Elephant Nature Park: A Safe Haven for Thailand's Wildlife
I stumbled upon Elephant Nature Park several years ago while researching things to do during my first trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. My only criteria then was to have an encounter with Asian elephants—I knew I didn’t want to support businesses that exploit elephants for tourism, which often includes riding them, subjecting them to shows and performances, etc., and so was deliberate in my search for places that allow these majestic creatures to live their lives in a way that resemble the wild―places that allow them to be.
Elephant Nature Park looked to be one of those places, but more than anything, what drew me to it was Sangdue “Lek” Chailert’s story―the pint-sized, formidable founder of the park as well as Save Elephant Foundation. Her small stature didn’t keep her from developing a resounding voice and mission. Growing up in a small tribal village just north of Chiang Mai, under the influence of her grandfather, a shamanic healer, she spent much of her time in nature, surrounded by wildlife. She would often participate in her grandfather’s healing sessions with sick humans and injured animals, and she recognized that animals, like humans, simply wanted to live, and to live well. But it wasn’t until her first encounter with an ailing bull elephant years later―who had been subjected to the abusive logging industry―that propelled Lek to spend the rest of her life rescuing them. For an animal of that size to be beaten by man, for his spirit to be broken in such a way that he no longer recognized himself as an elephant―the trauma, pain, anger and sadness that she saw in his eyes stayed with her for a long time. It roused her to do whatever she could to help all animals. However, Lek is most recognized for her work with the Asian elephant―saving over 200+ of her country’s national symbol from endangerment caused by the logging industry and tourism, but rescued dogs, cats, water buffaloes, and other animals also roam the park.
My first visit to Elephant Nature Park in 2012 exceeded my expectations, and I was fortunate to have had an extended encounter with Lek (pictured above with the camera) during my weekend stay there. The experience was so memorable that I still talk about it with anyone who will listen years later. When I ended up in Chiang Mai again this year for work, I booked a trip back to the park without hesitation, not just because I wanted to spend a day walking amongst majestic giants (who wouldn’t?!) but because I want to support the incredible work Lek and her team are doing.
THE STATE OF ASIAN ELEPHANTS: A NOT-SO-SHORT PSA
Asian vs. African Elephants: Anatomical Differences & Threats to Extinction
Asian elephants, like their larger cousins in Africa, are categorized as endangered, with their numbers in Asia dwindling between 35,000-40,000, down 60-65% from the turn of the 20th century. The African elephant’s biggest threat is poaching―their tusks are in high-demand―as a result of the illegal ivory trade. The Asian elephant differ from their African cousins anatomically―they tend to be a little shorter (7-12 feet versus 8-14 feet for the African elephant), their heads mark the tallest part of them (versus the top of the shoulders), their back is rounded (versus concave), and whereas both males and females of the African elephant have large tusks, most Asian elephants do not. Thus, the primary reasons leading to their endangerment also differ. With roughly 6,000 elephants left in Thailand, half are in captivity and exploited for tourism, while the remaining suffer the loss of natural habitats to an expanding human population.
The largest remaining populations of Asian elephants are found in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar (Burma), where vast areas of forest (the Asian elephant’s habitat) have been or are being cleared to accommodate new human settlements and agriculture. In Myanmar (Burma), where logging is still legal, elephants are vulnerable not only to captivity for work purposes but also to the fragmentation of habitat caused by the logging industry. Elephants are migratory creatures, and many of their migration routes have been disrupted by new settlements and agriculture, where conflicts between humans and herd are inevitable.
More often than not, we fail to think through the downstream effects of the decisions we make (because it’s hard and at times tough to predict). The looming extinction of the African and Asian elephants is a good example of what happens when we neglect to consider the full impact of progress, both good and bad. Deforestation, logging, the ivory-trade, tourism, etc. in-and-of-themselves are not inherently “bad.” They’re far too complex, I think, for us to simply slap a black-or-white label on. They, too, are the consequences of bigger, systemic issues such as overpopulation, poverty and progress. That said, we’ve neglected how we’ve approached and executed on these issues and now face the unfortunate result of our failure to holistically assess the repercussions of deforestation, logging, the ivory-trade and tourism, and the cost is the potential extinction of elephants. Fortunately, there is still some time left, though urgent, for us to think through what the permanent loss of elephants might mean, beyond the emotional, spiritual or even moral realms of reasoning, and take action before it’s too late.
