Thailand · Travel Tales

A Day at the Elephant Nature Park

I’ve waxed poetic about Chiang Mai, but I haven’t told you yet about my favorite experience there: spending a day feeding, bathing, and mostly hanging around watching a herd of gentle giants at the Elephant Nature Park.

DSC_9893
Getting ready for a bath!

Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation center about an hour’s drive north of Chiang Mai. Our guide, Beebee, told us upfront in the van going to ENP Chiang Mai: “We don’t have beautiful elephants here.” The elephants had been used for illegal logging, trekking, or begging in city streets. You’d see the scars of maltreatment on them — bent backs, limping legs, blind eyes, a foot torn off by a land mine — and your heart will break. Each of them has a sad story. Yet ENP found a way to rescue them, usually by buying them, and here they found healing and sanctuary. They roam around freely here (except at night, when they are caged or chained to prevent them from wandering out to other farms) and are dearly loved.

We were picked up at our guesthouse at past 8am. We drove around Chiang Mai to pick up other guests, and then we rode up north to the park. Here we watched a short documentary about elephants in Thailand and how they’ve been exploited by the tourism industry. It also told of this amazing woman, Lek Chailert, who founded the Elephant Nature Foundation. She’s a Time Hero of Asia in 2005 for her efforts in the conservation of Asian elephants. Later in the day, we had a chat with her. I was a little starstruck. She’s small, and yet she’s bounding with energy. (And she knows about the sad-looking elephant in Manila Zoo, I’m ashamed to say.)

Was lucky enough to capture this shot of Lek. The elephants obviously love her!
I was lucky enough to capture this shot of Lek toward the afternoon. The elephants obviously love her!

We seemed to be headed up the mountains as we neared the park. It was beside other elephant farms and shared a river with them. When we arrived, we were told that the first order of the day was to feed them. Then we were shown the elephants’ meal: lots and lots of bananas, watermelons, squash, cucumbers, and tamarind squished to conceal medicine.

Since we were only getting acquainted with the elephants, we fed them from a platform to avoid any accidents. Joey, Vince, and I fed one female.

I’ll never forget the first time I gave a fruit to an elephant, the first time I touched an elephant trunk — mostly because I realized then and there how strong its trunk is as it put its trunk around my outstretched hand. Call it a gentle giant, but it’s strong! I never fully appreciated how it could carry logs till then.

Eyeing us and our bucket of goodies.
Eyeing us and our bucket of goodies.

We eventually got the hang of it. We gave the fruits first, giving them the vegetables last (it let go of the first cucumber we gave it; it hates veggies like you as a kid). It even tried to see whether we were keeping more in our basket.

A staff member feeding a male elephant
A staff member feeding a male elephant

After feeding, we walked around a bit to meet other elephants. They’re a lot like people, really; they’d have a best friend of sorts, or they’d become motherly toward a younger elephant of no relation. They’d also form groups, like peer groups.

Here's an elephant next to an elephant grave. Really, they're like humans.
Here’s an elephant next to an elephant grave. Really, they’re like humans.

We also got to meet month-old Dok Mai, a gorgeous female. She was a tad playful to us when we said hello to her. For a while, she kept reaching at our legs with her trunk. I stroked her back, thinking that baby elephant hair would feel like my dog’s fur, but it actually felt bristly, like toothbrush! She played with until her mom, Dok Ngern, waddled nearby and Dok Mai hid between her mom’s legs.

Dok Mai with her mahout
Dok Mai with her mahout

There was a point when Dok Ngern peed, and it was like a gushing forth of a bucketful of water. “Chang beer!” Beebee quipped. (“Chang” means elephant in Thai, and Chang beer is like that brand of beer you’d rather not buy if you had San Miguel on the menu.)  This was followed by her very fibrous poop. But then, Dok Mai followed suit. And then we were told that elephant calves eat their moms’ droppings. Hey, I have an awesome picture of that.

DSC_9846
Still so cute.

Owing to that event, we decided to move on.

We learned more about the stories of each elephant we came across. (You can read them here.) We learned about their past and what they’re like now that they’re in ENP. In essence: each is a harrowing story with a happy ending.

Our guide, Beebee, introducing us to the herd.
Our guide, Beebee, introducing us to the herd. It was quite amazing how she knew all the elephants’ names!
DSC_9875
I fed one of these elephants by sticking a banana into her mouth. It was like…sticking a hand into a huge mouth. It was awesome.

For lunch, we had a sumptuous buffet. I piled my plate with noodles and what looked like meat till I was told that they were all vegetarian food. I didn’t even notice. (I was never the type to; I just eat.)

By the way, ENP is also home to more than 200 dogs that were rescued as strays, especially after the flooding in Thailand in 2011. They could be found roaming around with the people, even following them as they go off to see the elephants. They have amazing stories, too. They’re all spayed and neutered, and just like the elephants are given care. (I would’ve brought one home with me, but you know.)

