One of my favorite days in Thailand was the day we spent feeding, bathing, and just hanging out with the elephants at Elephant Nature Park near the northern city of Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation park that, according to our guide, is currently home to over 60 elephants. You won’t find elephant shows such as painting here and you damn sure will not ride the elephants. Elephants only allow riding and only put on shows because their wills have been broken through harsh training. It’s not nice and it should not be supported. Besides, riding an elephant may just cause them to throw you off and kill you as tragically happened to a tourist on Koh Samui while we were there. What you will find are elephants who are now free of their previous torment and free to roam, the females and young males anyway, around the park’s many acres of land. You will also find a team of dedicated workers and scores of volunteers, tourists who pay to spend 1-2 weeks there helping out, taking care of the elephants, dogs, cats, and water buffalos that have been rescued and now call the park home.
We looked into doing a week-long volunteer but it was full for several weeks so we instead opted for a day trip to the park. The day started with meeting at the ENP office in Chiang Mai and then taking an hour bus ride out to the park. Once we arrived, our first order of business was to feed the elephants. This was quite an experience – it’s amazing to watch them devour halves of watermelons and pumpkins as if they’re nothing. They’ve got some serious jaws.
After feeding we set off with our guide to walk around the property and to learn more about the elephants that live there. The elephants come from different backgrounds – some were street performers, some came from other parks where they were ridden by tourists, and most, it seemed, came from logging camps in Myanmar. Thailand banned logging with elephants in the late 80’s I believe it was, but it is still legal in Myanmar which borders Thailand on the north. A couple of the elephants we saw had mangled feet from stepping on land mines in Myanmar and another, who was one of our favorites, had a crushed foot from logs rolling down on her.
That afternoon each of the day trip groups bathed an elephant in the river. This basically involved the elephant standing there eating from a basket while we threw buckets and buckets of water on her. The elephant we bathed has a particularly sad background. She was a logging elephant and gave birth while working. Her baby rolled down a steep hill and was killed. After this she refused to move and her mahout (elephant handler) blinded her in both eyes by stabbing them with a hook. It’s so senseless, and I can’t fathom how that would make her work, but at least now she’s safe and seems quite happy.
Once they were nice and clean they then went and rolled around in the mud. Although their skin is quite thick and rough, it’s also very sensitive to the sun and bug bites and the coating of mud helps protect them from both.
I mentioned earlier that the females and young males are free to roam. Once the males hit adolescence they are separated because they become too aggressive. Currently there are three bull elephants in two separate, relatively large enclosures. The park is working to purchase more land to allow them a larger space to roam as well but for now it’s the best they can do. One of the males, named Hope, was in a feisty mood that day and would constantly pickup dirt and leaves with his trunk and throw it on all of us tourists. He also tried to throw a large piece of bamboo but thankfully the handlers got that away from him in time.
We ended our visit just walking around some more watching the elephants roam.
If you’re ever in the Chiang Mai area I highly recommend visiting Elephant Nature Park; it’s something I will never forget and one of the highlights of our trip so far. There are many options available for hanging out with elephants in Thailand and other SE Asian countries, but please do your research and choose a respectable organization that does not support cruel elephant tourism practices.