Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai, Thailand

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, an elephant rescue located in the hills outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. A friend had visited the prior year, and raved about it. Once I became more active in the travel blogging community, I saw this elephant rescue mentioned very frequently! Visiting Elephant Nature Park became the starting point of my trip.

Many people associate Thailand with elephant rides. In fact, several 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.

Looks like a nice pic, but if you look closely you can see the iron hook the mahout carries to keep the elephant in line.  An elephant died here from heat exhaustion not long after this :(  Elephant riding is a horrible practice.

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! (Read more: The Truth Behind Riding Elephants)

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!

Resting in the shade

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! Visitor slots fill quickly, so make your reservation as early as possible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone wait too long, and then ask around for other ethical alternatives. Many places claim to be a sanctuary, but please do your research as they aren’t all as they seem. Elephant Nature Park is well known as the standard-bearer for Thailand elephant rescue.

Riding elephants in Thailand is BAD! Supporting @ElephantNatureP is AMAZING! Put it on your 2018 vacation plans! Click To Tweet


Volunteer Vacation: Saguaro National Park

I first visited the state of Arizona on a girl’s trip in the fall of 2008.  I was a mountain girl, in love with Colorado, and hadn’t spent much time in the desert. Much to my surprise, I fell in love!  As soon as I got home, I started researching my next visit, and I decided on Saguaro National Park.  I signed up for a Sierra Club service trip, which involved a week of trail maintenance in Saguaro Park Tucson.  For around $500, Sierra Club provides camping, meals and transportation to the job site each day.  Volunteers provide their own camping equipment, transportation to the campground, and muscle power for the tasks at hand!

Saguaro Camping

This trip would officially be the longest camping trip I’d ever done.  Up to this point, camping had consisted of one or two nights over a weekend.  This time, I’d be in a tent for the whole week at the Gilbert Ray campground, which is not in Saguaro National Park. Sierra Club is pretty experienced at running these trips, so everything was well organized. We had two trip leaders plus a camp cook, who provided breakfast, sack lunches and dinner, often made with organic, local ingredients.

We all met at the campground on a Sunday and had the whole day free – several of us decided to explore the nearby Sonoran Desert Museum. This is a beautiful outdoor museum showcasing the local flora and fauna. My favorite was the tiny little hummingbird nest! At 34, I was the youngest person on the trip by decades, so there were lots of birders and gardeners in the group.

Hummingbird Nest

The week was split between two work sites – one in Saguaro National Park, and the other on county land. It was hard work, and you had to cover up in long pants and sleeves to keep from getting stabbed by the cactus, not to mention lugging our tools in and out from the trailhead each day! We had frequent rest breaks to drink water and find shade. Even in early March, it was pretty hot by mid-day.

Saguaro National Park Trail Maintenance

In the middle of the week, we had a free day to spend as we wished and several of us chose to go hiking at Mt Wilson. We also had some guest speakers and presentations in the evenings, so it was a really well rounded trip, not all hard work!

I have to say, this was a fun experience, and this mountain girl definitely fell in love with the desert! Falling asleep each night to the sound of coyotes was an awesome experience. I definitely hope to return to the Tucson area someday, and would absolutely consider another Sierra Club service trip. Check out the list of offerings – there is quite a wide variety of trips, from restoring historical sites in Philadelphia to wildlife encounters in Hawaii.

Saguaro National Park

For more photos, click here!


Saguaro Park Tucson