One of the best places that we visited whilst in Thailand last month, was The Elephant Nature Park. Based to the north of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, it was founded by Even Lek in 1995, as a sanctuary for elephants rescued or retied from hard labour or abuse. The elephants are allowed to roam freely across the many acres of land and they choose their own companions and they live a very happy life eating, hanging out, bathing and socialising.
The park is open to day-visitors for a fee of around £50 (inc. travel and lunch) where you are taken to meet the elephants in small groups, feed and bathe them and generally watch them be themselves. It’s not that hard to do a little research online to find a place like this and that is exactly how I found them.
Animals as Attractions
I have been to quite a few animal parks and zoos worldwide and decided to stop putting my money to all of them a few years ago. The guilt of having given money places that maintains an animal’s suffering was too much for me. It’s my opinion and I appreciate that some places are helping animal rights and conservation, but I couldn’t bear to see bored animals in cages. This tiger in Berlin Zoo did it for me in 2007. She may have not been depressed but I couldn’t help wishing that she had better thing to do than stare at me through the bars of her cage.
It’s not hard for a tourist to wonder how elephants in particular seem happy to carry hundreds of visitors on their back every year on treks across Thailand, but the thrill of being that close to an elephant – unnaturally close in fact, probably means that it’s never really a concern.
Elephants painting pictures and playing football is also a popular draw for many tourists in Thailand, but surely the visitors must wonder *how* do they do that? How are such great animals trained that well? The answer is in a traditional process called phaajaanm which originated in the hillside communities. The ‘ceremony’ of phaajaanm is said to have originated from the belief that a tribe’s shaman can separate the spirit of an elephant from it’s body, leaving it under the control of it’s handlers, or mahouts, when in reality it’s actually just achieved through repeated torture of the elephant until it submits. Tools, such a hammers and bamboo sticks have nails driven into them to hit the elephants locked into small pens where they are unable to move. It’s no wonder that an elephant will eventually submit to a mahout after this process and so sadly begins it’s working life.
Choosing Where to See Elephants
Many people on TripAdvisor have written about their regret at having visited elephant parks where they could see them clearly chained or hit with tools to control them. Others have written about how they got hurt whilst riding elephants that were spooked or frightened into running off. It’s not hard to find these reviews (tip: looks for negative reviews first).
I would ask you, friendly reader, for one thing if you decide to visit Thailand and want to ride an elephant – please do your research first. It doesn’t take much in this internet age to understand what you are going to pay for and you’ll thank yourself if you choose to go somewhere where you can observe elephants rather than having to ride them. If you do go to one place, then you won’t regret The Elephant Nature Park.
The park looks after a total of 34 elephants who all have rather sad back stories. Many are physically disabled with broken back and hips or blind in one or both eyes (all from cruelty) and some still are conditioned to commands that they learned as young.
You start the day day helping to feed the elephants their morning “snack” or bananas, melons and pumpkin from a basket. Some are solitary and so need to approach the main building on their own (like Dani in the picture below) so you really get a chance to connect with the elephant who won’t think of frisking you if she thinks you’re hiding food.
The elephants eat up to 200kgs of food a day so feeding them is permanent job. The park’s many visitors help out, but there is also a group of live-in volunteers choosing to stay and help longer-term and we managed to chat with a few over the delicious vegetarian lunch that the Park put on for us.
In the afternoon we all headed down to the river to help bathe some of the elephants who had been out dusting their skin with mud earlier, which helps to act as sunscreen.
Perhaps the highlight was seeing a new edition to the Park – baby Navaan who was born to his mother Mae Sri Prae last year. She has damaged feet from a landmine explosion in Cambodia, so it’s nice to see something joyful for her. He was teething the day we visited, so he was giving his mahout quite the time, nudging him and hassling him with his head as his mouth obviously was irritating him. It didn’t stop him from being 100% cute as he did it though! You can see picture of the day he was born here.
I made a quick video about bathing time at The Elephant Nature Park which you can see below and hopefully you’ll fall in love with the residents as much as I did.
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Thanks for reading about The Elephant Nature Park. Have you been perhaps? Maybe you’ve visited another park in Thailand that you thought was amazing. Tell all in the comments below and thanks for reading!