Travel Destinations

Monday, June 24, 2013

Playing with Elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai

Thailand, and Chiang Mai in particular, is well known for its Asian elephants.  Elephants in the past were domesticated and used for transportation and logging.  Logging has since been banned due to extreme deforestation.  Thailand’s elephants are now mainly employed in the tourism industry.  The plight of Thailand’s elephants causes a bit of a moral dilemma.  On one hand, the ideal would be for the elephants to be released back into the wild.  However, there is a huge shortage of natural habitat remaining for them to survive.  This is where places like Elephant Nature Park come in, and spending a day, or longer, at Elephant Nature Park is sure to be a highlight of your trip to Thailand, as it was for us.

Photo with Elephants
It was very exciting to be so close to the elephants, but I was also very aware the one behind us could back up into us at any second.  Note my grip on Romeo's waist, ready to pull him out of harm's way in an instant.
There are quite a number of elephant camps in Thailand which offer trekking and entertainment.  For the most part, elephants live good lives in these camps, though some are better than others.  Elephant Nature Park is unique because they rescue and provide sanctuary for elephants that have been neglected, abused, and abandoned.  The park is located in a valley with rivers and surrounded by mountains.  This provides the elephants with a large area in which to roam and visitors the opportunity to see the elephants in their natural environment.  Because many of the elephants at the park have lived difficult lives, and many have sustained debilitating injuries in their pasts, trekking is not included in the day’s activities. 

Spending a day at Elephant Nature Park is an educational and awe inspiring experience.  Our day started when we were picked up at our hotel by a van.  During the drive to the park, an episode of Caught in the Moment, produced by Animal Planet, featuring the park and its founder Lek was played.  Once we arrived at the park, we met in our small group and went over the rules and safety guidelines, all the while watching the elephants roam around and approach the elevated platform.  Then it was time to feed the elephants!  There were baskets of bananas, pineapples, and pumpkins, and we were all able to feed the elephants by holding the food out and letting them take it with their trunks.  One of the members of our group thought he was being helpful and peeled a banana for one of the elephants.  Apparently elephants are a little picky.  Would you have imagined elephants don’t like to eat peeled bananas?  They wanted none of that banana once it was peeled.  One elephant actually sniffed it when it was on the ground and left it there.

Meal Time
May I have that bunch of bananas please?
After we finished feeding the elephants, we went with our guide and walked around the grounds to see the elephants roaming around in the valley.  It was a wonderful sight to see a happy herd of elephants ambling across the field.  One of the younger elephants was loudly trumpeting and briskly walking ahead of the others.  I’m not going to lie, that made my heart skip a beat.  It didn’t help when one member of our group asked if it was coming towards us and our guide said, “Yes, everyone run.”  There were a few nervous chuckles.

Elephant Habitat
It's pretty amazing to see a herd of elephants happily walking through their natural habitat . . . towards you . . . trumpeting.
After we watched them eat, we continued walking the grounds and visited the newest member, Dok Mai, who had been born at the park seven months earlier.   While we were there she was being given a checkup and weighed.  She was so cute and little. 

Baby Dok Mai
Baby Dok Mai
We walked back and were fed a large buffet lunch.  The food was quite good, and everything was vegetarian.  There were many choices and plenty for all.  The park also rescues dogs, and when the food was being cleaned up after everyone was finished, the leftovers were given to the dogs, who also seemed to enjoy the food.

After the meal we were led to a small theater where we were shown another film, this time National Geographic’s Vanishing Giants, also featuring the park.  This film showed the darker side of the elephant tourism industry, as well as the ancient practices used to break elephants so they can be around humans safely.  The film has some sad and disturbing parts, but also shows the elephant tourism industry is actually an important part of preserving the species.  One of the dogs at the park has the show memorized and during every showing comes in at a part where Lek is walking with a dog and two baby elephants and barks and jumps at the screen.  It was hugely entertaining (and reminded me of my Yorkie, Henry, who barks at dogs and horses on television).

Video Time
This dog wanted to add a little extra entertainment
After the video we walked down to the river for the event we had all been waiting for, bathing the elephants!  We walked into the water with the elephants and were given buckets to use to throw water on them.  It was thrilling to be so close to them, and yet know that they are huge powerful beasts that could crush you.  We were also able to give them some treats, but this time, instead of them taking the food with their trunks, we put the fruit directly into their mouths.

Elephant Bathing
Bathing and Hand Feeding Elephant Time
We took another walk through the valley to another river and waited while a herd of elephants walked into the water for a non-human involved bath.  They had so much fun rolling around in the water, especially the little one. 

Bath Time
Bath Time = Splash Time
And then what does an elephant have to do after taking a bath and getting all clean?  Throw some dirt on itself, of course.  We followed the herd to a large dirt hole and watched them rub around in the dirt and throw dirt on their backs.  Then it was time for yet another snack.

Gossiping Ladies
Don't they look like a group of ladies who lunch enjoying a bit of gossip?
At the end of the day we had a chance to change our clothes and browse the gift shop before heading back to our hotel.  Many of the mahouts (elephant keepers) make wood carvings of elephants which are for sale.  I purchased one of them after learning that all of the money goes directly to the mahouts, many of which are migrant workers from Myanmar who send money back to their families.  I have my little wood elephants in my office at work to remind me of my beautiful day at Elephant Nature Park.

Elephant Nature Park offers a few different programs.  We chose the Learning Elephant program, which is the one day visit.  They also offer packages that include overnight stays from one night up to two weeks during which you are a volunteer and can assist with taking care of the elephants.  I suggest making reservations in advance, especially if you want to do one of the extended visits.

For spending a day at Elephant Nature Park, wear something that you don’t mind getting wet and dirty, as you will be walking into the river with the elephants. I wore a tank top, shorts, bathing suit, and Keens. I also brought a change of clothes and shoes to change into before getting back into the van for the return to the hotel. I also brought my waterproof camera so I didn’t have to worry about it when taking pictures in the river.

If you want to visit an elephant camp that includes riding elephants, Patara Elephant Farm is your best choice.  Patara also works towards the conservation of elephants and provides an Elephant Owner for a Day program.  Since their setup is one visitor to one elephant per day, openings sell out quickly, so reservations need to be made far in advance.

I used Lonely Planet Discover Thailand to plan our Thailand trip.

Travel the World: Spend a day at Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, a place that rescues and provides sanctuary to neglected, abused, and abandoned elephants.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.