myself). I’m just going to tell you about one amazing day with the people and elephants of Elephant Nature Park.
About Elephant Nature Park.
Founded by Lek Chailert in the 1990’s, the park aims to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for distressed and mistreated elephants from all over Thailand and surrounding countries. The park is even home to some 500 dogs, 300 cats and some 100 odd buffalo.
The park is maintained on donations, money made on visitors tour fees and a ton of volunteers to help do the daily work required to support each rescue elephants’ recovery and welfare.
An Overview of Our Day.
Unfortunately, I left it too late to book a full day visit, so we opted for the short-day visit. I think this was sufficient, however I still left wanting more (don’t we always?).
Our day started at 8.30am, at the ENP Office in Chiang Mai Old City. We were taken in an air-conditioned mini bus to the park, about 60kms away from the City.
Our guide, Bee, was hilarious and incredibly informative from the get go. Her knowledge of each elephant in the park (all 70 of them!), their story and about elephants in general is fascinating!
On the way, they show you an extremely heart wrenching video on the treatment of elephants in Asia. How they’re used for tourism, logging and begging in the city streets, and how they have their spirit broken to obey their mahouts. If they don’t obey, the mahout holds his hook pressed against their skin, inspiring fear of punishment if they don’t perform. It was pretty horrifying to be honest. I wanted to see, to know, but I wanted to look away at the same time.
About an hour or so later, we arrived at the Park, nestled deep in the beautiful Chiang Mai countryside. Already, you can see this is a beautiful oasis for the elephants.
Feeding the Elephants.
The elephant families will take turns each day coming to the feeding platform were visitors can feed them their mid-morning snack of watermelon and cucumbers. They’re perfectly capable of feeding themselves out of the basket, however they’re very patient in letting us hold it out for them to collect with their trunk (their giant, wet, slobbery trunk).
Don’t bother trying to feed them the cucumber first. They will roll their eyes and throw it on the ground if there is still watermelon to be had. Just like us, they like the tasty stuff first.
Meeting the Grandma Elephants.
Many of the elephants within the park are old, and permanently disabled physically or mentally. But, they are happy. After feeding the elephants, Bee took us for a walk around the park to meet some of the Grandma elephants. Each has their own mahout and enjoys the refuge of a shady tree and some peace and quiet. They are also very friendly, enjoy being fed delicious watermelon and love a good cuddle.
They do not like being called old Grandma (what Grandma does like being called old?). They will tell you so by flicking their tail and rolling their eyes (truly!).
Grandma Elephant #2 (on the right) is unfortunately blind. She was a street ‘beggar’ in Phuket and the flash from camera’s damaged her eyes so much, she now has cataracts. But she is now a very happy, blind elephant. Grandma #3 down below has a permanently deformed foot (front). Her ankle was broken as a young calf when she was a logging elephant in Myanmar (biggest sad face ever). But you can see she is also very happy, look at that smile!
Back to the main building for a delicious vegetarian buffet of Thai and Western cuisine, we were given 1 hour to eat, relax and wander around the Skywalk and the Cat Kingdom.
Drinks are not included, but there is a small stand where you can buy water, soft drinks, beer and some snack food. It is understandably more expensive than 7-11, but you can also bring your water from town.
Bath Time in the River.
After lunch, we took a short walk to the river to see two different elephant families bathe and play in the river. Each family in the Park has four to six elephants, two Grandma’s, one Mum and a baby or two.
The mahouts help to bathe the elephants and it is obvious they absolutely love rolling around in the river and having water thrown at them. Then, they move from the river to the mud mound and throw dirt on their backs (sunscreen, as Bee put it).
Be careful around the babies, they like to play! You might find one running towards you if you aren’t careful about where they are.
Meeting the Boy Elephants.
Moving away from the river, we wandered around the rest of the park (at least the area close to the main building) and learnt more and more about each elephant.
The ‘Jungle Boy’ elephant is the young handsome male with the beautiful long tusks who makes his mating call (and keeps impregnating all the girls), has to be separated from the ladies. The park is only so big. With already 70 elephants and 4 new babies in a few years (all to Jungle Boy!), they’re not looking to have any new babies to care for (understandably).
His quarters are ‘fenced’, and he has two roommates, however Bee ensured us the quarters for those three elephants were the same size as the unfenced quarters of the other Grandma elephants in the close vicinity of the main building. In short, he has plenty of room to roam free, while keep his hands to himself (ifyaknowwhatimean!).
And Then All Too Quickly, The Day Was Over.
And what a day it was. I cannot speak more highly of my experience with Elephant Nature Park. What I loved about them was:
- The Elephants were noticeably relaxed, happy and obedient (without hooks!)
- The Elephant chooses the mahout, not vice versa. It is clear that the elephants have a real relationship with their mahouts.
- All of the guides, not just Bee, seemed very passionate about the elephants. I’m not sure if they get paid, but they definitely love their job.
- They’re a ‘no riding’ park. Some elephant sanctuaries claim to have same aims as ENP, and yet they still allow visitors to ride the elephants to the river, or at the river. Maybe this is fine? But I don’t really think so (sorry).
- Basically, I loved everything about it…
Some Final Trip Details…
The full day or short park visit will cost you 2,500 Baht per adult ($100 AUD). It is pricey, but totally worth it! I highly recommend booking in advance. I booked maybe 3 weeks in advance and still missed out on the full day visit.
You should wear some good walking shoes, like runners or similar, bring some sunscreen, a hat and some water. And of course, don’t forget your camera!