I just got back from a day in the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand) and it was my favourite and most touching experience in Thailand yet.
The main difference between Elephant Nature Park and almost all the other elephant parks and camps around Thailand is that there is actually no riding on the elephants here. They are the ones that rescue and rehabilitate elephants from the other camps which mistreat them and use them for jungle treks with people on their backs (which can cause injuries to their spines), from (illegal) logging in Burma, from the streets (where elephants are used for money begging) and injured elephants that can’t be “used” by their owners anymore.
Phajaan or “The Crush”
Wild elephants that are working in the tourism industry need to be tamed. This is accomplished by torturing a baby elephant for multiple days, until his spirit is completely crushed. It’s called Phajaan or “the crush” and is usually done in Burma, because it’s illegal in Thailand.
You can watch (a very explicit) video that shows it here
You will meet and hear the stories of many of such elephants that were rescued by the Elephant Nature Park, all of them very sad. It really makes you think and feel disgusted with the human race.
Many of the elephants were injured by landmines (or humans) and have problems walking, are blind or old. One of them went blind because of camera flash! They were using her for street begging at night and she got blind because of all the people taking pictures and hurting her eyes.
The other blind elephant’s story is even more shocking. She was working in the logging industry across the Burmese border (using elephants for logging is illegal in Thailand) and her mahout was punishing her for disobedience by shooting her eye with a slingshot (!). And while working, she carried a baby and one day gave birth while pushing a log uphill. The baby elephant rolled down the hill and died and she refused to work after that because of sadness. The mahout punished her by taking the other eye. She was then bought by the Elephant Nature Park where she’s now taken care of as best as possible.
Almost all of these elephants are not useful for work anymore and the owners usually don’t want to sell the healthy ”working“ ones, because they can make more money if they keep using them.
The tour of the Elephant Nature Park
There are a few available options. You can check them out on Elephant Nature Park’s website. I went for the Single day visit and it was great.
Elephant Nature park is a bit pricier than others, but it’s really worth it and you’ll be doing something good with your money, because the majority of the income goes for food and care of the elephants. They eat 7 to 10% of their body mass of vegetables and fruit every day. Elephant Nature Park is currently home to 64 of them (they saved 24 this year already). That’s a lot of food every day.
The day goes like this: you must go to their office in the morning or they pick you up in front of your hotel in Chiang Mai. It takes around an hour or an hour and a half in a minivan to get to the park.
On your way there, you get to see an introductory video on how to approach the elephants and what not to do when interacting with them, followed by a short documentary about the story of the park and the plight of the Asian elephant.
Shortly after arriving into the park you are introduced to the elephants by feeding them. They are brought to the platform from where you can feed them with different fruit. A friendly and easy first encounter. Note that you don’t have to pay for the food you give to the animals (which is supposed to be the case in some other camps where they sell you bananas).
After the feeding the guide takes you for a walk around the park where there’s plenty of time for interaction with the elephants. You can get close to them, touch them and of course there’s plenty of opportunity for photos.
Elephants have different personalities, like people. Some are kind and gentle and some not really. The guides know each elephant and tell you which one you can approach and touch and which one you can’t.
After that, it’s time for lunch, which is tasty and there’s a big selection of dishes available with free coffee, tea and fruit.
Then it’s time for the elephant’s daily washing and bathing in the river. Each of the elephants get a full basket of fruit to eat while getting splashed with buckets of water from visitors. Tough life. The ones that play and roll around in the river on their own are also great fun to watch.
When they leave the water, you follow them for another walk through the park and watch them spraying themselves with mud all over them (which is their natural sunscreen).
After the second walk you can have some (very sweet) thai iced tea and cookies and shortly after that it’s time to go back.
The founder of Elephant Nature Park
The founder of Elephant Nature Park is a Thai lady from Chiang Mai named Sangduen “Lek” Chailert.
Her life quest is to provide a sanctuary for elephants to live in a peaceful and natural environment.
She first founded the Elephant Heaven Nature park in 1996, which was closed in 2003 after the opening of the Elephant Nature Park. She is also the founder of Save Elephant Foundation.