Our Experience At Elephant Nature Park
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
Our time in Chiang Mai was coming to an end, but we still had one BIG thing to check off of our to do list - elephants!
I'm going to preface this post by touching on the importance of doing research before giving your money to any organization/business that involves animal interaction or entertainment. As a traveler and human being in general it should be a priority to consider the ethics behind your actions. Animal exploitation and the illegal animal trade is huge across the globe (including the US) and is largely driven by dollars. I encourage you to make an effort to support establishments that are genuinely putting your investment back into their residents and the community.
Our shuttle picked us up in front of our hostel at around 8:45 AM. In the drivers seat was a young Thai woman with an eye patch. She welcomed us aboard as we climbed in and began the hour and a half ride north to Elephant Nature Park, stopping and picking up other visitors along the way.
Upon arrival, we washed our hands (for the elephants' safety) and were led through what felt like a very large tree house. We made our way to a long table with about 12 tree stumps for chairs and were given a brief run down of the days activities with a short list of do's and don'ts.
The first objective on our itinerary, which we were more than happy to do, was to give the elephants their breakfast snacks.
From our table, we were led over to a platform and given a basket full of bananas and watermelon. Our instructions were to stay behind the red tape and hold our fruit out in our hands. The elephants would know what to do from there - and they did. A swarm of elephants came our way and started reaching out their trunks to accept our offerings. We noticed that some of the babies preferred watermelon and would skip over the bananas in our hands.
Even baby elephants can be picky eaters!
I was completely caught off guard by feeling an elephant trunk in action. It was noticeably strong and sturdy, but flexible enough to curl around a small set of bananas and pluck them out of my hand.
After snack time, we took a stroll and got our first peek at the sanctuary. There was so much open space! We stopped by an area where two old girls* were munching on bamboo under a shade structure. They didn't seem to be the least bit interested in or bothered by our presence. One of the ladies was sporting a bright pink cast on her foot. We learned that she had stepped on an IED in Myanmar that left her with burns and disfiguration.
(*All of the elephants we saw, aside from any babies, were females. Elephants have a matriarchal society so after reaching maturity the boys are forced out of the herd and will spend most of their life living in solidarity. In this case, they live on the opposite side of the river. )
We also noticed a lot of dogs around the sanctuary, many with missing limbs and/or wheelchair attachments. We learned that Elephant Nature Park is also home to The Dog Project, which houses and re-homes hundreds of dogs who were either injured on the streets, surrendered from puppy mills, or rescued from the dog trade.
We continued our tour and saw more elephants, both up close and off in the distance. We stopped to give one girl a scratch while our guide taught us about about the repercussions of the logging industry ban and cruel practices involved in animal tourism.
Midway through our day, we all headed back to the tree house where lunch was provided. An all vegetarian spread of roasted veggies, assorted grains, fruits, greens, etc had been laid out for us – buffet style. It was an absolute feast and much more than I expected.
After refueling and cooling down, we made our way down to the river.
During our research, we learned that elephants have to be trained to not move around too much for bathing experiences to prevent squashing any patrons. This can be stressful for the elephants and takes the enjoyment out of their bathing time. The ethics of bathing with elephants still seems to be a bit mixed, but we were impressed to see that it is a service that Elephant Nature Park no longer offers.
Instead, we watched from the sidelines while one big girl took a dip with her caretaker (also called a mahout). Something about seeing these two operating in conjunction brought me a strong sense of peace and gratitude.
However, that moment of serenity was broken by an eruption of laughter.
On our ride to the park our guide mentioned that the babies can be very naughty. One of the littlest boys quickly set out to prove her right by running all over the place - his mahout in tow. His keeper would herd him in one direction and he’d mischievously take off in another. He was having a great time!
Suddenly, there was a spark of curiosity from within our group and the baby came gallivanting towards us. It was cute, but also nerve wracking to realize a playful baby more than five times your size is headed your way.
Once this little guy had been shooed away, he promptly climbed to the top of a dirt mound and sat on another elephant who was relaxing in the sun. Naughty indeed.
As we rounded out the day we met another baby,who wasn't ready to be introduced to the group yet. It's unclear what happened to his mother, but fortunately, many female elephants will step up to care for orphaned babies. This little one and his nanny will spend some time isolated in order to bond before being introduced to the herd.
While you won’t see any grandeur photos of us on the backs of elephants or splashing with them in a river, our time at Elephant Nature Park was even better than we expected. We had what we feel like was a respectable amount of interaction met with plenty of observation and education opportunity.
We feel confident in our decision to visit Elephant Nature Park over other sanctuaries and would HIGHLY recommend spending your bahts here. If you have any further questions about our experience, don't hesitate to reach out!