Posted by: rob | August 24, 2007

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

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We’ve just had two of the most enjoyable (and saddest) days of our trip. We had a two day visit of the Elephant Nature Park, an hour north of Chiang Mai in the Mae Taeng valley. Thailand is chock full of elephant “experiences”. You can ride elephants, watch them paint pictures, play drums, do a trick for food, or lug supplies on trekking adventures. This park is different because it does none of that. It is home to 31 elephants that have been abused or orphaned or rescued over the last ten years.

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An elephant and his mahout.

First, the good stuff. You can watch the elephants in their natural habitat playing and frolicking and socialising amonst themselves. Elephants have lifespans similar to humans and form families of similar composition and duration. At the park you will find elephants aged from a year old to more than seventy years old. Some of the youngsters have mothers but all have “aunties”. These are elephants that help out or have adopted them, even if not genetically related. There are a couple of older male elephants including the king of the clan.

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Kim gets a snotty elephant kiss.

We signed up for a two day visit, but many people volunteer for a week or month or even longer. Most tourists visit as daytrippers. First port of call after being picked up from our guesthouse in Chiang Mai was to buy fruit at the market. Each elephant can eat over 100kg of food a day so you we had to form a chain-gang for the exercise. We loaded three pickup trucks with watermelons and bananas, and this was just breakfast. Arriving at the park you meet the other tourists, numbering about forty on the first day of our visit and twenty on the second day. Most of the time you spend on a wooden platform that extends out into a field at what should be described as “trunk height”.

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A mahout playing with his elephant.

Your guide for the day begins by introducing you to the various elephants and their relationships with each other, and before long a dozen of them are sniffing around the group with their trunks for they are expecting lunch. Each elephant has a laundry basket full of fruit made to order. One wants its watermelons peeled, another won’t eat bananas, another won’t touch the cucumbers until the rest has all gone. Feeding doesn’t take long. There are enough elephants for every tourist to have their own to feed and you soon discover their personalities. There are cheeky elephants, nosy elephants, lonely elephants, greedy elephants, fast eaters and slow eaters. You don’t get out of this exercise without a lot of elephant drool and snot on your hands.

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A few hundred kilos of elephant rolling in the mud.

After the elephants have their lunch we have ours, trying to avoid it being such a spectacle. In fact, the food is excellent. Because it is a buffet there is something for everyone, including vegetarians like us. Once lunch is over it is time for the next highlight of the day. Everyday the elephants are washed at about 1pm and 4pm and it is their favourite time of day. By now they are covered it mud, dirt and flies. Everyone heads to the river for the washing ritual and it is one of the funniest things you could ever see. These giants like nothing more than splashing and playing in water, rolling over and over. At times they totally disappear underwater only to reappear and trumpet water over anyone in range. With washbucket and srubbing brush we set to work cleaning them and these huge animals are as happy as kittens or puppies. An amazing experience even after these months of exotic travel.

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Practising the hat trick.

After washing the elephants we meet Lek, the founder of the park. Her names means small in Thai and she is definitely that. Every one of the elephants comes to greet her and it is clear she has a special affinity with them. Kind of an elephant whisperer! We learn the various stories behind each elephant. One walks like an invalid because she had her legs broken in logging accidents. Another is totally blind because her mahout (handler) stabbed her eyes out with arrows in order to invoke subservience. Yet another was shot because he threw some tourists off his back. The king was victim of ivory poachers. One killed a man because it couldn’t take the abuse. Every elephant has a story like this.

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Our accomodation for the night.

Between the two washing sessions we watch a National Geographic DVD that shows the plight of the elephant and Lek’s campaign to save them. There were 100000 elephants in Thailand a century ago, 25000 twenty years ago, 5000 ten years ago, and less than 2000 today. Almost all elephants lead horrific lives that I had no idea about. I’d thought this park was about rescuing sick or abused animals but the footage shows that almost all elephants in the tourist trade are abused. Even the elephants at sanctioned parks like the Elephant Conservation Centre near Chiang Mai abuse animals to train them into performing for us tourists. Lek has taught two of the baby elephants at the park to do similar tricks, like kissing with the trunk, or picking up hats, through positive reinforcement only, not negative reinforcement. She hopes to spread the method throughout Asia.

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Lek, the founder of Elephant Nature Park

The daytrippers disappear and we watch some of the training first hand. Dinner is as excellent as lunch and we meet many of the volunteers who have been there for weeks or months. Accomodation is definitely on the rustic side but the bed is comfortable. The night is far from silent. Apart from 31 elephants there are 42 dogs, a dozen cats, water buffalo, cows, frogs, and millions of insects in the park.

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Kim scrubbing an elephant.

Day two is much like day one except that in the morning we are allowed to go for a walk with the elephants. There are just five of us overnighters but we have six elephants (and their mahouts) to ourselves. Whatever we thought of yesterday, today is the highlight so far. One of the youngsters plays in the water for more than an hour while we take many photos (I took 400+ photos in 24 hours). The elephants let you get very close to them as they now recognise us in the same way we recognise them. Watching the blind elephant is incredible as she holds her trunk to the ground and listens to where the others are.

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I could go on and on about our trip but what everyone should do is visit for themselves. It was a great and memorable experience.

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Responses

  1. What a fantastic trip this must have been! Thank you for sharing such an experience with the rest of us. It is a true eye opener to the life of elephants that we are not usually exposed to.

    Great pictures! Would love to see all 400+ of them!

  2. HY Kim and Rob
    I read your Blogg and it is fantastic! I like to hear more of your travel.
    BTW i will come to Sydney next year for three month. I’m so exited! May you still remember me, I do not then I was a baby the last time.
    Wish you the best and enjoy your travel.
    See you soon
    Marcel

  3. Hey K&R, Thanks for all the fantastic pix. We’re back from our frolics in SF/LA/Hawaii – just 18 days!!!
    Had a great time, but it was miserable coming back to crappy British weather. The only mistake was flying with United – what a crap airline. I’m not someone who has dreams about hijacking planes, but I now understand how some could be tempted. At least it would get the planes to leave the airport on time. I’d rather fly by Ryanair to the US, with Osama Bin Laden as the pilot. United is a budget airline masking itself as some kind of rival to Virgin.
    Good news! Your blog is the first to go into my Google Reader, a rare “privilege”!
    Keep the pix coming – we want to be off as well.
    SH/TT xxx

  4. Wow, Im heading to Chiang mai in Feb with 4 friends & my partner & I can’t wait visit the Elephant Nature Park. Your blog is fantastic, also sad to hear of so many Elephants being mis-treated. Wonderful pictures, thankyou for sharing this experience with us & inspiring us to also visit this amazing place.

    Jemma x

  5. We visited the park in the middle of February 2008 and agree with everything you have said. It was a truly magical experience and we will go back so we can stay overnight.

  6. I went just today! it was incredible and the woman, Lek, is really inspiring. I loved bathing the loving creatures and they espacially love you! they give me kisses and it was adorable. I also loved feeding them. they were all cheeky. They show you a documentry to show you how much different they are from other elephant camps etc. in the documentry, it is about Lek and how she helped the animals. She talks to you about some of there past and its sooooooooooooo sad!!! She is famous in alot of the american nature shows. 😛
    Come here and you will have so much fun. You can play with the dogs and see some cats and some wild piglets while your waiting for the elephant. Have fun and enjoy!!! x

  7. oh by the way…!

    Thai people can be kind but some are mean 😉 wanted to say because I am thai and I truly want to help them too.

  8. Really enjoyed this post – must have been amazing to interact with those elephants. The one in the second pic looks like it’s smiling! Do they show emotion?


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