When they visit Thailand or other countries in South East Asia, many tourists want to spend time with elephants. There are plenty of ways you can do this in Thailand and especially in Chiang Mai. You can find elephant related activities advertised at each of the numerous travel agents scattered throughout Chiang Mai’s old town.
Unfortunately, many of those activities should be avoided. If you don’t do your research you will very likely be contributing to animal cruelty. Many tourism operators in Thailand exploit these gentle giants and only care about making money. The welfare of the elephants is not their primary concern. In fact, many aren’t concerned about it at all. Many elephant parks offer elephant riding, trekking and circus shows.
Another illegal but still common activity is using elephants for begging, especially baby elephants. You’ll sometimes see them walking the streets in Bangkok, working long days trying to charm tourists into handing over money. The long hours and harsh urban environment take a big toll on these young elephants and they are often injured or even killed in traffic accidents.
Instead of choosing these activities, put your money into ethical operators instead. Find ones who actually care about the animals. We chose the Elephant Nature Park and we couldn’t have had a better experience during our visit. The best part was that we caused absolutely no harm to the elephants.
Why should you visit ethical places like the Elephant Nature Park?
Elephants are not born to carry people on their backs, haul logs through the forest or perform tricks in the circus. They have to be trained and to do that their spirit needs to be broken. When is it easiest to train any animal? When they’re babies of course. In the wild, baby elephants are stolen from their mothers by poachers and sold at a high price into animal tourism or into the logging industry. More often than not, their very protective mothers are killed while trying to save them.
The breaking phase
As soon as they are sold, the process of breaking the baby elephant’s spirit begins. This process is called the Phajaan or “the crush”. It’s a barbaric process that puts these poor babies through a lot of distress and pain. They are tied up and beaten with bullhooks and other instruments until they give up and obey every one of their trainer’s commands, in order to avoid further pain.
A terrible life
But that’s not the end of it. Once broken in they have a terrible life for many years (elephants have a similar lifespan to humans). Most are overworked day in and day out and are unable to do any of the typical activities that they would in the wild. They are often kept in small enclosures with their legs bound by chains. They work for hours in the hot sun with barely a break for water or food. These elephants are slaves to the tourism industry, which is why anyone who loves elephants should be very careful about the places they visit.
Even something that appears amusing and innocent such an elephant painting a picture for visitors isn’t. Elephants don’t naturally know how to paint pictures. They are guided through the painting process by their trainer grabbing their ear and poking a sharp metal barb into the skin until they make the correct brush stroke. The skin on an elephant’s ear is extremely sensitive so you can imagine how painful it is for them. You won’t see this in elephant shows unless you look very closely because the barb is hidden from you in the trainer’s hand.
The Elephant Nature Park Sanctuary for Rescued Elephants
Thankfully, not everyone sees dollar signs when they see an elephant. There are some amazing people in this world and Lek Chailert, the founder of the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand, is one of them. This beautiful lady created the Elephant Nature Park as a sanctuary for rescue elephants from all over Thailand. At the Elephant Nature Park, these rescue elephants finally enjoy the freedom that they’ve been denied for years.
Since Lek’s elephant rescue project began in the early 1990s, the Elephant Nature Park has provided a sanctuary for over 70 elephants. Most of them arrive distressed and with post-traumatic stress disorder. It can take months for them to settle in and to start trusting people again. But many eventually do adapt and live a happy retirement within the beautiful grounds of the park.
If you love elephants and are looking to interact with these sweet giants in an ethical way, the Elephant Nature Park offers a few different elephant experiences. You can choose either a full day visit, an overnight stay, or if you have more time you can even volunteer for an entire week.
We left it a little late to book the week of volunteering (it’s really popular). We chose the overnight stay instead so that we could have more time with the elephants than the single day experience allows.
Here’s what we got up to during our two days at the sanctuary.
Day 1 – Morning
We were picked up bright and early at 8 am outside our Airbnb apartment in Chiang Mai and driven to the Elephant Nature Park. The drive there took around one and a half hours. Half of that time was spent watching two videos.
The first video was a cartoon that presented some important dos and don’ts when interacting with elephants at the park. Although the content was serious, it was presented with a lot of humour.
