Travelling in Thailand and meeting elephants go hand in hand. From the moment you arrive in Bangkok you will see adverts for different elephant parks throughout the country. It seems like these elephants are ready to take tourists for a walk at a moments notice, but a quick search shows that there is a massive debate about whether riding these majestic wild animals is ethical. I witnessed a pretty unhappy elephant in Koh Phangnan. It was tied up and rocking from side to side, a clear sign of distress.
Companies such as Intrepid have stopped all elephant riding on their trips and there are plenty of blogs out there about why having humans on your back is not an elephant’s number one hobby. Fortunately for Pinion and I a couple of friends had mentioned the Elephant Nature Park situated 60km out of Chiang Mai. This park was set up by a lady called Lek, and it focuses on being a sanctuary to elephants and other animals.
We didn’t have the time or the money to volunteer for a week so opted for the 1 day visit, at close to £50 it wasn’t cheap but we did have a fantastic day. You get picked up directly from your hotel and are whisked away towards the park. During the ride they play a video, bizarrely featuring Lou from Neighbours, and it gives you a brief introduction to the principles of the park and some of the stories behind the elephants that now call it home.
Once you arrive you get to feed the elephants from the centre’s main area. The elephants place their searching trunks through the barriers and then you give them fruit from a massive basket. I think elephants consume hundreds of kilos of food each day (bit like me at a buffet) and they are happy to scoff down all the fruit.
Pinion at feeding time:
Elephant waiting for food:
After meeting a few of the elephants we set off with our guide walking around the park, the mahouts who look after the elephants let you approach and pose for photos. These mahouts don’t use the traditional sticks to control the elephants but instead use a lot of nice words and bribery with food!
Bribing these guys is so easy:
There was an enormous vegetarian buffet for lunch, with pretty much every carb you’ve ever dreamed of on offer. Some people were definitely having a competition with the elephants over who can eat the most. You get plenty of free time at the park, you can wander around the walk way and watch the elephants grazing in the distance with a beer, or you can go off and visit some of the other animals in the park. There are over 400 dogs living there, many of whom were rescued during the Bangkok floods of 2011. We spent most of our time with the cats, Pinion is a fan after all!
Bath time was a bit chaotic but lots of fun, the mahouts covered the elephants in an extra helping of mud and then we tried to clean it off by throwing buckets of water on them. I have no idea if the elephants like this or not, they got a pretty large basket of fruit to eat whilst it happened so they probably didn’t really care!
After lunch we had some more wandering around the grounds and also got to meet a baby elephant. Apparently baby elephants shouldn’t be touched, as this can cause rejection by it’s family. Despite everyone being told this some people still felt the need to reach out. This was the only time that we felt the day was badly organised. Basically the 50 or so tourists that were visiting were all waiting to be close to the baby elephant. Our guide didn’t seem to have a clue but the baby elephant seemed to have a bit of fun running around.
When we got closer than expected:
After all the commotion with the baby we followed our guide off through the park to visit some other elephants having their afternoon snacks. The clouds started rolling in and it made for some nice photos:
We got to meet one of the elephants who adopted a blinded elephant. This elephant came to the park after being blinded after hurting her mahout and refusing to work, apparently she was so upset after the loss of her baby in an accident that she wouldn’t cooperate any more. This other elephant took her under her wing and made sure that she is happy at the park :-).
Here is a recent news article somewhat proving that riding elephants isn’t a great idea!