Warning: This post contains pictures of gorgeous elephants – you may find it difficult to drag your eyes away!
Big brown eyes stare down at me, rimmed with gorgeous long lashes. I want to reach out and feel the grooves in the thick grey skin, but there’s a long trunk swinging in between me and the elephant, and the guide just told us that one good whack can knock a grown man out – or worse.
Chiang Mai has many options for spending time with elephants and it’s hard to choose – particularly if you want to know which outfit is truly building a sustainable operation with the welfare of its elephants firmly front of mind. After some lengthy research, I read a post by Maggie of Girl Ventures which confirmed my choice, Elephant Nature Park. Travel blogger Shannon from A Little Adrift also told me later that night that this is one of the best choices in Chiang Mai, so I was pleased with my selection.
Elephant Nature Park is run by a Thai lady called Lek who has dedicated her life to rescuing elephants that have been abandoned or abused. She has rescued over 30 elephants and brings them to live in a huge, grassy sanctuary where they can roam and experience love and kindness from their mahout, their handler.
Videos shown to visitors throughout the day highlight the abuse that elephants can suffer, the cruel tactics used to domesticate them, and the devastating effects that work such as logging or tourism can have.
We spent the day learning how to feed elephants properly and then marvelling at just how much they need to eat in a day. We also helped bathe them in the river, laughing as they enjoyed themselves, rolling around, weightless, in the river that flows through the park. At Elephant Nature Park, visitors and volunteers don’t ride the elephants – which suited me fine. Riding elephants, particularly in the seats strapped to the top of an elephant’s back, can do great damage to an elephant over the years, something I wish I’d done my research on years ago when I first came to Thailand and rode an elephant in this way.
One of the things that surprised me about Elephant Nature Park is that they don’t end the visit asking for donations. Rather, they focus on education and want visitors to go away and tell people about the cruelty that many domesticated elephants suffer in Thailand, so that people can make informed choices.
If you’re in Chiang Mai, I would highly recommend visiting Elephant Nature Park and getting very up close and personal with these gorgeous animals.