Asian Elephants: The Threat of Unethical Tourism
Since deforestation, logging and the ivory-trade stem from deeper root issues that are beyond my scope of knowledge, I’ll instead focus on the impact of (unethical) tourism and how our negligence as individuals to investigate beyond what we see can have unintended yet deleterious reverberations.
When traveling, most of us seek the kind of rare, unique experiences that we can store away in our memory box, tell and write stories about or grow from. We want proof of it, often in the form of a picture, to look back on with fond remembrance or to show to friends and family. With the proliferation of social media in our daily lives, this has never been truer or easier to achieve. As glamorous and envy-inducing as a picture of riding an elephant (or petting a tiger) might be, we often accept that what we see is all there is, and don’t take the time or energy to probe further as to why or how these elephants have become so docile and obedient. We blindly accept this as their nature, forgetting that they were, are, wild and shouldn’t be subject to the will of man.
So what does it take to sit on an elephant, or to purchase a painting drawn from an elephant, or to give some money to the elephant begging on the streets of Asia, or to attend a show where an elephant performs tricks for our entertainment? The elephants must first be captured. In most cases, the babies are separated from their mothers, and are often injured if not killed during the process. Survivors of the capture undergo a taming process called “crushing” or “phajaan” in Thai, whereby their movement is severely restricted by a cage, ropes or chains and they are rendered immobile. These elephants are deprived of food and water, and are burned or beaten into submission with a bullhook (essentially an icepick with a wooden handle), wood bat or whip. Over the course of days or weeks, their spirit is literally crushed, and they no longer recognize themselves or their mothers. They learn to fear the bullhook―an association made by the handler’s incessant stabbing of their most sensitive areas, their heads, eyes, ears and other parts of their skin. (Sounds an awful lot like slavery or another Holocaust, doesn’t it?) Once these elephants have been broken, they surrender to the commands of the handler and begin their new life as a laborer or entertainer. People often assume that elephants can manage the weight of a couple of humans on their backs because they’re so large and strong; while elephants are indeed the largest and strongest animal on land, their strength comes from their trunks, not their backs. Their spines are not built to sustain much weight, and the constant strain from human riders can leave them with severe spinal injuries that cripple them for life.
It seems inconsequential―to ride an elephant or purchase a piece of art painted by an elephant or to give a few bucks to the elephant begging on the street―yet this validates what the mahout is doing and thus perpetuates the elephant’s misery. Choosing ethical experiences such as observing elephants in the wild or supporting sanctuaries like Elephant Nature Park encourages unethical individuals and businesses to reconsider their ways.
Elephant Nature Park tackles non-ethical tourism and the mistreatment of animals by doing what they can to rescue elephants (amongst other animals) from abusive individuals, environments and unfortunate circumstances. Lek has purchased dozens of sick and injured elephants and brought them to her park, where she provides them with medical treatment, care and the opportunity to live out the rest of their lives in peace. Each elephant at Lek’s park is paired with a mahout (elephant trainer) chosen by the elephant, who cares for them and retrains them through positive reinforcement (with love and bananas vs. crushing and bullhooks). Alongside the increase in awareness campaigns, Lek’s philosophy and business model works―trekking camps throughout Thailand have reached out to her for help and support on converting their elephant work camps into safe havens. Through this, Lek and her compassionate staff at both the park and Save Elephant Foundation are able to extend their reach further and influence the lives of dozens, if not hundreds of elephants for the better―something that would have been much tougher and slower to achieve on her own as limited land space and other resources hinder progress.
