Pretty much anyone who knows me at all knows that no place in the world holds my heart as much as the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I have had the privilege of staying there twice now, once as a volunteer worker and then again this year just as a visitor, and I’m already planning my return. This place is truly paradise on earth, unlike the majority of elephant tourist attractions in Asia, the Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary in every sense of the word. There is no elephant riding here and you wont be watching them do any tricks. Here, the elephants have been rescued from a number of places: circuses, logging operations and cruel elephant trekking camps, ‘farms’ or even ‘sanctuaries’, where they were forced to perform tricks, participate in street begging, were exploited for elephant rides and were subjected to horrifying acts of abuse and cruelty.
Elephant Tourism is a huge industry in Thailand, people come from all over the world to experience seeing these beautiful creatures up close, unfortunately often at the cost of the elephants themselves. Most people are simply unaware of the cruelty that is involved with the majority of these attractions, I definitely was until I spent some time at ENP, where I learnt all about what goes on behind the scenes. Elephant rides are one of the most popular animal ‘experiences’ for tourists visiting Thailand– I know that it was on my bucket list for many years. But what most people don’t realise, is that despite their huge size, elephants are just not built to carry humans around- particularly for hours at a time as it is extremely damaging to their spine and hips.
Elephants must also go through a process called “Phajaan” or “Spirit Crushing” in order to be ridden by tourists or perform tricks etc, where baby elephants are stolen from their mothers in the wild and are then abused and tortured so that they become totally compliant. They are starved, confined in cages, tied up and then beaten into submission with clubs and stabbed with sharp hooked instruments and nails that rip their skin. Eventually they are so beaten by the torture that they have faced that those who have survived the process (Over half of them die during it) they will do anything that is asked of them because they are so, so afraid.
Although you cannot ride elephants at the Elephant Nature Park, there are lots of things that you can do. You can feed them their favourite foods: pumpkin, watermelon and bananas. You can bath them in the river (whilst they playfully spray you with water in return), you can spend time with them- watching them play and interact with one another and walk alongside them.
Although they have a happy life here, where they know that they will never have to work a day in their life, many of the elephants have injuries and disfigurements that remain from their past lives. There are elephants with broken hips and backs, and disfigured legs and spines- not to mention the horrible mental repercussions of their past abuse. The hardship that they have all suffered makes their trust of humans and playfulness even more special.
I will treasure the memories of my time here for the rest of my life. I truly cannot recommend this place enough, there are not enough words to describe how incredible it is. It is pure magic. The last time I was there I woke up just before 5am because I couldn’t sleep, and grabbed a blanket and went and sat out on our balcony looking over where some of the elephants were sleeping. I watched them slowly awaken, stretching and nudging each other as they began to chatter, and let out the occasional trumpet, watching as one of the babies poked and prodded her mum until she rolled over to smack her with her trunk for waking her up. Watching the sun rise over the sanctuary, as the elephants began to awaken and play with one another was an experience that I will never forget.
Alongside the elephants, the Elephant Nature park is also home to over 400 dogs, lots of cats, a monkey and countless water buffalo. The sanctuary rescues these animals from different places, such cats from the cat meat trade in Vietnam and dogs from all over Thailand who were often either sick and starving or on the street, or were dumped at the sanctuary by people who didn’t want to take care of them anymore. Here they get a chance to live out the rest of their lives in peace, free from abuse and fear of being killed.
There are a range of programs that you can do at the sanctuary, ranging from a half day or a single day visiting programs to week/ two week or even long term volunteering programs. The volunteering with elephants program is probably the most popular, where you spend 7 days working with and for the elephants feeding them, bathing them and helping to build enclosures, prepare food etc. Although the Elephant Nature Park is more expensive than most other elephant attractions in Thailand you get a lot more for your money. The price includes accommodation, food (a delicious vegetarian buffet for every meal- literally some of the best food I’ve ever eaten), transport to and from the park, information and education about elephants and the issues they are facing, wifi and activities, such as tubing down the river and visiting children in the local hill-tribe school.
All of the money goes towards the elephants- their food, ongoing medical treatments and maintaining the sanctuary so it is a safe and happy place for them to live, as well as rescuing more elephants and other animals. However if you are looking to do the week long elephant volunteer program, but it is totally out of your budget, there are ways to work around that: I would recommend doing the week long dog volunteer program instead, it is less than half the cost and whilst you will be mostly working with the dogs, you will still get a substantial amount of time to interact with and feed the elephants and will possibly get to bath them too. Another alternative is you could come for an overnight stay, or a single day stay as they are obviously substantially cheaper and are also incredible. We did an overnight stay this year and it was truly special- we spent almost all day with the elephants on both days, and spent our free time running around and playing with the dogs.
It is our responsibility to support organisations like this. Organisations who put the animals needs before their greed, or need for money. Organisations who do not abuse and exploit the animals. Elephant rides & other forms of unethical animal tourism are declining in popularity as more people become aware of the torture behind them, and are instead choosing to support ethical organisations. It is incredibly important that we vote with our dollar and support these organisations who often receive little to no money from the government.
When we pay to ride elephants, or to watch them do tricks, or for any other kind of exploitative animal attraction, we are saying that that is okay. That we can and will turn a blind eye to the cruelty in order to ride them, or get a cute selfie with them. There are a number of ethical animal attractions popping up now, that let you see these incredible animals up close, and have that special experience and take incredible photos- it doesn’t have to be at the disadvantage of these beautiful creatures. Do your research before you go travelling and look up what ethical animal attractions are around– but be careful of those that appear ethical that are really not: such as elephant ‘sanctuaries’ in Thailand that offer elephant rides and performances.
Elephant Nature Park Website: www.elephantnaturepark.org
Elephant Nature Park Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheElephantNaturePark/?fref=ts
A number of videos taken at the Elephant Nature Park have actually gone viral, check them out here:
More info on elephant tourism in Asia: