There are many ways of getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I chose the less popular but definitely most scenic option by taking the 12.5 hour day train. The views that streamed past my train window changed from city scenes, to rural countryside and farm plantations, before I finally caught my last glimpse of the mountainous landscape as the sun set into the horizon and night fell.
After spending my entire day sitting down (if you opt for the day train, be sure you have a good book with you!), I was itching to explore some of the wildlife and nature attractions that Chiang Mai has become famous for. It was a good thing then, that I had booked myself in for a single day visit to the Elephant Nature Park.
Thailand seems to have a contradictory relationship with its elephants. On the one hand, elephants are revered, seen as having played an important historic role in the building of Thailand and looked upon as a symbol of strength and royalty. On the other side, stories abound of the mistreatment of elephants, primarily in the logging industry, where elephants are drugged, overworked and abused into compliance. There is also the practice of using elephants to lure in tourists and their money, be it through elephants begging on the streets of Chiang Mai, or the numerous elephant rides and treks available in the main tourists cities across Thailand.
Personally speaking, I have no desire to ride elephants. Whilst I would not judge anyone else who does, I just don’t see the appeal and feel guilty if I think of a great big elephant crouching down for people to clamber over it to sit on one of those strapped on makeshift chairs.
I was therefore super excited to hear about the Elephant Nature Park, the work it does and what it stands up for. From the website:
“Established in the 1990′s our aim has always been to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants. The park is located some 60km from [Chiang Mai], and has provided a sanctuary for dozens of distressed elephants from all over Thailand.”
Created from the vision and passion of the founder, Lek Chailert, the Elephant Nature Park does not host elephant paintings, elephant rides or elephant shows. All of the elephants in this sanctuary are non-working elephants, rescued from logging companies, tourist trade, illegal hunting or even private owners who can no longer care for their elephants. All of the elephants brought in have therefore been domesticated and are used to human contact.
I was unsure about what visitors would actually get to do in the park. How much contact would there be? Would we be able to get close to them? How would we interact with them?
It turns out there were a whole lot of activities we could partake in without having to make the elephants work for us. That in itself made the experience so much better for me, as it allowed us to see the elephants going about their business as naturally as is possible for a domesticated elephant.
First, there was the hand to trunk feeding of bananas, watermelons and pumpkins to waiting elephants.
There were also lots of opportunities to get close to and study these majestic animals as the mahouts care for and feed them around the park.
After a scrumptious vegetarian buffet lunch and a 45 minute documentary on Asian elephants in Thailand, it was time to shower with the elephants. Well, actually, the elephants just stood in the river chomping on pumpkins, while us visitors did the hard work, scooping up buckets of water and sloshing it over them.
After the showers, the herd regrouped for more food, including the wee baby of the group. With the elephants pre-occupied and focused on their food, visitors were able to get fairly close to the grazing beasts.
We were taken round to another side of the river to see another one of the sanctuary’s resident babies, his mother and the self-appointed nanny. They were being fed banana trees – good for hydration and fibre intake.
Our final activity for the day was late afternoon snack feeding, where I was lucky enough to meet Lek, the inspiring founder, making special pumpkin burgers for some of the resident grannies of the herd (high nutritional value, no need for teeth to eat them).
One of the younger females came over wanting some of the special burgers as well as some attention from Lek. She managed to get Lek’s attention, but failing to get some of the burgers, decided to take matters into her own…trunk.
One of the sanctuary’s missions is also to educate the public on elephants in Thailand, highlighting the fact that they are an endangered species and need protection. They also want to draw attention to some of the brutal treatment of these wild elephants as they undergo the domestication process.
Whether you support the use of elephants in Thailand’s tourism industry or not, it is good to know about this behind-the-scenes aspect of taming elephants, where wild elephants undergo a torturous process of phajaan, or “the crush” where the elephants’ wild spirits are broken. I guess there are always two sides to the argument, and you can say that surely not ALL tamed elephants go through this process…but after watching the horrendous video, I don’t think any elephant ride is worth it if there is even the slight possibility that the one I am riding on had to undergo this process.
To be fair, there is the argument that some of the elephants used in tourism now are out of work elephants from the recently banned logging trade in Thailand. Without jobs, the elephants might have been killed or abandoned instead, and that’s not any better.
I am of the strong belief however, that continued tourist demands for elephant tourism will continue to fuel the capture of wild elephants and the taming of them. So, if you’re in Chiang Mai and thinking of visiting an elephant park, consider giving the Elephant Nature Park a visit!
- A one day visit for adults costs THB2,500 and lasts all day from 9am to 5pm
- Cost includes pickup and drop-off from accommodation in the centre of Chiang Mai
- Group sizes are limited so be sure to book in advance
- There are also longer term opportunities for eco-volunteering in the park