Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dirty, Hungry Elephants

I knew I wanted to go to Thailand, and I knew I wanted to get up close and personal with elephants. Lately, I've read so many stories about the cruel animal training techniques used to teach these gentle giants how to do tricks for crowds of people or submit to giving ride after ride to paying customers.  On my trip, I longed to connect with the elephants in a more personal, humane manner. That's how I decided to visit the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai which is renowned for rescuing elephants and letting them live freely in their sanctuary.

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.

Come hungry

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.

  • 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.

Related Posts:
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.


  1. What a treat to read about such a positive experience. I did got to the elephant orphanage outside of Nairobi and have to say that it was one of the highlights of my time there - but I didn't get the chance to interact. It's hard to keep reading about all the cruelty out there but heartwarming to know that there are individuals who help. I just finished a book - The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary - and got a look into the world of chimps used for drug and insecticide testing - among other things. That's not pretty either.
    Thank you for this lovely post.

    1. I would love to see African elephants some day. That book sounds interesting. I'll have to check it out. My cousin does psychological tests on capuchin monkeys, but it mostly involves feeding them M&Ms which, if it were me, would be an excellent way to spend the day.

  2. Oh I simply love this story. . .I would love to do this one day and will file this one away for future reference. What a simply fabulous experience you had!!

    1. Chiang Mai itself is fantastic, and this is a wonderful way to occupy a day there. The two of you would love it.

  3. Your last photo is an award winner! I think it should be enlarged to poster size and framed :) What an awesome experience and I so LOVE the fact that LOVE pours out of everything at the sanctuary. I also worry about the cruel methods they use to train elephants and it's so great that there's such a beautiful sanctuary for them.

    1. Alas, that last photo was taken my iPhone and is low-res. I really should have whipped out a better camera for that one. Thanks for the compliment.

  4. So sad that these magnificent creatures have been abused, but very happy that some at least have been saved from further abuse. It looks like a lovely place and I am glad you have had a chance to visit. Lovely to see the elephants enjoying the bath. Friends of ours have been there also. Thankyou for this lovely post.
    Happy travels.

  5. I am soooo lucking forward to having a similar experience when I am in Chiang Mai this November.

  6. Wow what a great post. Elephants are sooo cute. And this sounds like a great sanctuary that is doing good things. Thanks for taking us along on your journey!

    -Brittany Ruth

  7. Great information! I will never think the same of an elephant in captivity. It is my dream to do what you did and meets elephants in person. Awesome post!

  8. I'm getting teary-eyed reading about the cruelty that these elephants have endured. I was just having a conversation with my family about why I don't support circuses and zoos. I wholeheartedly believe that animals should be treated with dignity and respect and that they should be allowed to roam in conservation areas that closely resemble their natural habitats. I always feel at odds when I see pictures of people riding on elephants' backs. I would love to visit ENP and to volunteer there. Thanks for sharing - great post!

  9. What a wonderful tour, I learned so much, would love to visit this place someday and maybe even watch that film completely...

  10. So glad to hear about the Elephant Nature Park....more are needed. Visiting form Ready to Waltz. Have a great week.

  11. This is so cool! I love how it's run!

    Great to have you at "Oh, the PLACES I've been!"

    - The Tablescaper

  12. What an amazing and unforgettable experience, Michele. It was heartbreaking to read what some of these elephants had to go through. I admit I've wanted to do the touristy thing and ride the elephants too but after reading this, I'll bury that wish. This is such a great park and I'm so glad to have virtually experienced this with you. Hope to visit Thailand and this park soon.

  13. Hi Michelle, this is a very moving post that left me in tears. The back story of each elephant made me deeply sad, but at the time I was deeply touched by the outpouring "love" that the amazing volunteers like you have been giving them. After all they've been through, they deserve a little bit of tender loving care they can get. I salute Lek for establishing ENP and providing safe haven for the poor animals and also for people like you who made a difference to them. We may not be able to make it to Chiang Mail when we stop by in Thailand next month but we'll definitely like to help through donation. Thanks for telling us about the elephants and ENP.

