My sister, Lilly, has a serious love of elephants. She went to school at the University of Alabama, whose mascot is an elephant. She adopted a baby elephant at an elephant orphanage in Nairobi. She collects elephant figurines from every country she visits. She just plain loves them. So, of course, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to have an up-close interaction with them while we were in Thailand together!
Elephant tourism is a booming business in Thailand. Unfortunately, most of it involves terrible treatment of the elephants. One popular tourist activity is riding elephants. We already knew that we were not interested in that at all. Typically, they put these huge heavy seats on top of the elephant’s back, and the elephants work 12-hour days carrying person after person. It’s a sad life for the elephants, and over time it can cause debilitating injury to their backs.
Other types of elephant tourism include various types of elephant performances, like elephants painting or performing tricks. Something to keep in mind is that elephants, while they are very smart, are wild animals. That means that if you see an elephant that’s tame enough to give people rides or perform tricks, it has been “broken.” The methods use to break elephants are heartbreaking and typically involve separating a baby from its mother and then starving and beating it over the course of many days. Throughout the elephant’s life, the trainers use metal hooks as a way to continue to control them. (Click here for more information.)
We didn’t want to participate in or encourage this industry in any way. That’s why we decided to book an experience through Elephant Nature Park. All the elephants at the park have been rescued from logging camps or tourist shows. Most of them are older or disabled. These elephants are no longer of use to their owners, and the owners don’t want to pay to feed them anymore.
At Elephant Nature Park, the elephants are free to roam around the giant property, and they are left to form their own family and social groups as they would in the wild. They are not controlled by hooks or any other type of abuse. They pretty much get to do what they want, and when we did want them to go to a particular place (for example, to the river so we could play with them in the water), we just bribed them with some bananas.
We had a wonderful experience with Elephant Nature Park and would highly recommend it to others. (As a side note, ENP is very popular so be sure to book early. We waited until we were already in Chiang Mai, and their least expensive package was totally full for the rest of our time there. We had to go with a more expensive package instead, but it was worth it to feel confident that we weren’t giving money to an organization that abuses elephants.) Here’s an overview of our day with the elephants:
ENP sends a van to pick you up at your hotel or other accommodation and drives you about 1.5 hours outside of Chiang Mai to the park. On the way, they play you two videos. One is a heart wrenching video detailing the types of abuse that elephant performers often face and explaining how a baby elephant is “broken” so that it can be used in tourist shows. It had me in tears. The second video provides some dos and don’t’s for interacting with the elephants (e.g., approach them from the front; don’t’ stand behind them or to the side where they can’t see you).
When we arrived at the property, our first activity was feeding the elephants. I guess they want you to get used to the elephants before you get too close to them because this part is done from inside a feeding hut while the elephants stand outside and reach in with their trunks. The elephants know all too well what happens in this hut because the second we walked in, they raced over and started making a racket demanding the watermelon we were about to feed them.
We had a group of about 10 people, and there were 4 elephants. Matthew, Lilly, and I spent most of the day with one elephant, an older female named Happy. The elephants love the watermelon, and you pretty much can’t feed them fast enough.
After we were done with the watermelon, it was time for a walk with the elephants. We were each given a bag full of bananas and allowed to go out and interact with the elephants. The interaction mainly involved feeding because that’s what they were focused on. As soon as they finished one banana, they were reaching for another. And if you didn’t have one ready they would try to dig into your bag with their trunks. Those trunks are very strong too! They could nearly knock you over without meaning to.
The elephants took some time to play in the mud, and then we followed them across a small river. (Your pants just get completely soaked. No getting around it. We knew this ahead of time, so Matthew actually wore his swim trunks while Lilly and I wore our ugly hiking pants that we don’t really care about getting dirty.)
After walking for maybe 20 minutes, feeding the elephants bananas the whole way, we arrived at our lunch spot. The elephants were left to graze nearby while we went into a little pavilion to have lunch. I wish I had taken a picture of the spread because it was awesome. Spring rolls, rice, noodles, vegetable curries, fruit, and more! So good.
After lunch we walked with the elephants down to the river for bathtime. The elephants stand there eating from a giant basket of watermelon, and you help bathe them. This just involves scooping up buckets of water and splashing the elephants. Again, you get really wet, but it’s fun.
ENP has many different packages at various prices, and the one we chose included rafting on the river. So after splash time with the elephants, we hopped in the van to go further upstream for our rafting expedition. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we really enjoyed it. It wasn’t anything too scary, but there were a few bigger rapids that were fun to go over. And of course we got even more soaked than we already were.
The rafting trip ends back at ENP. We had the opportunity to change into dry clothes, and they gave us a snack and some tea. Before we left for the day, there was one more order of business. We had to go meet the little baby elephant that had been born at the park only a few months before!
The elephants aren’t normally kept in an enclosure, but when they’re very little, babies are in danger of being injured or killed by other elephants in the herd. In order to keep the baby safe, ENP was temporarily keeping him in an enclosed area with his mother, his older sister, and a nanny elephant that helps the mother care for him.
He was incredibly adorable! He would gallop around the enclosure in the cutest way. He also tried to imitate his mother and sister who were breaking tree branches so they could strip the bark for eating. He had to work really hard, but he finally succeeded, and it was precious!
We spent a few minutes watching the adorable antics of the baby elephant, and then it was time to hop back on the bus and return to Chiang Mai.
It been a few months, but our day at ENP is still one of the highlights of our entire trip! Having the opportunity to hug and kiss and play with elephants was fun and completely awe-inspiring. If you’re ever in Thailand, don’t miss it!