The day we spent at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand was packed with emotions. Admiration, pity, love, respect, helplessness, anger. These animals have been through terrific horrors, others still are, and I can’t do anything about it! Well, I can do my small part: tell their story. Promote responsible tourism, so people don’t go in Thailand seeking for elephant rides and tricks anymore.
Of course I hate seeing wild animals confined. That’s why I stopped visiting zoos of any kind. But this type of shelters hold animals that have suffered so much, that they cannot be reintegrated into wilderness. They were physically and mentally abused, and now they cannot mend for themselves, and need a nurturing and loving environment. That’s why it’s always a good idea to visit this kind of shelters. Our money helps feed the animals, and our photos on social media help raise awareness!
Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (actually 60 km from Chiang Mai) is amongst the most well-known ethical sanctuaries for elephants, a place where they are loved, cared for, and definitely not ridden. It’s a private project, sustained exclusively from the entrance tickets money, and a lot of volunteers that help with daily activities.
They have 75 elephants at the shelter (as of December 2017), including some baby elephants that were born there. They actually would prefer not to have any calves, but they can’t (and won’t) stop the elephants from baby-making.
At Elephant Nature Park you will also find about 500 dogs they saved and now take care of (most were saved after a flood, when people saved themselves and left the dogs behind..), a lot of cats and even some water buffaloes.
The entrance tickets are pretty steep, it’s the most expensive attraction we’ve been to in Thailand. The Single Day Visit costs 2500 baht per person (that’s €65 or $80). But they really use most of the money to buy food for the elephants. They need to order 3 tons of food per day! Sometimes, when they have extra money, they buy elephants from circuses or other attractions and bring them to proper care at the shelter.
How to plan your visit at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai
It’s best to plan your visit to Elephant Nature Park before heading to Thailand. You need to make a booking on their site, and you most likely won’t find any free spots from one day to the next. Check here on their site what type of tours they offer and book as soon as possible.
For Elephant Nature Park you can choose between three types of visits:
- Short Park Visit – from 9:00 to 15:30, it costs 2500 baht (€65 or $80); a shorter alternative to the Single Day Visit, without entering in the river with the elephants and bathing them; it includes feeding the elephants, a walk through the park, and lunch
- Single Day Visit – from 8:00 to 17:30, it costs 2500 baht (€65 or $80); it includes feeding the elephants, a walk through the park, bathing an elephant and lunch
- Overnight – two days and the night between, that you get to spend in a bamboo hut, it costs 5800 baht (€150 or $185); the program is not very strict, they encourage you to freely observe the elephants and their behavior
Besides these visits, you can have a choice from a few other tours in collaboration with different shelters around Chiang Mai. Here you can walk through the jungle with the elephants, in smaller groups, and don’t get to see Elephant Nature Park. Some of these shelters gave up elephant riding in favor of more humane activities. I am not entirely sure these establishments are ethical, I mean I don’t know what happens when the tourists are gone, but having the Elephant Nature Park imprint is probably a good sign.
How we planned our visit and what we needed to bring
Alex and I chose the Single Day Visit and when booking online we had to pay a 1000 baht deposit per person (you can pay with your debit/credit card). The rest of the 3000 baht we paid in cash when we arrived at the park. When you make the booking it’s very important to give them the name and address of the hotel you will be staying at, because they pick you up and at the end of the day drop you off at your hotel. If you haven’t booked your hotel yet, you can give them the address later.
It’s best to book as early as you can. I checked now (Jan 2018), and the whole month of February is fully booked for Single Day Visits (there are still some openings for Short Visits), and March is half booked.
On their website you will find more information on what the visit will look like (for example check here for the Single Day Visit). The prices include transport in a minivan with AC, hotel pick up and drop off and a vegetarian lunch. You need to bring sunscreen, maybe a hat, bug repellent (best bought directly in Thailand, the ones from home don’t seem to have any effect), flip flops, a towel and change of clothes in case you get wet while bathing with the elephants.
We had our swimsuits on, but while bathing we weren’t allowed to take our pants and t-shirt off (not sure why though..), so we were careful not to get very wet. It wasn’t difficult, since the water was ankle deep, and used a bucket to throw water on the elephant and cool him off. We didn’t get wet at all and didn’t need a towel or change of clothes.
How a day at the Elephant Nature Park goes by
Our guide comes and picks us up at the hotel in the morning, and it takes about an hour to get to Elephant Nature Park. We stick to the people in the minivan and our guide the whole day, this is our group. On the way there they show us a horrible video of how the elephants are abused, how their spirit is broken, in order to become obedient, to accept people to ride them, and to do all sorts of tricks. I knew these things happened, but I never had the courage to look at a video. Well, now I’ve seen it. And it’s just awful. And I find myself crying in the van..