The second video wasn’t humorous at all. It explained all about the cruel practices behind the elephant trekking, circus and logging industries. It showed some examples of the horrible Phajaan process which was very difficult to watch and left us feeling incredibly sad and angry at how these elephants are treated.
Banana Snack Time
When we arrived at the park, our guide outlined how the rest of our day would unfold and gave us a quick recap of the health and safety rules. After that, it was time to meet our first elephants.
Our tour group consisted of nine people. This was a nice sized group because we all got a chance to get involved. Our first activity was feeding a couple of elephants some tasty bananas for their snack time.
There was already a large basket full to the brim with bananas, sitting on a raised platform outside the visitor centre. Two female elephants were patiently waiting by the platform to be fed their morning snack. We all took turns giving them a few bananas.
We asked our guide how many bananas we should give them. She laughed and said that the whole basket needed to be emptied! That seemed like a pretty big snack but then again they are enormous animals. She told us that each elephant eats at least 200 kilograms of food a day and the biggest ones in the sanctuary eat more than twice that. Yep, that’s a lot of food, so bring on the bananas!
Meet the herd
Once the basket of bananas was empty, our guide took us for a walk around the grounds and introduced us to several groups of elephants. Some elephants preferred to be alone, some liked to pair up with a friend and others enjoyed being in a larger group.
Being able to stand so close to the elephants was a truly magical experience. We weren’t at all scared or put off by their size because they seem so gentle. They didn’t appear scared of us either and a few of them were quite happy for us to gently touch their shoulder.
However, many of the elephants take a long time to reach this level of comfort with humans after being rescued. They have suffered a lot at the hands of their mahouts in their previous work (in many cases over several decades). We even met one elephant who had killed three of her previous mahouts because of the pain and torment they had inflicted on her.
Meeting the cute babies!
We also saw several baby elephants. We watched as they played around and generally created mischief (the boys especially!). They would run away from the herd and from their nannies, looking for trouble. Each baby elephant has at least one older nanny elephant who looks after them because many of their mothers have been killed by poachers.
We did not approach the babies so as not to upset their nannies and the other elephants in the same herd. At one point a baby ventured off which spooked the other elephants and they rushed to protect him, trumpeting loudly. Believe me, you don’t want to be in the middle of a herd of elephants stampeding to protect a baby!
Although the babies were curious and wanted to approach us, we always moved away from them when they did. It was funny to watch them being so naughty. Their mahout had to tell them off with a stern voice. An interesting thing about the baby elephants is that they don’t like smaller animals such as dogs and they also don’t care for young children. If you visit the park with children you must be extra careful to keep your distance from the babies. I guess it’s something that they eventually grow out of.
Each elephant also has a mahout (a trainer). These are designated carers who spend every moment of the day with their elephant, making sure that they don’t get into trouble and making sure that tourists keep their distance and respect the elephants.
Day 1 – Afternoon
A Walk around the Grounds
After a lovely vegan buffet lunch, we began our afternoon activities. Our guide took us to the river where we watched the elephants bathe. After their bath, they immediately ran to the nearest mud bath and rolled about in it! They followed up the mud bath by scooping up dirt from the ground with their trunks and throwing it over their backs; all dirty once again! They do this for a good reason though. The mud helps them stay cool and protects their skin from the sun. They were having such a great time!
We met many elephants during our visit at the Elephant Nature Park and here are some of their stories:
Ponsawan used to work in the illegal logging industry until one day she stepped on an unexploded landmine near the Burmese border. She could have died there but her mahout decided not to leave her there. Instead, he made her walk back through the deep jungle to civilisation, which took eight painful days.
Once there, he called for help which took nine hours to arrive. I can’t imagine how much pain and distress she would have been in during that time but fortunately, his decision saved her life. Her leg was operated on and she spent an entire year in hospital before being transferred to the Elephant Nature Park. Our guide told us that it took three years for her leg to heal completely. She’s such a tough girl!
Lucky had been working in a circus since she was four years old. During that time she developed an eye infection which remained untreated and she was still forced to work under the bright spotlights. She eventually became blind in both eyes. This is a common occurrence for circus elephants. Once her owners finally realised that it was too much for her, they decided to sell her and the Elephant Nature Park was able to buy her. She is the sweetest girl and she loves her new mahout, especially when he gives her sticky rice!
