They say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is, you never forget an elephant. – Bill Murray
During our visit to Chiang Mai, one thing was certain, we were absolutely spending time with elephants! I imagined myself sitting on top of an elephant and riding through the jungle. While researching, I came across Elephant Nature Park after watching a video about elephant tourism in Asia. I was so sad after watching the video and I realized that riding elephants was a form of mistreatment and that was something I did not want to be associated with. I had always pictured myself interacting with the elephants in a positive way and quickly decided that in order for me to do this I would have to find an ethical sanctuary, like ENP. Unfortunately, so few people are unaware of the dark side of elephant tourism. I was not aware of any of these issues until I started planning my trip. After much research, I found that there are only a handful of them and I believe Elephant Nature Park is one of the best!
In this post, I’m going to share my experience at Elephant Nature Park along with some helpful information for those of you trying to plan an interactive experience with these gentle giants. I hope that this post will not only educate you on elephant mistreatment, but help you in choosing an ethical sanctuary.
MANY OF US DON’T REALIZE
These beautiful giants have known great pain and their numbers on the continent continue to dwindle. The population is declining at a rapid rate due to loss of habitat.
Despite their size, elephants have inadequate backs to be ridden upon. Their spines are not made to support the weight of humans. I know it’s hard to believe given their size, but it’s the truth. The wood boxes to carry people are very heavy and painful for them and the process to domesticate them for the riding purposes or to cater to the needs of humans is SO cruel. In order to ”break” them, they are cruelly separated at a very young age from their mothers, beaten with sticks and bull hooks and left without food and sleep deprived. The process is called Phajaan, or “the crush”.
Every single trick elephants are made to do, such as painting pictures or standing on their hind legs, conceals hours of pain the animal had to go through to perform it.
HOW YOU CAN MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE
This industry thrives because foreign visitors want to ride elephants or watch them do tricks, paying good money to do so. It’s our demand for elephant rides and circus acts that lead to more baby elephants getting captured from their mothers, being tortured, and sold off to entertain us.
Do your research and that will help you decide what is right. When making your decision of where to visit, choose a place that lets elephants be elephants. Riding is NOT necessary, you can have the time of your life and not feel guilty about it.
I know many friends who have ridden elephants in Thailand. I understand why people do it. I almost did it myself.
Most people who participate in elephant tourism in Thailand are completely unaware of the truth behind it all.
Be the change and make a responsible choice!
ABOUT ELEPHANT NATURE PARK
Conservation is the way forward with nature reserves such as Elephant Nature Park, which provides protection and shelter for these beautiful creatures. ENP was founded by, Lek Chailert, who has devoted her life to rescuing and fighting for the rights and welfare of the Asian elephants in Thailand. Since many elephants have been abused and are unable to return to the wild, ENP accommodates them and creates a safe space away from any pain. ENP is a place of rehabilitation where the rescued elephants can live out their years being cared for and surrounded by endless love. These distressed elephants can live their lives free from abuse and are able to roam freely with other elephants, sometimes for the first time in their lives.
The culture of this sanctuary is to provide a home for endangered animals, work towards restoration of the rain forest through a tree planting program, educate visitors on these endangered species. The park provides day trips and week-long volunteer opportunities that allow tourists to interact with and learn about elephants in a responsible way. As a registered Thai nonprofit foundation, the money you pay to volunteer goes towards feeding and caring for the elephants, purchasing additional elephants from their abusive owners, and expanding the size of the sanctuary itself.
There is NO RIDING, NO TRICKS being performed and NO PAINTINGS. PURE FREEDOM!
SUNSHINE FOR ELEPHANTS
We decided to participate in the Sunshine for Elephants Program. Located in a different village to the North of Chiang Mai, this nearby elephant camp previously provided elephant riding and trekking, however has now agreed to take a new approach to animal conservation and allow their elephants to live in a more natural environment, rather than being ridden every day. ENP took us along on this wonderful experience for the day. This particular program also included a visit to Elephant Nature Park. We booked our visit about 2 months in advance, which I recommend you also do. ENP is a very popular sanctuary and their programs fill up quickly.