  14. Love this post - the ENP is a bright spot of hope in a mad, bad world. I visited an elephant "sanctuary" in Thailand but when I got there, I saw many elephants harnessed with seats for rides. I had booked in time to spend with a retired circus elephant, feeding her and bathing her in the river, but the experience was marred by the fact that there were other elephants there who were clearly used for riding only.

    They are such intelligent, social creatures - it's horrible what they have to endure. I'm glad more and more people are writing about elephant experiences to create awareness - I also wrote a piece about choosing an ethical experience (the ENP is on the list!) -

  15. Wow, what the wonderful experience narrated beautifully with the splendid pictures! such an interesting informative article. thanks for sharing with us...........

  16. That is an amazing experience but some of the stories were incredibly sad. Why would anyone purposefully blind a creature? The elephants are beautiful and what an experience to get to bathe the elephants! Thailand is on my travel list and now I'm noting the ENP too.

  17. Beautiful experience! Elephants are the most gentle giants.

  18. That is an interesting story. I saw your link about Hungry Elephants and thought to also share a similar song. I hope you enjoy. Thanks

    Hungry Elephants by Will Avery ©2014

    If you close your mind, you'll never see
    what is there so obviously.
    Is it a snake, a spear, a wall, a fan, a rope or a tree?
    Nope. E-L-E-P-H-A-N-T

    1 hungry elephant, 1hungry elephant
    1hungry, 1 hungry, 1
    1 hungry elephant walking down the street
    1 trunk, 2 ears, 4 big feet
    What’s for dinner? It’s time to eat.
    Peanuts, peanuts!
    What a treat.

    2 hungry elephants, 2 hungry elephants
    2 hungry, 2 hungry, 2
    2 hungry elephants walking down the street
    2 trunks, 4 ears, 8 big feet
    What’s for dinner? It’s time to eat.
    Peanuts, peanuts!
    What a treat.

  19. Hi Michele -

    This is a great story! I am actually planning a trip to Malaysia/Indonesia at the end of June/Beginning of July and I am looking into going to the Elephant Safari Park. I am interested in making sure that it is a cruelty-free because I do not believe in treating these animals with anything less than respect and love. I wanted to ask you how you did your research to be sure this facility reach your standards? I have check out the website and visitor feedback and it looks good. But I am not sure if there is something I should be looking for. I noticed that they have elephant rides with the crates - which kind of turns me off. Please let me know if you have any suggestions. It would be greatly appreciated.

  20. Hi Michele -

    I am planning a trip to Malaysia/Indonesia at the end of June and was looking into going to the Elephant Safari Park in Bali. I noticed that you were concerned about the safety/cruelty-free treatment of the animals and I was curious as to what you researched to be sure it met your standards. I want to be sure that this facility truly cares for these beautiful creature before I go ahead and book a tour with them. I would like to do the elephant ride - but I noticed that they used the crates to ride them. This is supposed to be an elephant sanctuary and it looks like they treat the animals fairly but I would like to have the opinion of someone who recently did the same thing. Thank you so much in advance! Any insight is greatly appreciated.

    1. Thank you so much for your concern. According to the Elephant Nature Park that I visited in Thailand, no elephants should be ridden or trained to perform. Using seats on an elephant is worse than bareback, but even bareback should not be done. Bullhooks should definitely not be used. My research was personal recommendations from friends and the vast number of reviews I found on-line. How does the place you are considering train their elephants? Positive reinforcement? Beating them into submission? If you consider the spectrum of elephant treatment, the place I wrote about above is one of the kindest, and places that force elephants to perform and beg on city streets are on the other end. From my quick look at the Elephant Safari Park in Bali's website, it seems like they are perhaps not as kind as the one I went to. I only say this because the ones at the Thailand park were not required to perform or give rides. Our interaction with them was feeding and bathing. (Although, I'm sure the elephants could have cleaned themselves just fine on their own.) People have different levels of comfort in accepting to what degree elephants are made to serve people. It's kind of like how some people are vegetarians, others only eat free-range chickens/cows, and others are less selective. (I'm in the less selective category, myself.) Do what feels right to you.

  21. Hi Michele. Great post. I am just reading it now as Our Whole Village recently scheduled a trip to Thailand in November. ENP is one of our stops. Great tip on the video. We'll have several kids with us so we will be sure to move on our before the part about the phajaan starts. So awful!!!


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