Hope is one of the male elephants at the park. He is 18 years old. His mother worked as a trekking elephant but died from liver flukes when he was still a baby. His owner could not care for Hope so he contacted the Elephant Nature Park.
Hope is one of the luckier elephants. He has never worked a day in his life and he has never had his spirit broken. As an older bull elephant, he has his own enclosure at the park. Bull elephants don’t get along with other males unless there is a large age gap between them. While Hope would love to be kept with the female elephants, we all know what would happen if he was!
As we watched him behind the tall concrete fence, Hope picked up some stones from the ground with his trunk and flung them at us. What a cheeky boy! Unlike the females who can be very friendly towards humans, the big bulls are not so friendly! We were obviously not allowed to enter his enclosure as it would have been too dangerous. He was still a gorgeous boy though.
Jokia was also rescued from the logging industry. She suffered a miscarriage while pulling a log uphill, and was not allowed to stop working to check if her calf was dead or alive. This caused Jokia extreme physical and emotional trauma and she refused to go back to work. As punishment for her disobedience, her previous owner cruely blinded her.
As you can see, these stories are heartbreaking and it saddened me so much to hear about their abusive past. But it was so nice to know that they can finally live out the rest of their lives in peace after a lifetime of abuse (and it is a lifetime because many of these elephants aren’t rescued until they are well over fifty years old!).
That’s just four elephant stories. We also met the oldest elephant in the park who is 102 years old! We learnt about another elephant who broke her chains while working across the river and tried to cross to the park where she saw other elephants roaming free. Then there were the two elephants who had to be rescued together because they wouldn’t be separated from each other. Each of these stories showcased what social animals elephants are and just what individual personalities they have.
After our walk around the grounds, we checked into our accommodation for the night. I was actually pleasantly surprised by our room. I was expecting something small and basic. But our room was big and stylish with a large, comfortable bed. The best part was that there were two balconies, one at the front and one at the rear.
One of the resident rescue dogs liked to use the balcony at the front for her afternoon naps as we discovered when we checked in. The balcony at the rear had a great view of the elephants’ night pens. When I realised that, I really wished we could have stayed for more than one night!
Walking the dogs
The Elephant Nature Park rescues more than just elephants. They’ve also rescued over 700 dogs, many of whom were saved from Bangkok’s catastrophic floods in 2011. Others were saved from the illegal meat trade and some were dumped by locals at the sanctuary’s front gate or at nearby temples.
Lek does not turn away an animal in need and the locals know that they will have a better chance with her. Some of the dogs are kept in runs while others are free to roam around the huge property. At 3.30 pm every day, visitors are able to visit the runs and take a dog or two out for their daily walk. All 700 dogs get a daily walk, whether by visitors or by the volunteers.
Walking with the elephants
After our walk with the dogs, we headed back to the river and met up with a herd of elephants who were wandering back to camp for the night. Lek’s husband was there waiting for them and we were able to witness the amazing bond that he has with them. As soon as they saw him, they ran towards him, wanting to be with him. The youngest one grabbed his hand with her trunk and they walked towards the night pens together. So sweet! It was heartwarming to see just how much they loved him and how much he loved them back.
When all the elephants are in bed, there’s still plenty to do at the park. In the evening you can spend time playing and cuddling the resident dogs and cats.
Along with the 700 dogs, the park is also home to 300 cats. You’ll find some of them at Cat Kingdom, next door to the elephant kitchen. The cats are free to leave Cat Kingdom but when it’s dinner time many of them head back there to be fed. Just in case you’re wondering, all the cats and dogs in the park are desexed and regularly flea and tick treated. That must be a huge undertaking! Cats that live at the park are identified by a spot of purple dye on their neck.
Dinner was another lovely vegan buffet and there was even some Thai dancing after dinner for entertainment. You can also get a Thai massage upstairs in the visitor centre.
Time for bed!
After a long day, we decided to head to bed around 10pm but the elephants in the pens next to our cottage had other ideas. We could hear them banging around in their night pens, possibly trying to get out. Apparently, the mahouts need to padlock the doors of the pens because the elephants are smart enough to open the latches!
