Responsible elephant tourism in Thailand
Our arrival in Thailand may have played out like a club 18-30 holiday, but during our week in Chiang Mai I was humbled by getting up close and personal with some beautiful animals at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. There are plenty of things to do in Chiang Mai, but spending some time with majestic elephants in the Northern Thai province should be on every travellers’ bucket list.
There are numerous ways to see elephants in Thailand, but the Nature Park is the most ethical. This defines YOLO, a million miles away from puking from a motorbike in Koh Pa Ngan.
Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park
The Elephant Nature Park is an eye-opening experience. Nestled in a natural valley and surrounded by mountains, it’s run by a lady called Lek (which means ‘small’ – and small she is), who was brought up in a village tribe. She was gifted an elephant as a child after she saved a man’s life and has dedicated her life to rescuing elephants from the Thai tourist trade and rehousing them at her huge conservation, which opened in 1995. When she saved her first elephant, she kept it at her house. Lek was named as Asian Hero of the Year by Time magazine in 2005.
This incredible woman clearly lived and breathed her herd – I spotted one wrap his trunk around her neck and give her a big, smelly kiss!
There are now 35 elephants at the park, all living happy, healthy lives being looked after by their dedicated carers. Only four are males, and there are some heart-wrenching friendships between the animals. Around lunchtime, the roaming elephants gathered and let us feed them. They weren’t scared of humans anymore, thanks to the care they’ve received at the rehabilitation center.
One elephant we met was blinded by her previous owner and was very timid, but she made a friend at Lek’s centre and now the two elephants never leave each others’ side.
There were two babies when we were there and the older elephants were very protective of them.
Most of the creatures had terrible backgrounds in illegal logging jobs or, after being abandoned when logging was banned; sold to trekking companies in Thailand. While at the park, we watched a video that showed how these trekking companies train their elephants by forcing them into submission. To do this, they keep them in crush pens and beat them. A lot of the elephants we spent time with bore physical and mental scars from their time in abusive situations, and it soured the idea of elephant rides through the forest and the customary tourist pictures we had once longed for, sat on an elephant’s back in hippy trousers with a tan.
We fed them bananas and pineapples then headed down to the river to bathe them. You get used to standing next to the largest animal to walk the earth quickly, and forget about the sludge under your feet when you’re stroking their rough skin.
You can volunteer at the park to work with the elephants or help out at the adjoining rescued dogs center.
The next trip took us to the Chiang Mai Tiger Sanctuary – a little different from our experience with wild elephants, but what we learned there convinced me this particular sanctuary looked after its animals properly.
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