You just can’t visit Chiang Mai without seeing and meeting elephants up close. Now, we try to be responsible travellers, so didn’t want to be a part of shows and parks where they make elephants do things that elephants wouldn’t normally do. We didn’t want to ride them, see them paint or play football. After some online research, we ended up at the Elephant Nature Park, a responsible alternative to Tiger Kingdom and the like.
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center, about an hour away of the Chiang Mai old town. Lek and her team save elephants from their horrible lives as slaves: logging, doing tricks to entertain humans, and even begging on the streets. Since the start in the 1990’s, the herd has grown and consists today of 66 elephants (only 6 males) living a peaceful life in the green valley called Elephant Nature Park.
We did a single day visit to Elephant Nature Park, which cost us ฿2,500 per person. (There are lots of other possibilities to visit and even volunteer, as you can see on their website.) Transport, lunch, and a day close to the elephants is included in this price. If it seems expensive, just think you are helping the Elephant Nature Park rescuing abused elephants and giving them a happy, normal, just-be-elephants life. You should know, the only way to rescue elephants is to buy them from their abusing owner. In Thailand, the law stipulates that elephants are the sole property of their owners.
Our day at Elephant Nature Park
We got picked up at our hotel at about 8h40 by a minibus that would take us to Elephant Nature Park. (Read about our stay at The Bliss here.) We had to pick up one more couple for our group (10 people) to be complete. Goy, our guide, welcomed us and gave some information about Lek (the founder) and her elephant sanctuary. The next 30 minutes of the ride we watched two movies. The first one informing us about the rules and safety instructions for a nice visit to Elephant Nature Park. The second one being a short documentary about the life of elephants in the park and in the wild.
At about 9h45 we arrived at the Elephant Nature Park. We had just passed some elephants carrying tourists around. There was a baby elephant chained to his mother with them. So sad! But now we were with happy elephants and our first task was to feed them. Or at least feed one of them: a 25 year old girl called Popcorn. Did you know they live about as long as humans? We fed her watermelon, pumpkin and zucchini. Their trunks are so fascinating! Elephants eat almost all day long, but when the basket was empty, she left.
Time to take a walk through the beautiful park: a green valley with a river, surrounded by mountains. We went to our friend Popcorn for some pictures and petting. We were stroking her, when Goy laughingly said she couldn’t feel that through her 1 inch thick skin. We had to slap Popcorn if we wanted her to feel it. It’s really cool that we could be so close to the elephants! Wild elephants wouldn’t allow it of course, but these rescued elephants are used to having people around.
We also met Me (= mother) Thai, the 80 year old grandma, and Yindee, a 2 year old baby elephant. Me Thai is one of the oldest elephants in Elephant Nature Park. She gets fed steamed pumpkin, as it’s easier to digest. Yindee’s birthmother is not around anymore, so Pornsawan takes care of her now. Pornsawan came to the park after stepping on a land mine, just like many other elephants.
The few male elephants living in the Elephant Nature Park are kept separately for two reasons. First of all they don’t want babies to be born in captivity, second of all is the fact that males are more aggressive than females, so unsafe for visitors. There are different kinds of Asian elephants and with only one of them the males grow tusks. The one male in the park that has tusks has a beautiful pair of them.
From seeing all those elephants eating, we got hungry too. So we headed back to what they call “the platform”. Every day at 12h there’s a lunch buffet for all the visitors and volunteers in the park. All dishes are vegetarian. If you see something that looks like chicken or pork, it’s made of soy. There’s free cold drinking water, tea and coffee. If you want a soda or some snacks you can buy them at the bar. Of course there’s a souvenir shop as well, where you can buy all kinds of stuff to remember your visit by.
After lunch it was time to bathe the elephants. We waited by the river for the elephants and their mahouts (= personal caretakers) to arrive. We all got a bucket and went into the river to splash the elephants with water. You don’t have to bring your bathing suit, the water just came above our ankles. Not sure what the elephants thought of this, but we had fun!
I thought it was a bit of a strange order of business, but after the bathing they were supposed to take a mud bath. Apparently elephants only sweat at their toenails, so they use mud to cool down. And as a natural sunscreen! Guess they weren’t feeling hot, because none of them were eager to go in. They tried to lure them with food, but it didn’t really work. If they’re not feeling like it, they don’t force them, so no funny “show” for us like there apparently was the day before.
We walked around the park some more, petting and feeding the elephants. At about 14h30 we were back at “the platform” for a snack and some iced tea. We left for our hotel about half an hour later. Unfortunately our day at Elephant Nature Park was cut one hour short, to beat the traffic jams and redirections for the “Bike for dad” event. Half a million cyclists all over the country joined in the celebration of the King’s 88th birthday, as well as to show loyalty toward the monarchy. Unfortunately their beloved king died less than a year after his 88th birthday, starting a year-long period of mourning.
What we thought about Elephant Nature Park
We had a great time at Elephant Nature Park and recommend you all to visit it as well! It’s a beautiful park with nice people, where they let the elephants just be elephants. You don’t have to bring anything, except for the usual sunscreen and mosquito spray, maybe some slippers to go into the river.
You can’t leave Chiang Mai without a picture of yourself with an elephant, but be a responsible traveller and let it be one where you’re next to a happy elephant at Elephant Nature Park instead of on top of a sad one somewhere else.
Looking for more things to do in Chiang Mai? Check out this post.
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