OUR JOURNEY TO THE PARK
We were picked up promptly from our hotel lobby at 8:00 AM. Along the way we picked up several others who also signed up for the tour, until there was about ten of us in the van. On the commute, they showed us a documentary film about the Elephant Nature Park and the efforts they do to encourage ecotourism. It also included some safety tips and facts about the elephants too! We traveled through the countryside for about an hour or so before reaching our destination.
On arrival to our location, we were greeted by our guide and taken to an area where there was an enormous table filled with fruit. We patiently waited as the elephants were guided over the path and near the table. We were so excited to finally meet the elephants!
There were three elephants, which we began feeding them all huge amounts of watermelon and squash.
We fed them until the entire table was completely empty! Surprisingly, they were still hungry after eating all that food!
After feeding the elephants, we were given a bag of bananas to carry along with us up into the mountains. We walked with the elephants, which took a little over an hour, but could take any length of time as your schedule depends entirely on the elephants, which we loved. Although we had food, the elephants roamed freely and explored as we trekked. You could sense their excitement at times, as they would reach their trunks over your shoulder trying to steal bananas from your bag.
As we walked with the elephants through the dense mountain forests, it was truly amazing to witness their natural behaviors. At times the elephants would start throwing dirt everywhere. Apparently, the elephants do this in order to protect themselves from the mosquitoes and bugs.
After the elephants played and roamed, our guide led us over a river bank and to an area for a picnic lunch in the forest. While the elephants roamed, we were prepared a beautiful lunch. We were served a variety of Thai cuisine foods including papaya salad, rice, fruit and vegetables. Preparing the salad was an interactive experience were we helped muddle and mix ingredients before serving ourselves.
As we finished up our lunch, the elephants became hungry again. Did you know that elephants eat 10% of their body weight a day? Crazy! We gathered more bananas, smashing them in a bowl with oats and water, rolling them into balls and feeding them to the elephants. They absolutely loved these banana oat balls and we couldn’t make them fast enough.
It was then time to continue on our way through the hills and over to the river, where we would observe the elephants bathe.
The water is about chest deep, however the elephants fully submerge themselves by lying side ways at times. They use their trunks to spray water on their backs. The mahouts also enter the water and help them by splashing buckets of water on them.
On this particular day it was slightly chilly, so only one person from our group actually entered the water. I was glad I didn’t enter the water after we all observed the elephants going numero dos! The gentlemen who entered the water, quickly jumped out! Haha! We all continued watching the elephants play in the water. Once they were ready to get out, they simply climbed up the river bank and started walking back towards the sanctuary.
Unfortunately, our time was up with these beauties. The experience was beyond amazing. We were able to interact with the elephants in a way I never imagined. From feeding them out of our own hands, being able to pet them and walk alongside them gave me an experience that was truly unique. Although our day with these elephants was coming to end, we still had several more to meet. It was hard to say farewell, but we had to head back to the van where we were transported to Elephant Nature Park.
ELEPHANT NATURE PARK
Arriving to the park we were so excited to see more elephants and learn about their personal stories. The grounds were completely open, green and free. As we walked through, we noticed many elephants roaming the grounds. We were able to get close enough to take photos, however not close enough to pet them. These elephants had already been “healed”, although evidence of their abuse and history are visible. You could see irregular rims of ears resulting from having been torn by hooks during punishment and foot damage from landmines.
Witnessing first hand the contentment in their eyes, sharing their home, even just for a day, was an unforgettable experience and one that we will always treasure. We left ENP inspired, full of love for these beautiful elephants and feeling incredibly protective of them. They deserve respect, safety, happiness and unending love for the rest of their lives.
Seeing the joy in some of these elephants eyes warmed my heart. It’s truly amazing to know that there are people out there willing to save and protect these animals. This is just one of the reasons why we chose Elephant Nature Park over any other sanctuary. I hope that my experience has inspired you to also visit ENP!
Would you visit Elephant Nature Park?
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