The Real Thailand Elephant Experience
Elephant Nature Park ~ Chiang Mai, Thailand
I turned around just in time as the massive frame of the elephant lumbered by. This close encounter is a welcome hazard when concentrating on getting the perfect camera shot while spending the day at the Elephant Nature Park just north of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
On my previous journey to Chiang Mai I had simply hopped into a cab and asked the driver to take me to the nearest place I could ride an elephant. The experience left me in awe of the creatures but with a bitter taste in my mouth as well. It seemed to me that the elephants I saw were unhappy, perhaps even abused, performing for the tourists simply to make money for their owners. Painting with a brush, standing on their heads, is this what an elephant’s life is all about? After researching on Google it was clear that very few elephant parks in Thailand actually treated their animals humanely. The Elephant Nature Park is different. It is a refuge, a sanctuary, a home for many of the elephants abused and distressed by other parks in the region.
My shuttle wound its way through the rural countryside and into a valley at the foot of the mountains one hour from Chiang Mai. Nestled along the river I watched the sanctuary come into view. As a photographer, the sanctuary provided a perfect opportunity to capture the elephants in a native yet controlled environment unencumbered by chains and fences and party hats. Yes, it wasn’t truly wild but to the elephants it is as wild and free as they would need.
Elephants Nature Park ~ Thailand
My excitement rose as I walked into the main building which served as a gift shop, restaurant and feeding station. The extensive walkways provided the perfect vantage points to photograph the animals. After a brief orientation and information session we toured the facility including the medical station which is a crucial component of the rescue sanctuary. The many charts demonstrated just how vital and intimate the care is for each elephant. This park is truly for them. As a visitor, my role was to observe and help fund the sanctuary through purchasing a day pass and to raise awareness by sharing my experience with others.
Food for Elephants
The ground shook and goosebumps on my forearms rose. It was feeding time. Soon, a few dozens elephants were crunching, chomping and devouring many varieties of fruit. I reached into a pail and held out a banana for the large beast in front of me. The skillfully coiled trunk snatched the fruit from my hand leaving a sopping wet sticky saliva. It became immediately evident that I would either have to towel off or use my elbow to press the shutter button on my camera.
Feeding the Elephants
Once feeding was complete it was our turn to enjoy the buffet. By that I don’t mean the mixture of fruit from the bucket but an appetizing assortment of gently spiced, flavourful Thai food.
Bath time, for the elephants that is ! An elephant’s favourite past time is to scoop dirt with its trunk and throw it onto its back. This keeps them cool from the relentless Thai sun, however, I suspect it’s more likely because they are all young at heart. Into the shallow river armed with buckets, we threw water at our giant friends, trying not to get it in their eyes. The gentle creatures seemed to enjoy this and, judging from the laughing and shrieking of the visitors, the sentiment was mutual.
Elephant Bath Time
After a quick clothing change I went to greet the remainder of the herd, including their infants. What an amazing site as these gigantic animals approached and trod beside me. It is a bit tricky to keep one eye trained on the wandering elephants while using the other to look through the lens of my camera but well worth the challenge. I was immersed not only in the herd, but in the moment, as I captured frame after frame of these beautiful creatures. I am so thankful for this facility, for the work they were doing, and for the experience they were providing people to witness the majesty of these animals in their natural habitat. No wonder this is the second most popular side trip from Chiang Mai.
Elephant Food Buffet
Elephants and their young
As the clock approached 4:00 pm it was time to leave. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to walk with these animals, to touch them, to feed them, to look into their eyes. This experience will stay with me for my entire life even though it only lasted one day. I couldn’t help but think of other elephants whose spirits are still being broken in other parks in Thailand. In order for things to change for them, awareness of their plight will need to be raised. If things are going to change it’s going to have to happen through awareness. Government and tourists alike will have to take action. But that’s another story and the Elephant Nature Park is definitely leading the conversation.
Protecting their Young
You can book a trip to the park using any number of ticket agents in Chiang Mai. I chose to walk directly to their office near Tapae Gate on Moonmuang Road. Because bookings are limited to avoid overcrowding, you simply cannot show up at the park without a pass. 2500 bahts gets you a full day pass. You can also participate in various volunteer program for a more lengthy stay. Shuttles leave every morning from Chiang Mai to take you directly to the sanctuary.
Check out my short video of the awesomeness of the elephants at the park.
For a gallery of all the photos I took while at the park checkout the following link !