|Well hello there. Easy now.|
If there's one word to describe Elephant Nature Park (ENP), I would say that it is "Love." Love is what pours out of every visitor and worker here. Not just, "I love being here," but also "These elephants need love" and "I would love to serve you." You... as in the elephants. ENP flips the typical meet-an-elephant tour model on its head and switches it around from elephants serving people to how the people can serve the elephants. Most of these elephants have spent their lives in servitude, and they have the scars to prove it. ENP does not condone elephant riding. Instead, visitors get to pet them, feed them, and as the highlight of the day, bathe them in the river. They interact with these animals without exploiting them. Volunteers who stay for a week do additional duties such as prepping elephant food and doing the hard labor that maintaining this sanctuary requires. They also get more elephant time.
My day begins when I'm picked up from my hotel in central Chiang Mai. The van is filled with the other people in my small group who I'll get to know better as the day progresses. Our guide, Bee, is also on board and gives us an introduction to the ENP. We watch a few videos about their elephant rescues, and the time it takes to reach the park, 60 kilometers away, passes quickly. As we round the corner and go down into the valley, I catch my first glimpse of the elephants wandering through a large field and am filled with wonder. It's actually happening! I'm reminded of that scene from Jurassic Park when the people in the jeep see the dinosaurs for the first time. (Of course, this will visit will not end with us running for our lives.)
I can barely contain my excitement. I am about to meet an elephant.
We disembark from the van, settle at our table and relax before our first job of the day. Feeding Time! The elephants amble up to the deck surrounding the building. We have giant bushel baskets filled with fruits and veggies cut up by the volunteers. There's pumpkins, watermelon, bunches of bananas and pineapples. I'm a little nervous at first, although I'm not quite sure why. We're behind a railing so there's no way that an over-eager elephant can get too close. I lean over, gingerly holding out my offering. She curls the end of her trunk around it and without ado, brings it to her mouth. Over and over, I repeat the process until the basket is empty.
|I cannot believe it. I am feeding an elephant!|
Next, Bee takes us on a stroll around ENP to introduce us to some of the 34 elephants living here and tell us a little more about their backstories. Unfortunately, most of the tales are quite sad and filled with mistreatment. Some were part of the Thai logging industry while others were street beggars or circus performers. The one in the top photo has a broken hip from being mounted by a bull elephant during a forced breeding program. Another gal, Jokia, was purposely blinded in both eyes with a slingshot by a former owner when she wouldn't obey his commands. Lucky is also blind, but her cause is years of working under bright, circus spotlights. Some have disfigured feet after stepping on landmines.
|Lame from a land mine injury|
Sadly, these poor creatures are just some of the very many being abused in Thailand. Wild elephants are protected, but the 2500 domesticated ones who formerly worked in the now illegal logging industry are considered mere beasts of burden. Cruel, physical punishment is the norm for keeping these large animals under control. At ENP, elephants still have mahouts (handlers), but there's not a single bullhook or prod in sight. Instead, they rely on positive reinforcement and kindness. ENP does not have the funds to rescue them all since most owners are unwilling to just give them away for free. The park can only take on the most dire and desperate cases. The sanctuary also accepts elderly elephants so that they may have a few last good months at the end of their lives.
It's not all doom and gloom at ENP, though. If anything, the overriding message is one of hope. There's even a little guy named "Hope" who was rescued as a orphaned baby near the brink of death but is now thriving. We got to meet adorable, 5-month-old Navann who was energetic and playful. He and his mother, Sri Prae, who also sustained land mine injuries spend their time inside a large pen to protect them from some of the bullying elephants in the herd. Surprisingly, teen girl dynamics with the Queen Bees and Wannabees social structure play out in the elephant world, too. On their own, the elephants have broken off into distinct cliques or families. They look out for their adoptive family members but are also choosy about who they'll let into their circle. Lucky has been trying to make her way into a group for three months, but the others just turn and walk away when she approaches.
|Our guide introduces us to adorable, 5-month-old Navaan and his mahout (handler).|
We wander around the park for a bit longer. Other animals are here, like over 400 dogs rescued from Bangkok during the 2011 floods. Water buffalo roam in the distance. Remembering my days as a kid walking through Texas cow pastures, I ask if we need to watch our step lest we encounter a big, smelly pile of elephant doo-doo. It turns out that some volunteers are actually on pooper scooper duty, and the park barters this excellent fertilizer in exchange for organic produce.
|Mudbaths cool down the elephants and protect them from biting insects.|
It's feeding time again, but this time for the humans. Considering how committed ENP is to championing animal protection, it's not surprising that the meals are vegetarian. The buffet spreads across a few long tables, and sodas are available for purchase. I pleasantly discover that it's all delicious and even go back for seconds. We have time to sit for a while and get to know the others in our small group better.
As we relax there, stuffed with food and feeling a little lazy in the heat, I think about how my close encounters with the elephants are not exactly as I expected. I thought their skin would be rough and tough like a cowboy boot, but when I stroke their trunks, I find that it's actually soft to the touch. You might think that animals that big would be quite noisy when they move around with their stomping feet making the ground tremble beneath them. In fact, they were so quiet, they actually snuck up on us a few times. One man had his back to the platform railing after lunch, and I had to tell him, "Don't be surprised, but there's an elephant right behind you."
|The Elephant Whisperer (in my dreams)|
Finally, the big moment arrives.
It's time to head down to the river to bathe the elephants.
The elephants and their mahouts make their way into the water first. This is clearly a part of the day that the elephants enjoy. Each group gathers around a few elephants with our buckets ready. Scoop and throw. Scoop and throw. The elephants get into the action, too, spraying water with their trunks. It's like an Elephant Songkran. One pachyderm drops a few poop bombs into the river, and we yell, "Watch out for the floaters!" to the folks downstream. It's actually quite hard to dislodge the mud from the elephants back, but I figure that we're here more to help them cool off than to get clean. After all, they're just going to go and roll in the dirt again.
|Splish Splash I was giving a bath.|
The elephants climb back out of the river when they see the fruit treats that the mahouts brought them. It was fantastic to see how comfortable these men are with their animals, sitting peacefully as the big beasts crowded around them. Our group heads up to an elevated viewing platform to gaze at this valley that provides a safe haven for the elephants. It's tea time (yes, they feed you AGAIN), then time for a documentary movie.
|One of the mahouts relaxes with the animals.|
Most of the film focuses on Lek, the founder of the ENP, and all the good work that her sanctuary does. But my friends who had visited the park before me warned me about the last 10 minutes of the film. One specifically told me that kids and even sensitive adults should exit the room when this section starts. What happens? You find out about the phajaan,the crush. Young elephants endure weeks of physical and mental abuse so that they have no will to disobey their keepers. This is what traditionally happens to domesticate these animals. Babies are immobilized in small crates, their feet are tied and their limbs stretched. People scream at them, beat them with metal spikes, jab them with heated rods and starve them. Bull hooks tug at their ears and slash the skin. This goes on for for weeks until the elephant's spirit is broken, and he is finally submissive.
I'll confess that I bolted from my seat as soon as I realized we'd reached this part of the movie. I can see it in my imagination, and didn't want to see it on the screen. That's the depressing part. Something that's too terrible for me to witness remotely is an act commonplace for most domesticated Thai elephants. Afterwards, the other people in my group were clearly stricken and distressed by what they'd seen.
Elephants in circuses, performing on the streets or giving rides have had to undergo the phajaan. Is this something that you want to support? Breaking the cycle is why Lek set up ENP. She wants to provide an alternative to this cruelty. Her mahouts use praise and positive reinforcement to control their animals. Visitors can get their up-close-and-personal experience with elephants without having to exploit them.
|A safe haven at Elephant Nature Park|
My group climbed back into the van at the end of the day. On the journey back to central Chiang Mai, all the amazing elephant encounters of the day floated through my head. It was everything I had hoped for.
If you visit Chiang Mai, do not miss the Elephant Nature Park.
IF YOU GO:
- I took the Learning Elephant Day Trip which costs 2500 Thai baht (US$77) and includes lunch and transportation from Chiang Mai.
- This daytrip and other volunteer opportunities from an overnight stay to up to 14 days service can be booked online at the Elephant Nature Park website.
- A visit to the park is completely suitable for children. Keep in mind that there are also rescued dogs freely roaming the premises and that you may want to leave the movie when the phajaan part starts.
- You can bring a modest swimsuit (no bikinis, please) for bathing the elephants, but most people just wore street clothes in to the river. When I visited, the water was not deep or fast moving. There's a shower you can use afterwards, but I don't think anyone availed themselves to it.
- Pick up souvenirs at the gift shop. I especially liked the wooden carvings mahouts had done of the elephants in their care.
- Sodas and drinking water available for purchase.
- Love dogs? These furry friends need help at ENP, too. You can become a Dog Volunteer.
- Would you like to help elephants but cannot visit Thailand? Make a donation to the Serengeti Foundation (tax deductible for US taxpayers) to fund the endeavors of Elephant Nature Park so that more animals can be rescued. Or you can purchase items (lunch, acreage, medical kits, etc.) for the Save Elephant Foundation.
Visiting the Long Neck Tribe
The Ruins of Chiang Mai's Chedi Luang Temple
Longing for a Chiang Mai Wet Market
Chiang Mai Sunday Market
This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, Pret-a-Vivre, and "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.