The calves are taken away from their mothers and held captive for 7 days in a row, tied up with ropes and chains. They are beaten with sticks that have nails at their ends, and their wounds are treated with motor oil. Their spirit is crushed, they learn that they aren’t worth anything, and accept the mahout’s dominance. The mahout needs to stay by the calf’s side the whole time, because otherwise he might step on his own trunk and commit suicide.. Now this really broke my heart..
We finally get to the park and we begin to see elephants. The fact that these magnificent creatures finally get to live the peaceful life they deserve, after all their suffering, lightens my soul.
The whole time we spend at the park we are guided by Aeh, a small and gentle Thai woman, that is very fluent in English, but unfortunately doesn’t pronounce every consonant properly, so we don’t understand quite everything she says. She tells us we are the first Romanians she’s met. We tell her more and more Romanians are coming to Thailand each year, but usually they go to the beaches in the South.
Activities in the park
The first activity: feeding the sweetest elephant! We give him chopped watermelons. It’s absolutely fantastic, I fall in love with him right away!
Next, we go to two elephants that stay put because they are eating some bamboo. All the people in the group take photos with them. I approach carefully one of the elephants, I caress him gently and I find that amazing! He’s a huge animal that could crush me effortlessly. I respect him and send him lots of love!
After that, we go through the park and stop to look at some calves that are eating. We are not allowed to touch them and I think that’s a perfect sign that the elephants’ wellbeing means more to these people than tourists getting their perfect selfie.
We were also warned not to touch their trunks unless we have food in our hands and not to touch their ears, because they are sensitive (the mahouts use to stick nails in their ears to get them to be obedient..). I am so glad that the animals are respected here, more than the tourists’ desire to interact with them!
At lunch we go to eat, it’s a self-service buffet with lots of vegetables, noodles, rice, and even french fries. They also have large tanks of water, so take a bottle with you, and you can refill it here. If you want other beverages, there’s a bar you can buy them from.
Next: the bath in the river! Here comes an elephant that receives a whole crate of bananas to stay put and we each throw buckets of water on him. It’s such a hot day, I’m sure he appreciates it! After the bath he goes and gets mud all over him (mud keep elephants cool and also keep insects away). Oh no, do we have to bathe him again now? Alex is joking around.
After the bath, we take a stroll in the park and Aeh tells us stories about the elephants in the shelter.
She tells us how one of the calves, a boy, thinks he is a big hotshot, and picks fights with the bigger elephants. They leave him alone, because they know otherwise his mother will come and they will be sorry. But the little calf is very independent, he doesn’t want to be a momma’s boy, and he walks through the park all by himself.
We walk to an elephant that throws mud on his back with his trunk. We find out that he is blind, his former owner blinded him to both eyes with a nailed stick, in an anger rage… We see how he feels the ground with his trunk before stepping forward.
Aeh tells us that another elephant starts to dance when she hears music. But she probably comes from a circus, where she learned to act like this.
We reach a group of elephants that eat and cool off in the shadow. One of them has a purple deformed leg. We find out that he had stepped on a mine and the doctors here treated him, but there is only so much they can do.
We head on to some enclosures, where they keep elephants that are not yet able to integrate in groups. One of them, brought at Elephant Nature Park only a month ago, stands still and bumps his head into the fence. He is not hurting himself, but it’s clear that he is still under much stress. Poor thing, it really breaks my heart to see him like this…
A female elephant sits in an enclosure because she is not allowed to move very much. She also came recently in the park and when she was freed she started running, and accidentally impaled herself with a stick in the leg. Now she is under treatment. A volunteer gives her water with a hose that the elephant takes with the trunk and puts into her mouth. The whole group was amazed Wow, she is so smart. But the volunteer quickly shattered our dreams, when she told us that the elephant comes from the circus, where she learned this trick..
At the end of the day, we get half an hour for the souvenir shop. Unfortunately, we don’t find anything we like, although I would have loved to get something to remind me of Elephant Nature Park. We then head back to Chiang Mai and I restlessly think of what I could do for the elephants cause in Thailand. I feel so helpless! I will begin for now to tell their story, which I hope will reach many people, and hopefully change their hearts on wanting to ride elephants.
Travel responsibly and don’t let the mirage of touching or sitting next to a wild animal blind you from the horrors they have to suffer so you can pay good money and do that! Wild animals need to be in the wild and we are the ones that need to be put in cages so we can observe them. In a safari, on their own territory. The only exceptions are these shelters for suffering animals. No zoos and no bio parks!
Share the message! Together we can make a change! I am sure of that!
p.s. Follow Elephant Nature Park on Facebook and Instagram. Although maybe you wouldn’t want to do it right now, because the latest posts announce the sudden death of Zuki, a baby elephant that had digestion problems. He finally seemed to be recovering, he was starting to gain weight and to play around happily with the other elephants… May he rest in peace, and suffer no more..
Happy and Responsible Travels!