I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think the Elephants of Thailand are amazing creatures, and in this country they play an important role in not only the country’s history and cultural beliefs, but also in the success of the tourism industry.
So I was very excited to spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park located in the jungle just outside of Chiang Mai. Founded in 1995 by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the 250-acre elephant sanctuary is home to currently 37 elephants (as well as hundreds of cats, dogs and water buffalo) that have been rescued from the slavery trade, abusive environments, the logging industry in Burma or from villages who can no longer look after the animals. The Elephant Nature Park gives these elephants a second chance. There are no tricks, no rides, no elephant painting, just a free range park where tourists are given the opportunity to interact with the incredible animals.
Early morning pick up for the big day
My journey started with an 8am pick up at our apartment and a drive out to the jungle about 1hr 20mins north of Chiang Mai. As we took the turn off towards the Elephant Nature Park we passed several parks offering elephant rides and even sighted a few being ridden by happy tourists. Our guide explains, many of these elephants are cared for and treated well as this is the owner’s lively hood and it’s in their best interest to keep the animals healthy. But it is how they got the elephants to this place that is disturbing and inhumane.
Meeting the elephants
We arrived at the nature park and were shown around the major areas we would spend time in before taking a walk through the park to personally meet the elephants of Thailand. Each elephant had it’s own handler and is controlled only by voice commands (and they only understand Thai). It is an amazing experience to be able to walk up and touch an elephant that has no chains and there are no barriers between us, just a handler quietly standing by. Some of the handlers were even talking or texting on their mobiles!
Elephants roaming free, a joy to watch
We wander around the park, seeing the open space and calming environment the elephants live in. The elephants roam free during the day and are kept in an open undercover area at night to ensure they don’t wander. They are free to make their own herds or able to be alone if they prefer. One elephant has been travelling solo for the last 7 years in the park, whereas others form groups of 5 or 6 elephants.
There were only two elephants that were confined at the time I visited – an energetic young male who had been put in the naughty corner after recently injuring 12 adult elephants with his tusks (not all in one go mind you!). And the other, an adult elephant you arrived at the park with a broken back after being hit by a car. Both will only be confined to the one area temporarily and will then join the rest of the elephants to roam around the park.
A tourist with food, an elephant’s best friend
After a quick tour we meet back at the raised platform to give the elephants their usual 10:30am feed of bananas and watermelon and a lot of it! One by one we are placing the food at the end of the elephants trunk, which they grab at it excitably. There is a red line about 1metre from the rail and as our guide explained, it is for our own safety we stay behind the line whilst feeding the elephants as they can wrap their trunk around you and take you too! Their strength is reinforced as they almost take your arm along with the bunch of bananas. He also warned us that a tourist with food is the elephant’s best friend, but one without food means nothing to them.
Lunch time for the humans
After the elephants are well fed, we humans lined up for our buffet vegetarian spread (this is a meat free zone as the philosophy of the nature park is to protect all animals). There were about 40 dishes for us to try from curries to noodles to salads and it was all very delicious. Over lunch we observed the elephants and also got to know our fellow elephant park goers.
We then had 1hr 30mins of free time to sit and watch the elephants from the main platform or sky walk, shop in the gift shop or watch the documentary on the Elephant Nature Park and Lek’s fight to save the elephants of Thailand. Although watching a movie whilst in a park full of elephants doesn’t seem like the most interesting thing to do, I would highly recommend it as you do get a good understanding of what the elephants are put through before coming to the park.
Following the movie session we headed down to the river to wash the elephants, an activity I was really looking forward to. We each were given a bucket and told to just start throwing the water over an elephant while the handlers stood by with a little food on hand. This was the most incredible experience and one that I am sure I won’t forget. There I was bare foot, knee deep in water, throwing water at an elephant and giving plenty of pats along the way.
Reluctantly we left the river and made our way up to the park area where we met one of the newest baby elephants. Although it was exciting to see a little elephant, all the tour groups combined at this one moment and what was one group of 9 turned into a group of approx 35 people pretty quickly. It then became a game of spot the elephant amongst the sea of enthusiastic snappy happy onlookers.
More free time to watch in awe
After the mobbing of the baby elephant we enjoyed some rather sweet iced tea and some treats with more free time to observe the elephants. Unfortunately, the time felt a little bit like a waiting game as most elephants were off roaming the park, exactly where we wanted to be too. Thankfully it wasn’t long before our guide took our group for another walk to show us around the Veteran facilities, to a couple of other adult elephants and then off to see another baby elephant. Again there was a large crowd around this little guy and it was hard to really enjoy the experience.
We had one last time to get our hands dirty and feed the elephants cooked pumpkin followed by watermelon, before we all hoped on the mini bus to head back into town leaving the elephants behind.
Elephant Nature Park details
The cost of a single day visit to the Elephant Nature Park is 2,500THB ($82.00) and well worth the expense. You can book online or directly in the main office in Chiang Mai’s Old Town. They are adamant they only accept cash deposit in the office, but you can pay the balance via credit card at the nature park when you arrive. That is if the facilities are working! They weren’t on the day I visited and when I returned to the office to sort out the balance, they miraculously had credit card facilities available! That’s Thailand for you – they love cash!
The experience was amazing and I highly recommend a tour to the Elephant Nature Park. The only negatives of the day were that there were several moments where I felt we were waiting for things to do and even going to the park during the off-season, the times where there were way too many people in the one space slightly ruined the moment. But the experience of being up close with the elephants of Thailand definitely made up for that.