Rescued, saved and loved – the animals at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, have been through all kinds of unhappiness in their lifetime, but now they have home to call their own.
We rolled out of bed at the crack of dawn, threw on some clothes and dashed out to our nearby 7Eleven to grab a quick coffee and croissant for the road. We were being picked up at 8am for our transfer to the Elephant Nature Park.
It was a hazy and quiet Sunday morning in Chiang Mai. The soi we live on was cast in the golden hue of dawn. There was a slight chill in the air (it is winter here right now) and we perched ourselves on the wall outside the apartment with our coffees in hand waiting for our pickup.
Soon enough a minibus arrived and we jumped in along with 10 other tourists, all eager for our day with the elephants.
It took just over an hour to drive the 65km to the sanctuary. There was a short rest stop on the way. I thought it might feel like a bit of a slog but watching the Thai countryside and towns whiz by helped.
The minibus is equipped with a dropdown television on which they play two videos for you. The first is an introduction to the Elephant Nature Park and the second is a health and safety video. These were a great way to pass the time, prepare for our day and save precious time once we were at the park. It’s such a great idea.
We arrived at the sanctuary along with several other minivans. I think they take about 60 visitors in total per day. It’s a pretty tightly run operation. But as they have been doing this since the 1990’s I think they have worked out a great system of sharing their sanctuary with visitors whilst maintaining the best environment they can for the animals.
As well as elephants, they are also home to over 400 dogs rescued from the streets, cats, buffalo and even a cow. Some of the dogs are kept in the kennels as they are not yet used to being around humans (many have suffered severe ill-treatment). The easier-going dogs are allowed to roam freely around the site. Mostly they stick to the main building where they indulge in a spot of sunbathing and plenty of naps. Likewise the cats make the tourist centre their home and you can find them sleeping in all kinds of unlikely places, including on a pile of t-shirts in the gift shop!
The star attraction, of course, is the elephants.
There are now 70+ of these magnificent animals living at Elephant Nature Park. The most recent addition arrived the day before we visited. The founder of the sanctuary, Lek, started the park back in 1995 when she came across an elephant that was being badly treated. Since then she has raised the funds and rescued elephants from all over. Each has their own story.
Some were being used by loggers, some were severely damaged from carrying tourists on their back every day. Others had been used in street begging and suffering from severe mental distress.
One poor elephant, called Jokia, had been blinded by her mahout after she refused to work following a miscarriage (caused by being forced to work on logging activities whilst heavily pregnant). She had arrived at the park completely blind and was adopted by a fellow female elephant who helps her out. The two of them stick together at all times, it’s incredible.
Elephants are incredibly sensitive and intelligent animals. Like humans, they form family groups. In the park they will form groups and stick in those groups. There is the odd one who is an exception. One 72-year-old elephant prefers to be on her own. Mae Jan Peng (meaning Full Moon) just hangs out with her mahout all day and is happy with the company of humans as they visit the park. We spent a bit of time with her and she loves strokies on her leg or upper trunk. We even went in for a kiss, and she smiled!
Best moment ever.
Elephants are really emotional. And when you consider their size and power it’s devastating to think that their spirit is broken with a traditional ‘ritual’ so that they can be forced to work for humans.
I understand that there may have been a point when humans needed the help of elephants for some things. But these days it’s just unnecessary. We don’t need to ride on elephants – it damages their backs. We don’t need to use them for logging – we have technology for that. We don’t need to destroy the last of their natural habitat – there are plenty of brownfield sites that can be developed first for the growing populations.
When we first arrived at the Elephant Nature Park we had some time to prepare ourselves. This meant applying sunscreen and insect repellent, using the bathroom etc. And then it was time for the morning snack. We had to two elephants brought to the platform and we were given a huge basket of fruit to feed them. They are incredibly gentle as you place the fruit into their outreach trunk. You can gently stroke their trunk as you give them their snack. They love it. It’s such an incredible and humbling moment; these ginormous creatures make you feel so small. Yet they were so gentle.
Afterwards our guide took us for a walk around some of the park. There we caught sight of another group of elephants with a baby in tow. They were reaching up with their trunks to pick some berries off a tree. Another naughty one was using a new fence post to scratch an itch and knocked it over.
The Elephant Nature Park is set in a valley amongst large forest-covered hills. Some of the elephants aren’t really into hanging out with the humans, a couple of whom like to walk in the hills every day with their mahouts. I think it’s a habit for them and it makes them happy.
The park covers about 250 acres of which a river runs through the middle. The river actually becomes the Chao Praya river later on down the country (that’s the huge river in Bangkok).
We walked towards the back of the park where there is large concrete-reinforced area. There are two males in there that have to be kept separated at the moment. I think they cause trouble with one another. Turns out that there are only 8 males in total at the park (lucky males, our guide informs us!).
At the back we come up close to a group of elephants feeding
That’s pretty much all they do.
Elephants need A LOT of food. And spend most of the 18 hours a day that they are awake just eating. The park has to bring in over 3 tons of food every single day just to keep the elephants going.
For that reason alone I was more than happy to pay the fee for the day. It worked out at 2500baht each, which is roughly £50 or $75. That does work out to be a bit more than some of the other elephant outings on offer, but as I wanted to go on an experience that was kind to the animals I didn’t want to do any elephant riding (I think there will be another post on that issue) or watch them perform for us. I had been sent some money for Christmas and my birthday so we chose to spend the extra and make a difference. I had done my research and the Elephant Nature Park fit the bill – this is a great example of responsible tourism.