DSC_9991

After lunch came my favorite part: bathing the elephants! We didn’t scrub them or ride on their backs so that we could fall together to the water. We mostly just tossed water to them in buckets and stayed on their sides in case they attacked us from the front or pooped at us from the back. But I suppose they warmed up to us eventually and let us wash them even as we were staring right into their eyes.

Joey, Vince and I washing our elephant.
Joey, Vince and I washing our elephant.
And this is my awesome photo with Mintra (I think?). She got her sloping back from a childhood accident. Also, she got hit by a car at four years old while begging in Bangkok's streets. She's better now. :)
And this is my awesome photo with Mintra (I think?). She got her sloping back from a childhood accident. Also, she got hit by a car at four years old while begging in Bangkok’s streets. She’s better now. 🙂
Man and elephant playing. This was rather cute to watch.
Man and elephant playing. This was rather cute to watch.
Waiting for afternoon snacks!
Afternoon snacks!

DSC_9985

DSC_9987
Now I know what their soles look like 🙂

Later in the afternoon, we watched a video of how elephants are trained to become tourist attractions. It’s not a pretty video. You could see parts of it here. Elephants are intelligent, independent creatures and would protect its own, so taming it is not easy — and traditionally, phajaan, a form of negative reinforcement, is used. A small cage is used to contain the elephant while “trainers” hit the elephant or poke it with spiked sticks. It is also starved and deprived of sleep. This goes on until it bleeds and its spirit breaks so that it has no other choice but to follow what its master wills it to do. Apparently, if you have given an elephant and its owner money to feed it bananas as it roamed around the city, if you have watched an elephant paint, or if you have ridden on an elephant’s back on a wooden bench, then you have possibly contributed to this cycle of abuse — all in the name of tourism.

There are a few other elephant camps that advocate training using humane methods. ENP uses positive reinforcement, and that’s how Lek and her staff managed to tame even the most broken among the ENP elephants.

There’s an irony I still can’t comprehend up to now, as a non-Thai. Elephants are supposed to be revered creatures; white elephants are sacred and given to kings. And yet these abusive practices are also rooted in tradition. It’s difficult to understand, really.

But I could understand only one thing as I looked at the elephants there at ENP: they’re better here.

DSC_9998

I had the most fantastic time here. It’s a must-do trip if you ever decide to go to Chiang Mai.

#

Inform yourself before going to an elephant camp in Thailand — or in any other tourist spot you plan on going, for that matter. Be an intelligent traveler! (Admittedly, I’m still in the process of learning how to be one. But this is a start.)

Read about sustainable travel in Thailand here, and here’s an article on why elephant riding should be taken off your bucket list.

You can book a day trip or overnight trip (or even a week-long immersion) at the Elephant Nature Park through their website, or the website of the Elephant Nature Foundation. The price is steep, but haven’t I convinced you yet?

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “A Day at the Elephant Nature Park

  1. I think that an advice to be an intelligent traveller must not include a place with this high intensive visitors numbers to interact with elephants at a place that had a very large turnover of elephants (over 70) throughtout the years, has to be combined with a small warning, considering that an avarage of Asias elephants are spreading Tuberculosis. To be on the safe side, dont touch the elephants, dont feed them, and wear some sort of protection masks.

    TB is an airborne lethal disease, which is classified as Zoonosis, it can be transered from elephants to human and back.

    The Elephant Nature Park of course, would like you to be believe that theres no TB risk, but they have never informed about the risk on their website, or asked veterinarys from Lampang or Chiang Mai to come and check their elephants. Learn more:

    http://www.elephant.se/mycobacterium_tuberculosis.php

    It is not known if any of the 16 elephants that died at ENP went through a scientific autopsy:
    http://www.elephant.se/location2.php?location_id=174&show=4

    USA: According to page 21 of the APHIS manual on Guidelines for controlling TB in elephants: “It is essential that a post-mortem examination be performed on all elephants that die. The examination must inc…lude a thorough search for lesions of tuberculosis regardless of exposure status. Prior to any planned euthanasia of an elephant, trunk washes, blood for serology and any other ancillary tests should be performed regardless of whether or not TB is suspected. In this way, valuable data can be gathered to evaluate the efficacy of the current testing protocol. In the event of a sudden death, collect post-mortem blood and separate serum for other tests.”

    Iin USA today, 2 “elephant sanctuaries” are TB infected,
    http://dankoehl.blogspot.com/2012/01/tuberculosis-in-two-elephant.html

    in one 9 of the staff has tested positive for TB in one of those sanctuaries: ” In this instance, TB spread to eight employees, though three of them didn’t work directly with the elephant, ”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/16/tb-elephants-in-tennessee-_n_824140.html

    With all the best intentions to give tourists advice how to spend their vacation in Thailand, please at least inform about the medical risks, and the outcome of your own test later. Not many places hada turnover of +70 elephants, and 16 deaths of elephahts with no official autopsy report made public.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s