Meeting elephants should be a part of everyone’s trip to northern Thailand. Numbers of these majestic giants are dwindling at an alarming rate and it’s a privilege to have the chance to get close to them. The first question you have to ask yourself when visiting Chiang Mai is ‘Is riding elephants ok?’ If you decide the answer is ‘no’ (hint: well done!), your alternative is to spend a day or more at the Elephant Nature Park.
WHAT IS THE ELEPHANT NATURE PARK?
The Elephant Nature Park was established in the 1990s with the aim of providing a sanctuary for rescued elephants. Today, it houses 75 elephants and many dogs too, and uses visitor admission fees to fund their upkeep.
There are various visitor options, including day trips, overnight stays and longer-term volunteer opportunities. The most affordable is the basic single-day visit, which costs 2500 baht.
It takes just over an hour to get to the park, which is located in a valley 60km outside Chiang Mai.
In addition to caring for endangered species, the Elephant Nature Park is involved with rainforest restoration, cultural preservation and visitor education.
WHAT DOES A SINGLE DAY VISIT INVOLVE?
Elephant Nature Park staff will pick you up from your accommodation at around 8 am and drive you to the park. On the journey there, a brief video narrated by ‘Lou Carpenter’ from Neighbours will give you information on safety and respect. They also show a documentary which goes into some detail about the background of the elephants that have been rescued. These include those that were involved in illegal logging on the border with Burma and those that had been mistreated while working as street entertainment or in the elephant trekking industry.
Once at the park, there are a range of activities, from feeding the elephants to helping to bathe them. You can also walk around in small groups with your guide and observe the small herds enjoying the freedom to roam as they please. A massive buffet vegetarian lunch is provided, and you can purchase additional drinks, snacks and souvenirs from their gift shop.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO SUPPORT THIS CAUSE?
As you walk through acres of open grassland surrounded by misty mountainous jungle, your guide will tell you the stories behind the elephants you encounter. Many are marked with the scars of abusive bull hook use; one was blinded purposefully in both eyes by its mahout because it refused to work after miscarrying its baby; some have hugely swollen feet and are limping because they’ve been the victims of land mine explosions; and there was one case of an elephant being forced into methamphetamine addiction.
In addition to the physical trauma these animals have endured, many of them are psychologically damaged. ‘Phajaan’ is a popular method of breaking an elephant’s spirit until it resigns itself to becoming tamed and domesticated. Often, they’re placed in a cage and tied up with ropes. Many are also subjected to negative reinforcement such as nails or sticks being poked into their ears and feet, beatings with chains or bull hooks, or sleep, food and water deprivation.
When you learn about all of the hardships these animals have faced, you’ll begin to wonder why anyone would opt for any kind of encounter over contributing to the funds of a sanctuary that restores hope for the future of these beautiful creatures.
🐘 While you might be ok booking this tour from your accommodation in Chiang Mai, they do sometimes get booked up a week or two in advance. If you know which day you’ll be free, pay your deposit online and book yourself in with plenty of time to spare. It couldn’t be easier. You can always email to update your accommodation details later.
🐘 Follow the safety advice of the guides at the Elephant Nature Park. Standing behind elephants or outside their peripheral vision gets them spooked and they could harm you or themselves.
🐘 The amount of information you pick up will depend on luck of the draw when it comes to your guide. While it’s great that the park employs local people to help support the community, some of the newer guides don’t speak very clear English or know all of the facts. If you want to find out more, ask which guide has the most knowledge and go and have a chat over lunch.
🐘 Don’t expect there to be no other people around. You’ll probably be in a group of 12 and there will be many other groups there too. While they stagger the bathing and try to take you to different parts of the park at different times, you will see other people and you will have to queue to have your photo taken with an elephant. It’s a small price to pay, though, and the more visitors there are, the more money the park is making to help support its residents.
🐘 You can further support the cause by donating to the Save Elephant Foundation or sponsoring an elephant on their website.