Often in Southeast Asia, there is a lot of controversy and ethical questioning around the idea of animal tourism and the practice of using elephants for riding, circus entertainment and forest logging. However, a new trend is starting to take over, particularly in the north of Thailand, around the Chiang Mai province.
Recently, we have started to hear more and more about elephant sanctuaries. Places dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating elephants who have been captured, enslaved or bred for labour and tourism purposes.
These new kinds of sanctuaries are focused on providing their elephants with a safe and peaceful place to live, with absolutely no rides or saddles, and with the elephant welfare front of mind at all times.
While we were visiting Chiang Mai we took a day trip out to the Elephant Nature Park, one of the leading sanctuaries focused of rescuing elephants. It was established in the 1990’s by a beautiful lady named Lek, and has provided a safe home for dozens (if not hundreds at this stage) of rescued, injured and distressed elephants from all over Thailand.
We were picked up from our hotel at around 7:30am and began the two hour drive through the jungle to the Elephant Nature Park. We had booked in for a full day visit, allowing us as much time as possible to spend with the elephants and learn more about the sanctuary and the elephant’s stories.
The drive to the Nature Park is quite long, so it’s a good idea to make sure you have some podcasts or good music loaded up for the ride.
As we were arrived we were surprised by how many other animals the park was home to. Around the park you will also meet many dogs, cats, buffaloes and even goats wandering around and enjoying the sanctuary grounds. They seemed very happy to be wandering around amongst the elephants, not worried about anything at all.
After a short briefing we were straight into the day, feeding some of the elephants their morning snacks of bananas, watermelons, coconuts and bamboo shoots. They were absolutely loving it, trying to get right into the buckets when we weren’t looking and slurping up everything that was offered to them immediately.
Bathing the Elephants
Bathing was straight after the elephant’s morning tea, where you can jump into the river with the elephants and give them a wash down. A big milk crate full of bananas was used to keep the elephants still and happy as we threw buckets full of water over them to wash them down from all the mud and dust they get into during the day. I think you can tell just from this guys expression how much they love bath time!
Definitely expect to get wet during elephant bathing time! As well as having a gentle giant splashing around in the water and even helping out by using his trunk as a hose to get water across the tallest parts of their backs, there are also 20-30 other people throwing buckets of water over the same elephant as you!
It’s safe to say, some of these buckets don’t exactly hit their targets, and you are more then likely to get a little wet! It’s also a good idea to bring yourself a change of clothes, if you’re planning to get right into the river.
After a busy morning of feeding and bathing we were able to spend a couple of hours wandering around the grounds of the sanctuary and learning more about each of the elephants that live there. Along the way, our guide offered us an insight into the history of the park and shared with us the stories of the elephants that we were meeting.
Many of the elephants in the park have found themselves a best friend, who they pretty much spend all of their time with during the day.
Every single elephant at the sanctuary has their own individual story of trauma and distress from their previous life. As you walk around the park and find out a little more about each of the elephants their stories are all so heartbreaking. One of the most devastating stories in the park was Jokia’s.
The story of Jokia
From the time she was young, Jokia was used in the logging trade to make money to support her owners. During this time she fell pregnant, and one day while she was logging she had a miscarriage and lost her baby while she was pulling a log uphill. She was not allowed to stop to check if her baby was dead or alive.
This caused Jokia significant physical and emotional trauma and she refused to go back to work. As a result, she was deliberately blinded in both eyes on two separate occasions.
Jokia was rescued in 1999 and has been very happy living at the Elephant Nature Park ever since. After her best friend passed away in 2016, Jokia took on the role of being the nanny to one of the baby elephants, so you will often see her with a mini-me in tow as they make their way around the park.
Jokia’s story is only one of many, with many of the elephants still suffering physical and emotional trauma from their past owners, jobs and conditions. It really puts into perspective how important it is not to participate in animal tourism activities, and how damaging it can be to the elephants.
Visiting Elephant Nature Park
There are a few different options for visiting the Elephant Nature Park.
The most popular is the Single Day Visit which takes you out to the park for the whole day, giving you time to feed and bathe the elephants (getting right up close with them in the river), as well as go for a walk around the park and learn more about their stories.
→ The Single Day Visit costs 2,500 baht per adult. Pick up from your hotel in Chiang Mai from 7:30am and returning by about 5:30pm.
For a more unique experience, you can event stay overnight at the Nature Park, allowing you to sleepover amongst the friendly herd of elephants. The Overnight Visit gives you two full days at the park, as well as a sleepover and all meals provided.
→ Overnight visits are 5,800 baht per adult. Pick up from your hotel in Chiang Mai from 7:30am and returning by about 5:30pm.
For anyone with a little less time, there’s also the option of a Short Park Visit, where you can feed the elephants and watch the bathing but you can’t go in the river.
→ The Short Park visits still cost 2,500 baht per adult, with pick up from your hotel in Chiang Mai from 8:30am and returning at around 3:30pm.
It’s a good idea to note, that the Elephant Nature Park is about a 2 hour drive either way from Chiang Mai. If you choose to do a short day at the park you will literally spend more than half your day in the car. We would definitely recommend taking the full day if you can, to spend lots more time at the park for literally the same price.
All visits to the Elephant Nature Park include return transport between the park and your hotel or the city office, as well as a huge buffet lunch in between activities.
To get off the beaten track of the park, there are still quite a few other experiences you can choose to spend even more time with the elephants. Just a few of them include:
- Elephant Trails offers you the chance to take the elephants on a walk through the jungle. Strictly no saddles or riding allowed.
- Elephant Wellness teaches you how to provide the elephants with care and is aimed at improving the life and treatment of elephants who are still in the care of independent owners.
- Care for Elephants helps the residents who find it very hard to mix with other elephants, and need a little extra TLC from humans to help them build trust and feel safe in their new home.
- Sunshine for Elephants takes out elephants that have been recently rescued for a walk through the forest to give them a sense of freedom after being chained up and tied down for so long.
Everything the Elephant Nature Park does has their elephant residents front of mind. They carefully care for each and every elephant individually, making sure to monitor what they need to settle in to the sanctuary and revise their schedules when they might need to add or remove certain activities.
Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park
Want to spend even more time out in the jungle helping out the elephants?
The Elephant Nature Park also offers a variety of 7 day volunteering program, that allows volunteers a unique opportunity to work closely with these gentle giants and the wider Northern Thailand community.
With volunteering programs that focus on elephants, rescue dogs, educating and understanding the community and also a program specifically for veterinarian nurses and students, you can always find what you’re looking for and make an impact on this fragile community in a very positive way.
For more information about Elephant Nature Park
The Elephant Nature Park Office can be found at 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing in Chiang Mai and is open from 7am – 5pm.
You can also find out everything you need to know about the park on their website HERE.