The elephants are kept in the pens overnight for their own protection and because many of the elephants are quite old. Their trainers need to wake up every four hours to check on them. Some of the older elephants need heating in their pens at night because they don’t handle the cold well and if they develop a fever it could easily kill them.
Eventually, the elephants next door tired and went off to sleep. But elephants only sleep for around five hours a day, so at 3am we were woken up by some rather loud trumpeting. As early as it was, it made me happy. It’s not every day that you wake to the sound of elephants!
Day 2 – Morning
Walking with elephants and snack time
After a yummy vegan breakfast and a strong latte (well received after the elephants’ overnight antics!), we began the second day’s activities. We headed to the elephant kitchen and entered the banana pantry!
Our guide gave us each a bag which we were to fill with bananas. She told us to make sure the bananas were neither too green nor too ripe. The elephants are very picky and would spit them out if they weren’t acceptable to them!
We slung our bags of bananas onto our shoulders and followed a herd of elephants who were heading over to a forested part of the park. That herd usually stays there during the day, foraging for banana leaves and other food.
A few of the park’s resident dogs came along with us on the walk. Along the way, we stopped next to two other elephants who were waiting patiently for their early morning snack! We spent time feeding them and taking photos. They were very gentle and let us pat their shoulder and trunks while we were feeding them. One of the elephants was very cheeky and she wouldn’t eat the bananas until we fully loaded her trunk with half a dozen of them! The other one happily took a banana or two at a time.
Meeting more of the herd
Once back at the main camp, we went for another walk around the park to meet more of the elephants. We spent more time admiring them and taking photos until it was time to check out from our room. After checking out we ate another delicious vegan lunch.
Day 2 – Afternoon
More snacks for the hungry elephants
After lunch, we picked up two trays of bananas from the elephant kitchen and one tray of watermelons. We moved the trays over to the river where three elephants were waiting. One of the elephants was not good with people, so she stood off to one side and ate her bananas directly from the tray. Another elephant had a sensitive stomach, so we fed her watermelons instead of bananas. We had to break the watermelon into small pieces for her and it quickly became a rather messy affair! But she sure loved her watermelon and kept demanding more!
Making protein balls
Next, we headed back to the kitchen. It was time to make some protein balls for the older elephants who can’t chew solid food. The protein balls are made by squished bananas together with some sticky rice, oats and a few other ingredients that I can’t remember. Once we’d made a paste, we rolled it into fist-sized balls.
Once we’d made all the protein balls, our last task for the day was to feed them to the elephants. A different two elephants were waiting for them and seemed to enjoy the balls although they did seem to struggle to keep them from falling apart on their trunks!
Afterwards, both elephants were quite thirsty so their mahout gave us the garden hose and we gave them a drink of water. We held the end of the hose above the opening in their trunks and they slurped the water up for several minutes. It turns out that elephants can drink over 200 litres of water a day!
Back to Chiang Mai
Unfortunately, our two days at the Elephant Nature Park came to an end and we had to say goodbye to those beautiful animals. We were sad but grateful to have spent time with them and to have learnt more about them.
Spending two days at the Elephant Nature Park is a real eye-opener into the cruelty behind the animal tourism industry. If you’ve thought about putting elephant riding on your bucket list, please think again. Many years ago, we too rode on the back of an elephant. That was before we knew how much they suffer. We learnt that the constant weight of people plus the very heavy saddle on their backs takes a tremendous toll on the elephants and we saw several elephants at the park who had broken bones or damaged spines from years of being ridden.
Comparing the two experiences together, our time at the Elephant Nature Park was so much more rewarding. I feel so guilty for ever having participated in these other practices but unfortunately, we don’t have a time machine to go back and undo it.
We can’t change the past but we sure can do better in the future and we can try and spread awareness to others. If you learn just one thing from this post, I hope it’s that you should always do your research before signing up to any animal related activities. Last but not least, always choose interaction over riding. Believe me, you’ll have a much better time.
You can help
If you’d like to help the amazing Elephant Nature Park, you can make a donation online or you can sponsor one of the elephants. Just click on the link here.
Accommodation In Chiang Mai
Apart from visiting the Elephant Nature Park, there’s plenty more to see in Chiang Mai, so it’s well worth spending a few more days there. Use the search box below to find some accommodation.