After watching the elephants eat we were led around more of the park, and that’s when we had our kissing encounter with Granny Elephant. She was beautiful. You could tell she was aged, with her sunken in cheeks and wrinkly face. Her mahout looked very much like her, sunken in face and rather weathered. They spent nearly all of their time together. She had a hole in her right ear so he placed a flower in it so she looked like she wore a pretty earring. It was utterly adorable.
The rest of the group had moved on but we held back. We were in total awe of this beautiful elephant. She was big. Like, really big. But held this gentle aura about her.
Raj, being a Hindu, paid his respects to her. And as her raised his hands, palms together, in respect/prayer, she moved towards him gently to meet his hands with her head. It was incredible. It was if she knew what he was doing. He smiled, gently stroked her upper trunk and gave her a kiss.
I took the opportunity to do the same (her mahout indicated it was ok and safe). Her skin was rough, and sparsely covered in wiry hairs. Raj captured the moment on camera and as I kissed, her mouth parted into a smile. Total awe.
By then it was late morning so our guide took us back to the main building for lunch. Like the elephants, we had vegetarian food. It was a huge buffet of noodles, rice, vegetable stir-fries, curries and spring rolls. It was delicious. There was a small ‘bar’ area where you could buy soft drinks, water and beer as well as a few snacks such as crisps.
We lapped up our lunch and made our way to the bathrooms to change into our ‘river clothes’. For me, this meant I slipped into my bikini and over that wore leggings and a loose t-shirt paired with my waterproof flipflops.
Immediately after lunch there is a documentary screening sharing the story of how the Elephant Nature Park was founded.
I also took some of this time after lunch to walk along the ‘sky’ platform and sit in the pagoda. Taking a moment just to absorb my surroundings. All around there were trees, and hills. The sun was bearing down on us. Across the river a lone elephant was munching away on some trees. Further up the river I could see another building where several more elephants were with their mahouts. On our side of the bank two mahouts brought their elephants, along with a baby one, to the river to bathe. They didn’t stay in there long. The river is colder in the dry season, and just like us humans, they’re not keen on the cold water!
Now for the really fun bit.
We walked down to the river where we were introduced to our elephants. Each of the tour groups had an elephant each to bathe.
And we had Jokia, the blind elephant! She was amazing.
Her mahout led her into the river and we were given a small bucket each. We waded into the river, filled our buckets and starting throwing. Meanwhile she chows down on her snacks.
Elephants are nearly always found near water. They need to bathe once a day and afterwards they roll in mud. Apparently it acts as a natural sunscreen for them.
We worked hard and fast to make sure she was properly washed and covered with fresh water before she decided she was too cold and wandered out of the river.
Wow. That was just an incredible experience.
We treated her to some more fruit snacks along with her best friend, and then said our goodbyes.
Next we got the chance to meet one of the families. There are two groups that have gathered around each of the two baby elephants at the park. They came over to our area at the river and were feed another huge batch of fruit.
Oh my, these elephants LOVE to eat. We took as many photos as we could so we wouldn’t forget this moment. I could’ve just sat there and watched them all day. They are incredible.
We went back to change into our dry clothes and our guide took us back our for another walk to another side of the park. There we watched another massive feeding session. This time a pick-up truck brought some fibrous branches (from the sweetcorn plant) for them to chew on. At this time of day the two big family groups like to be together so that the baby elephants can play together. They run around chasing each other whilst the adults chew away on their food. The babies were utterly adorable.
Finally, we finished the day with another fruit-feeding session back at the main building. It was mid-afternoon and the minivans were getting ready to ferry us back to Chiang Mai. But before we left we wanted to visit the kennels.
So we made the short walk back along the main driveway to find a rather noisy bunch of dogs. Oh my, I could so easily take them home. In fact, you can actually rehouse a dog and arrange to have them sent back to you in your home country. If I had a permanent home I think I’d have found it hard not to give some of these poor dogs a proper loving home.
One group of dogs had been sectioned off in their own kennel. We noticed immediately that one was dragging himself along with his front legs. His back legs were completely paralysed. There in that kennel were four dogs, for whatever reason, were severely disabled. The park had created a large kennel with smooth tiled floors so that they could safely and comfortably move themselves around. *cue heartbreak*
We were about to leave but Raj quickly changed into the wellies provided (some of them lack bladder control as they are paralysed) and popped into the kennel. These dogs absolutely love attention and strokies. They came straight up to him for love. He couldn’t get his hands around quick enough, they were so eager.
The horns were beeping and we were bundled back into the minivan headed home. That was it. Our day at the Elephant Nature Park was over in a flash.
They do provide the opportunity to volunteer at the sanctuary and they have built dormitories for guests wishing to help out and spend longer there. Again, all paid-for opportunities but you know that your money is going straight to helping all of these rescued animals.
As the sun was setting to our right over the dense forest-covered hills, we were driven at a rather alarmingly fast speed back to the city. We sat in silence – struck by the majesty of the creatures we had the pleasure of spending the day with.
No words, photos or videos can ever do justice to that experience. It was humbling, awesome (in the truest sense of the word) and emotional.
I feel grateful and privileged to have had the opportunity to experience a day like that in my lifetime.
Elephant Nature Park
To book: Elephant Nature Park website
To donate: Save Elephant Foundation website