Elephant Nature Park: Chiang Mai
Long before we decided to travel to Chiang Mai, we had a strong desire to see and interact with elephants and always knew we wanted to do it in a responsible manner. Wildlife tourism is something that should always be approached with skepticism and plenty of caution. Elephants, especially, are mistreated in Thailand.
Elephants in Thailand
Historically, elephants in Thailand were used in the logging industry. When the Thai government banned all logging in protected areas in 1989, thousands of elephants were left homeless. Mahouts, the elephant handlers, resorted to using their animals for street begging or tourist treks. They are widely used for entertainment and trained to play soccer or even paint in elephant shows. These activities may seem harmless, but the training process is cruel, abusive and inhumane. You can read more about the heartbreaking tactics of “breaking” an elephant here.
So, knowing the horrible tales of mistreated elephants, we knew we needed to be very careful in selecting a place to see them. There are many rescue organizations around Chiang Mai that loosely using the term “sanctuary” to promote their business. After much research, we chose Elephant Nature Park and were completely comfortable with that decision.
Why Elephant Nature Park?
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) was founded in the 1990s. Its mission is to provide homes for rescued and distressed elephants while contributing to their wellbeing and development. They also hope to educate visitors on the plight of the species and how responsible tourism is a necessity in protecting the endangered Asian Elephant.
ENP simulates a natural environment by letting elephants roam in family groups. They perform regular veterinary exams and provide free treatment to elephants in surrounding camps. None of the elephants are ridden or taught to perform tricks for entertainment. Each elephant on the property is assigned a Mahout who remains with and cares for that elephant for the rest of their time at the park.
We were picked up from our apartment at 8:30 a.m. in a van marked with the ENP logo. During our comfortable ride out to the park, our guide gave us an overview of our schedule for the day and laid down some ground rules: don’t stand directly behind an elephant, don’t touch the babies, don’t tease the elephants. We watched a surprisingly interesting introduction video about the park and its inhabitants followed by a brief safety introduction.
We were surprised by how large the facility was. Even so, the property swallowed it. The facility, which houses kennels for rescued dogs, a vet station, sleeping quarters for staff and volunteers, an elephant kitchen, a human kitchen and offices, is nestled between mountains and rivers. Even in the rain, it was a beautiful scene.
Each group had a table where you could safely leave your belongings and meet for lunch. Once we were settled, we started feeding the elephants watermelon, bananas and sugar cane. Each elephant has their own basket with specific foods according to dietary needs, so make sure you don’t give them food from a neighbor’s basket.
Handing an elephant food is a funny experience. Their huge trunks are powerful enough to pick you up, but deft enough to pick grass. They reached out to us between the railings of the feeding platform like children holding out palms for candy. They took the food gently, but you could still feel their strength. They eat slowly and methodically and there never seemed to be a sense of competition.
After feeding them, we walked with some of the elephants around the grounds. Our guide pointed out family groups and told us their names and stories, some of them happier than others. He told us which elephants were approachable and encouraged us to go right up to them and touch them.
Everyone knows an elephant is big, but standing between several of the massive creatures is a humbling experience. We never felt we were in danger, but the knowledge that they could knock you out with a flick of their trunk was enough to make us cautious.
We broke for a long, leisurely lunch that consisted of a huge selection of traditional Thai vegetarian dishes. There were curries, noodle dishes, soups, spring rolls and all sorts of salads. During this time, you can relax, watch the elephants roam and visit the gift shop.
After lunch we changed into sandals and shorts and joined the elephants at the river for bath time. There were plenty of opportunities for photos as we bathed the elephants with buckets of water from the river. Our guide was very knowledgeable about their habits and was able to answer any questions we could come up with. He even offered to take our photo at several points during the bathing.
When we finished splashing around with the pachyderms, we headed back to the main building to rest and take photos of the wandering elephants close to the observation platforms. There was also an opportunity to view a movie on the hardships that “trained” elephants endure in the tourism trade. The rest of the day consisted of another walk out around the grounds to observe the elephants in their daily activities and a final opportunity to feed them back at the main building.
Our favorite moment of the day occurred when we were out in the fields watching a group of elephants roll in the mud. The youngest baby boy elephant took an interest in us and was trying hard to get us to play. He would trot towards us as we continued to move out of his way. ENP doesn’t allow visitors to touch the babies because they try to keep them wild in hopes that they can one day be released. When he realized no one was going to interact with him, he became bored and wandered back over to the group. It was a delightful opportunity to see how playful and curious elephants can be.
Around 4 p.m. we said our goodbyes to our new favorite species and loaded ourselves back into the ENP vans. Our trip to ENP was a wonderful experience and I know we will want to visit again soon. If you are ever in Chiang Mai and would like to enjoy the company of elephants in a responsible way that facilitates protection of the species, then consider a visit to Elephant Nature Park.
- On the way, we made a short rest stop for coffee and snacks. Lunch is provided and you can purchase certain items like chips, beer and soda at the park, but if you want something specific this is a good time to pick it up.
- The ride up is scenic and comfortable, but the last portion is pretty curvy – if you get carsick, consider taking a dramamine before you leave.
- We wore hiking shoes for the beginning of the day and Chacos in the river, but for the program we did, you would probably be fine with just some kind of athletic sandal. Flip-flops are not a good idea as they might slip off in the water.
- Make a reservation to visit ENP here.
- Can’t make it to Chiang Mai? There are plenty of other ways to help out: learn how to help ENP rescue and care for more elephants.