Caring for elephants in Chiang Mai

Today’s forecast: 38°C, foggy ⛅️

Mosquito bite tally: 5

The best day ever

It really was. Today we went on our highly anticipated visit to Elephant Nature Park which we had booked 60 days in advance. It was our most expensive activity on this trip at 6000 baht each, but completely worth it.

The Asian elephant is an endangered species whose population once numbered in the range of 100,000 in Thailand alone. Currently, there are only 30,000 globally and 3000 to 4000 in Thailand. There is a long-standing history of abusing elephants for use in entertainment and manual labour such as logging. They’ve also been victim to poaching around the world.

Elephant Nature Park was established in the 1990s by a Thai woman named Lek Chailert. She originally started with three elephants and in the ensuing years has grown this sanctuary to house over 80 rescued elephants. It also runs an outreach initiative called Saddle Off, whereby it provides support to smaller independent elephant camps.

Visiting Care for Elephants

We participated in one of the Saddle Off programs, called Care for Elephants. It is a camp owned by a man named Ben, who rescued three senior female elephants (ranging from late 50s to 75 years old) from the tourism industry where they had been used for activities like riding. Riding elephants is actually incredibly painful and damaging to the elephants themselves, as their spinal anatomy is not built to withstand the weight. Therefore, camps like this one have a strict ‘no ride’ policy and their main goal is to allow the elephants to live as natural a life as possible. They usually can never be released back to the wild because of the extent to which they have been habituated to humans.

Preparing elephant food

We were picked up from our hotel at around 8:30 am and driven to the camp located about one hour from Chiang Mai city centre. When we arrived, we received a brief orientation and then started preparing some snacks for the elephants.

There were only six people in our group so we had a really intimate and interactive experience. Our guide was a cool guy named Pitpat who told Mr. Chuckles all about his interesting childhood growing up in a hillside village in northern Thailand.

Walking to the river for an elephant bath

Next, we went on a hike with the three elephants and their mahouts, down the jungle paths and along the river. We were right up close to them and I got a bit nervous about potentially being trampled, but they were all very gentle and easily directed by their mahouts. Just make sure you have your supply of bananas on hand! I was cornered a few times and poked by trunks along the walk.

We were joined by a dog posse on our trek too. They seem to get along pretty well with the elephants. There was only one moment where there was a little tussle after one of the elephants nearly stepped on a dog and got spooked.

We left the elephants by the river bank before we headed further uphill to the dining lodge for lunch. The views were a bit better today as I think some of the smoke has started to clear. Even though the temperature reading was in the high 30s, we actually felt cooler here than in Bangkok.

After lunch, we went back downhill and into the river to give the elephants a bath. They got the full spa treatment and then we got into a water fight ourselves, a nice reprieve from the heat.

Touring Elephant Nature Park

We ended the day with a tour through the main sanctuary which is right across the river from Care for Elephants. We were able to observe several packs of elephants, including some little ones having a splash.

I also caught a couple enjoying dust baths.

None of the elephants are related but they have independently formed about five separate ‘families’ amongst themselves. Sadly, the males must be separated due to their aggressiveness, so they are kept in their own enclosure.

We met our guide’s personal favourite elephant, named Lucky. Her story is quite sad. She was rescued from the circus industry where she was severely abused, to the point that she became blind in both eyes as she was forced to perform under an excessively bright spotlight. When she arrived, she was adopted by one of the older females who has since passed away. Now she mostly spends her days isolated alone, but there’s hope that she’ll make a new friend at some point.

On our way out, we passed through the kitchen and saw the tons of food that are brought in to sustain these elephants. They love their bananas.

We were dropped off at our hotel in the early evening. We were exhausted by that time but it was a happy type of tiredness. This day was the highlight of our trip so far! Also, I didn’t get any more mosquito bites so I think I was indeed blessed by that monk yesterday.

3 thoughts on “Caring for elephants in Chiang Mai

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