Janey, my better half, loves elephants. She tells me this on a pretty much daily basis. Thus, when I was planning our three week December trip around Laos and Thailand, the constant refrain that I heard was “I don’t care where we go as long as we see some elephants.” Laos, our first port of call, has the wonderfully evocative, but also extremely inaccurate, nickname of the land of a million elephants. In our entire eight days there we didn’t manage to see a single one. Therefore, by the time we crossed the Thai border and arrived in Chiang Mai, Janey was starting to get a little nervous that our trip might be depressingly free of pachyderms. She needn’t have worried. Chiang Mai has a plethora of options available for tourists to meet and interact with elephants. The challenge is choosing the right one.
Most companies offer a choice between working elephant shows and elephant riding. Watching elephants move logs around that would then be put back in the same place the next day never seemed that attractive, and after careful research Janey concluded that she didn’t want to ride the elephants either. The reason for this is that in some cases the elephants are grotesquely mistreated by the mahouts to ensure their acquiescence. As we didn’t want to endorse any potential mistreatment this left one other option. The Elephant Nature Park, which is situated about 60km north of Chiang Mai, is a sanctuary for elephants that have been rescued from a variety of dire situations. It’s a lot more expensive than other options at 2500 Baht and normally requires an advanced reservation, but luckily we were able to book at short notice, due to a cancellation.
On the journey to the park, we watched a short film that told the story of the park’s formation by a Thai lady named Lek Chailert. She set up the park in 1994, as a refuge for elephants that had fallen into misfortune due to Thailand’s ban on working elephants in 1989. When it opened the park had just three elephants. Now it is home to over seventy, which makes feeding and caring for them an extremely expensive operation. It was for this reason that the park first opened its doors to tourists. Upon arrival, we were taken to an elevated platform where buckets of watermelon and pumpkin had been placed in preparation for feeding time. We didn’t have to wait too long until the first batch of elephants arrived and we were allowed the wonderful experience of feeding these great beasts. I don’t think it would actually be humanly possible to not enjoy this. Be prepared for your arms to be liberally covered in slobber though!
After feeding time, our excellent guide Andy, took our group for a walk around the park and regaled us with background information about some of the elephants. Sadly, many of these stories were quite depressing. One had been blinded by a vicious mahouts, another had lost half a paw to a landmine. This added a touch of sobriety to what was an otherwise uplifting experience. After an excellent buffet lunch, we enjoyed what is the highlight for the majority of visitors; elephant bath time. For a few short minutes we were allowed to go in the river and douse the appreciative elephants with water. As it was winter, this was quite a brief activity as the elephants didn’t need much cooling down. Janey didn’t partake but instead appeared to be deep in conversation with an elderly female elephant, who had obviously decided that the water was a bit too cold for her that day.
The final activity of the day was the most interactive. A mass feeding time, this time not from a platform, but down on the ground amongst the elephants. It also featured the arrival of the park’s star attraction; a four month old baby that was born in the park. This resulted in a bit of a scrum for photos but looking at these, can you really blame us?! All too soon, the day was over and we had to return to Chiang Mai. All the people on our minibus agreed that it had been worth every single Baht. I’ll leave the final word to Janey though. When I asked her if it had lived up to her expectations her response was “Yes, I loved every minute, I really love them and I think they like me too.” Quite so.
As well as day visits the Elephant Nature Park also has volunteer opportunities. You can find out more at http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/.