One of the things that I was most looking forward to in Thailand was getting to see elephants, so just a few days before bidding Chiang Mai farewell, I finally made it over to the Elephant Nature Park.
Set in the lush countryside of Northern Thailand, the Elephant Nature Park is both a rescue centre and a sanctuary that is currently home to 37 elephants: 32 of them females and 5 of them males. Each of the elephants at ENP has a unique story to tell, and while some of the younger ones were lucky enough to be born in this haven, most of the elephants you’ll meet here have tragic pasts which range from performing in circuses to toiling away in the logging industry.
When you come to the Elephant Nature Park it’s not to watch elephants perform tricks or to ride atop their backs through the jungle. You won’t see the elephants chained to a tree, and you won’t see them twirling paintbrushes in their trunks. This is a place where elephants are free to roam in a natural environment, and isn’t that the way it should be?
Here’s a look at how I spent my day at the Elephant Nature Park:
Feeding the elephants
Shortly after arriving at the Elephant Nature Park, the elephants approached the lodge eager for feeding time to begin. Basketfuls of bananas and sliced watermelon were brought out and within minutes hungry trunks were wriggling in front of us.
I grabbed a generous slice of sweet watermelon and before I knew it, I had made a new friend. The elephant wrapped its trunk around the piece of fruit, slipped it into its mouth, and greeted me with its trunk again wondering why I didn’t have a second handful of treats ready to go.
This is where I learned that elephants are big eaters – finally an animal after my own heart! On average elephants sleep around 4 hours a day, and the rest of the time is spent grazing. This allows them to eat the equivalent of 10% of their body weight every day!
An eye-opening documentary
After lunch we had the option of either enjoying some free time at the lodge or watching a documentary that dove deeper into the plight of the elephants. Hoping for a better understanding of the challenges Thailand’s elephants face, I made my way upstairs for the screening.
The most difficult part to watch was the phajaan, also known as the crush. Wild elephants are precisely that – wild. There is no way one of them would allow a human to hop on their back and ride merrily through the jungle, which is why elephants that are used in the tourism industry are forced to undergo the crush.
The phajaan is an excruciating experience which is meant to break down the elephant’s wild spirit and make it submissive to man. It involves keeping the elephant in a bamboo cage for days, where it is sleep deprived, starved, beaten and pierced with bullhooks. It is heartbreaking to watch and you can see the pain and agony in the elephant’s eyes – these young elephants are often torn away from their mothers and they don’t understand why they are all of a sudden alone and being subjected to all this abuse.
I turned around when the documentary ended to see that only four of us remained in the room. Considering the park welcomes an average of 100 visitors a day, I found it a little disheartening that many chose not to become better informed, while others simply walked out when things looked grim.
Bathing in the river
Bath time was my favourite part of the day! After lunch we walked down to the river where the elephants awaited a nice bath to help them cool down. With buckets in hand, we stepped into the shallow water, where we splashed around while the elephants gingerly munched on watermelons.
I remember the water feeling ice cold when I first stepped in, but I quickly forgot about that once we started bathing the giants. I don’t know who enjoyed the experience more – the elephants or all of us visitors having a refreshing water fight in the river!
The stories behind each elephant
Later on in the afternoon, our guide Andy took us for a walk around the park and stopped to introduce us to many of the different elephants along the way.
There was Malai Tong who worked in the logging industry and fell victim to a landmine. One of her back legs was disfigured and noticeably shorter than the others. Today she thrives in the park and has even found an elephant group where she plays the role of auntie to one of the new born elephants.
We also met Yindee, who was born last summer. His name means ‘welcome’ in Thai and as the youngest member in the park, he gets a lot of love and attention from the older females in his group.
Then there was Lucky, who lost her eyesight after years of working in a circus where the bright lights lead to blindness. She was rescued from the Surin province and now spends her days wandering freely.
And I also met Mintra, whose body speaks of a very hard life. Mintra has a sloping back and limps when she walks; these are injuries she may have received when she was a baby and had to follow her mother who worked in the logging industry. Mintra also spent time working the tourist circuit in Bangkok, where she was forced to beg in the streets and was hit by a car. Despite all her hardship, she is the one who gave birth to the little baby boy, Yindee, and together the two of them are very happy at the park.
Even though I only spent a day at the park and I didn’t get to meet all 37 elephants, it felt like a privilege to hear about each of these stories from our guide.
And while the Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for elephants, I was also surprised to learn that it plays home to a number of different animals including dogs, cats, water buffalos, horses, and pigs! After meeting a few of the different elephants, I got to visit the dog rescue centre which is home to more than 350 dogs, many of which were rescued from the streets of Chiang Mai as well as from Bangkok after the flood of 2011. While the dogs looked very happy and well taken care of in the park, I was happy to see that the centre is always actively seeking suitable homes where these pups can enjoy a real family.
Visiting the Elephant Nature Park
The Elephant Nature Park is located about 1 hour north of Chiang Mai and the outing is a full day affair. You will be picked up from your accommodations in Chiang Mai around 8:00 am and return to the city sometime after 5:00 pm.The cost of the full day visit is 2,500 baht (around $80 USD) and this includes transportation to and from your guesthouse, a delicious vegetarian buffet, a knowledgeable guide, and a fun day bathing, feeding, and learning about the elephants.You will be outside most of the day so you’ll want to dress accordingly. I’d recommend wearing flip flops and perhaps bringing a change of clothes for the bath time with the elephants.
And if you want a closer look at what the park looks like, here’s a little video that Sam and I made during our visit to the park:
Have you ever come face to face with elephants? What was it like?