The awareness around elephant exploitation for tourism and poaching have proliferated via an abundance of documentaries, shows, blogs, articles, social media, etc. over the past several years. I’ve seen the positive effects of this as my own circle of friends and acquaintances are now well-aware of what it means to go to an elephant trekking camp or circus. So much incredible work has been done around this topic that I started to think it obvious―that by now, most people know about unethical tourism―but this illusion was quickly shattered upon my return to Thailand in October 2018. While many old riding camps have experienced a change of heart (and mind), and transitioned their business model from trekking camp to elephant rescue with Lek’s help, many still remain. In fact, just across the river from Elephant Nature Park, on what is essentially the same plot of land, is a riding camp that still employs dozens of elephants. Yes, progress has been and continues to be made, but we’re in a race against time and rapidly losing our advantage unless extreme measures are taken. The extinction of elephants is not up for debate―it’s happening as I write this―they will be gone within a decade if we don’t pay attention. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and we find ourselves in a desperate time.
ELEPHANT NATURE PARK: AN UNABRIDGED EXPERIENCE
On a warm, humid morning in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I begin to stir as the first morning light seeps in through a gap in the blinds that I’d neglected to seal shut the night before. I feel the brightness penetrate the thin layer of my eyelids, and on any other day, I would have pulled the covers back over my head and sunk my face deeper into the pillow. But on this day, I let myself bathe in the sun’s illuminance as an excitement begins to build in the pit of my stomach and courses its way upward through my veins―manifesting itself in an uncontrollable, teeth-revealing smile that interrupts my eyes from its slumberous state. I am headed back to the Elephant Nature Park today, with my boyfriend (who had never been) in tow. This, to me, is the equivalent of what a visit to Disneyworld is to most seven-year-olds.
The next hour is spent in restless anticipation as we wait for the shuttle that would transport us to the park, some 75 kilometers north of the city. At around 8:30 am, the shuttle arrives in front of our hotel and we are greeted by a cheerful, animated Pim, a petite Thai woman with beaming eyes and a perpetual smile unhindered by the braces guarding her teeth. She introduces herself as our guide for the day and guides us to the van, where only one seat in the front row has been taken, by a young female traveler. I snag the middle seat next to her and pull Jeff down next to me. Most people despise the middle seat, but not me, so long as it has an unobstructed view of the front windshield. I get carsick, and having a full, expansive view of the road and space in front of me is crucial. I think our new friend is caught off guard by my crowding down next to her when half a dozen rows lay open behind her, but she doesn’t look like she’s interested in an explanation, so I keep my reasons and excitement to myself.
For the next twenty minutes, we stop by a handful of other hotels around the old city. Each time, Pim steps out of the van and into the hotel lobby with paper and pen in hand, and greets the newcomers with an infectious smile and an almost saccharine “sawadee-kaaaaaa.” I can’t help but snicker at the drawn out sound of her “kaaaaaa”―and wonder whether it’s purposely exaggerated or if I’m being hypersensitive. By the time we set off for the highway that would lead us out of Chiang Mai and towards the land of the elephants, we are a group of about a dozen. Once the last of the group settle themselves into the van, Pim turns around to address us from the passenger seat, standing on her knees so her head can clear the headrest. She reintroduces herself, explains that she is one of dozens who work as a guide at the park and proceeds to set expectations about the drive, the park, and the day’s itinerary. Jeff and I chose the shorter-day park visit, which means a 6-7 hour day versus 8-9. The drive takes about ninety minutes, during which a short safety animation featuring a blue elephant is shown, followed by a longer documentary made by two sentimental westerners in what must have been the late 90s or early 2000s―based on their dress, mannerisms and the grainy, sepia tint of the film. I recognize the documentary immediately as the same one I had seen six years ago, in a van identical to this one, except my guide then was a petite Thai man named Sakchai and I was headed to the park for an overnight stay. There isn’t anything in either video that adds to my tree of elephant knowledge, but I am happy for the refresher and find myself peeping towards Jeff’s face for a reaction of the shock or surprise variety―there are none. He’s too unflappable.
