Travel

Take a day trip to the Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai

Years ago, Mike went to visit the Elephant Nature Park during his trip through Thailand. Here’s why you should go there too…

There are about twenty different elephant experiences within an hour or so of Chiang Mai. They run the spectrum from very-elephant-friendly to downright cruel. The worst feature circus shows and pile clumps of tourists on the over-worked elephants (even the Frommer’s guide has a photo of people riding elephants) — and the nicest of concierges have no idea why visitors would even have an issue about this.

I’m no PETA activist, but I couldn’t have enjoyed myself if I thought I was helping mistreat elephants. So after some research, I settled on the Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai, and I’m really glad I did…

A quick history lesson that you’re welcome to skip: In 1989, the Thai government banned logging, which was mostly a good thing, except for the massive number of elephants working in that industry… who were promptly laid off and sold into the tourist trade. We saw a small elephant being walked on a street on Chiang Mai, where its hook-wielding owner was angling for tips around bars, and as you can imagine, that elephant looked miserable.

Apparently there were at one point 100,000 Asian elephants in this country, and now there are 4000 — half of which are “domestic,” and only protected with livestock laws… which means not really anything. So lots of horrible stuff happens to elephants.

Then there’s this woman named Sangduen Chailert, who everyone calls “Lek” (which means “small” in Thai), who’s been working tirelessly to adopt and care for as many of these elephants as she can at her Elephant Nature Park. She was Time’s “Asian Hero of the Year” in 2005.

The Elephant Nature Park is a large camp in the middle of a 40 acre valley, where there are thirty elephants, their corresponding Burmese “kwan” (they call their elephant keepers that instead of “mahouts”), and a bunch of (mostly white) volunteers — besides the day-trippers.

I was part of a group of eight people who showed up, to get a day tour of the place. There were some kids volunteering (cutting up fruit, washing elephants, etc) with their parents for the week, and it seemed like they were having the summer camp experience of their lives.

We were introduced to a lot of the elephants. To a couple people’s dismay, but to the majority’s delight, there was no riding, or watching the animals do tricks. We just spent a lot of time feeding them (they mow through a basket of fruit in no time), enjoying a great Thai buffet lunch with the humans.

Then we washed the elephants in the river — tossing buckets of water on them for a while. At which point they walk onto the bank and promptly toss mud on their backs.

We also got to hang out with a couple of the babies for a while too. Shockingly, baby elephants are really cute!

Most of the elephants have sob stories, of which we heard a bunch… His mom was shot by farmers, her owners gave her amphetamines to work her 24 hours a day, he stepped on a landmine, etc… But they seemed really happy to be at the sanctuary, where they have a pretty great life.

And to complete the earnest part of this post, it was amazing to meet Lek, who happened to be at the park in the afternoon, and she was a minor celebrity to the guests. This sounds cheesy, but she had a really cool aura — it seemed like we were hanging out with a Dian Fossey.

Have you been to the Elephant Nature Park recently? Was the experience the same? Any tips for when we take a return trip as a family?

Mike Horowitz

Mike writes, eats, and travels like the fate of the world depends on it. He's also the producer of Prison Break, Burn Notice, and The Gifted.

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