This story originally appeared as a guest post on Route Bliss.
The main attraction that drew me to Chiang Mai on my solo trip to SouthEast Asia was the Elephant Nature Park. A friend had visited the prior year, and raved about it. Once I became more active in the travel blogging community, this place was mentioned constantly! Visiting Elephant Nature Park became the starting point of my trip.
Many people associate Thailand with elephant rides. In fact, most people, upon hearing that I was visiting Thailand, wanted to tell me the best place to ride an elephant. It’s sad that this practice still happens, and is supported by otherwise lovely people who just don’t know any better! (At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe, even though it doesn’t take much research to know how awful it is) Just after I visited Angkor Wat, an elderly elephant collapsed from the heat. I could barely carry my camera bag in that heat, so I can’t even imagine the suffering of this poor animal.
If you look closely, you’ll see a metal hook in the mahout’s hand – this is used to harm the elephant and keep them in line.
In order to be domesticated, elephants are put through a horrible process called Phajaan, or “the crush.” Baby elephants are tied up and tortured until their spirit is broken. There is ample documentation on the web, including horrific pictures, which I won’t post here. Suffice it to say it’s an awful process that should be stopped. The best and easiest way to do this is not to spend your tourist dollars on elephant riding or elephant entertainment! You can read more about Phajaan here and here.
Elephant Nature Park offers many options for visitors to interact with rescued elephants. There is rustic lodging on-site and volunteer programs lasting as long as a week. For my visit, I chose the Pamper a Pachyderm single day visit. For about $200 USD, we spent a full day with 4 lucky elephants who no longer have to work for a living, including “Happy” who is 75 years old!
The day started with a van retrieving each of us from Chiang Mai and about an hour ride out to the park. Along the way, we were shown videos of the Phajaan process, and the importance of the work done by ENP. We also received brief instructions on how to interact with the elephants. (Hint: Human with food=Happy Elephant!)
We first met our 3 ladies and their mahouts at a hut where we stored our belongings and received our banana bags and water bottles. We paired up and began to feed them watermelon and cucumbers.
After this, we were deemed ready for closer interaction and headed off to a nearby field where the banana feeding began. These girls aren’t shy! They know what you’ve got and where you keep it and if you let your guard down, you’re liable to feel a slimy wet trunk probing and prodding your bag, looking for bananas.
We had a long leisurely walk over the river and through the woods, stopping several times for banana snacks, and also gave the elephants some play time to cool off with mud, which they enjoyed immensely!
Mid-way through the day, we arrived at a hut in the woods, where a simple vegetarian lunch was served and the elephants and mahouts went off for their own break from us tourists. After lunch, it was time to amble back along the river to the highlight of the day, which was bathing the elephants in the water!
The “Pamper a Pachyderm” package normally includes white-water rafting at the end of the day, but Thailand was experiencing a drought when I visited, so rafting was not possible. Instead, we had more time with the elephants. After bathing them, it was time to part ways. The humans headed back to the main buildings, visiting other elephant groups along the way. We had some time to enjoy snacks and refreshments purchased on-site, as well as visit the gift shop before jumping in the van for the ride back to Chiang Mai.
If you are an animal lover like me, you will love following Elephant Nature Park on Facebook – they post daily photos, videos and stories showing just how special these animals are. A new baby was born in May 2016, and there are lots of adorable videos as he learns how to be an elephant. I highly recommend a visit to Elephant Nature Park – they also have projects in Cambodia and soon in Phuket! Reservations should be made in advance as it’s quite a popular place!