The documentary ends with twenty minutes to spare in our road trip―the landscape outside of our windows has transitioned from one of blurred buildings and concrete roads to one of blurred trees, rolling hills and dirt paths. As we drive past one small intersecting dirt road after another, signs of elephant camps began to appear with increasing frequency along the sides of the road. It is clear most of them are riding or trekking camps, and I am surprised by the sheer number of them that remain and share the vicinity with Elephant Nature Park. I don’t know what I was expecting―certainly not for all trekking camps to be gone, but after seeing how much Lek’s foundation has grown and how many camps all over Thailand have converted, I just assumed that those in Lek’s front and backyard would have been among the first to change. This is not the case. As we drive past our first working elephant on the side of the highway that morning—her mahout walking beside her and two smiling, wide-eyed tourists sitting on top of her as she trudges along—I feel an energy shift in our van, a crystallization of how different our realities are from that of the world outside, how a tiny piece of knowledge and shared value has brought us all together on this day, and how much work there still is to be done out there. I can’t bring myself to look at the elephant―she remains in the back of my mind for the rest of the day as I later gaze in wonderment at her luckier equivalents who’d found their way to peace just a few kilometers down the road. I can’t help but think about the fear and stress she must feel walking on the concrete highway―the vibrations, the overstimulation caused by the passing by of each vehicle―how this has become her new normal, and I feel deeply sad.
Signs for Elephant Nature Park begin to emerge, and I notice how some of the parks we pass share similar names, taking on the words “nature” or “park” perhaps as an attempt to confuse innocent tourists who don’t know any better. We turn left onto a narrow road and within a few hundred feet, the trees open up before us to reveal an expansive piece of land sitting at the foothills of a chain of lush, tree-covered mountains. Jeff says it feels like we were driving into Jurassic Park. It does. Seconds later, we see our first herd of elephants from afar―a half dozen of them of varying sizes roaming across the open space. Small gray specks dotting the horizon, backs warmed by the same sun that woke me earlier this morning. As we drive further into the park, more and more of them come into view—some alone, others in pairs, a few escaping the heat by idling in the shade of a large straw umbrella structure. Pim turns around in her seat and explains that we are now inside the park and will be parking momentarily. We’ll need to walk a few hundred feet towards the main building, where she’ll show us to our table for the day. We’ll be able to use the restrooms, apply bug spray and sunscreen, buy water and wash our hands as a courtesy to the elephants prior to feeding them, which will be our first direct interaction.
As we walk down the dirt pathway leading towards the main building, we pass by the dozen or so mostly bamboo huts reserved for overnight guests and volunteers that line both sides. Memories from six years ago come flooding back to me. I remember how the room I stayed in then looked over one of the enclosed areas where some of the elephants rested at night. How, at dawn, we woke to the sounds of elephants trumpeting and dogs barking. How one night after dinner, as we walked back in darkness with only a slender streak of light from our headlamps to guide us, we were greeted by the shadow of an elephantine spider that had spun its web adjacent to the stairs that led to our hut, and how I panicked and sprinted up the stairs with my eyes closed, fingers plugged in my ears, squealing. I keep these fond and less fond memories to myself and try to take in as many of the details as I can this time―the shape and raw materials of the huts, the way the trees and branches frame them, the cats lounging on the elevated walkways outside the rooms waiting for a head scratch, the dogs strutting back and forth from one hut to another looking for treats or movement of any kind.
I am happy to be back. This is my happy place.
A few dozen feet before entering the main building, we pass by “Cat Kingdom” where dozens of cats have made their homes. Jeff and I make a mental note to stop by there during our free-time later. As we walk up the steps of the main building, we are inundated by dozens of slothful cats and pet beds, which on closer inspection, have all been spoken for. Cats sleep, dogs saunter, elephants and water buffalos sunbathe, and humans supervise. It is a beautiful scene to behold―all of these creatures coexisting and living in harmony. Pim gives us a quick tour of the first floor of building―pointing out our reserved area on the feeding platform where we will gather in fifteen minutes to feed our first herd of elephants, and then shows us to the bathrooms and gift shop before leaving us at our table where, if needed, we can leave our non-valuable belongings.
It is about 10:30―the sun has claimed its victory in the battle of the skies and the clouds have begun their retreat. Jeff applies sunscreen and I, insect repellent. We follow protocol and make our way to the bathrooms to wash the chemicals off of our hands. With a few minutes to spare, we walk back towards where we’d first entered, stepping with care over the dozens of sluggish and unimpressed cats who don’t bother with a single glance at the trespassing humans. One cat is wholly sedated atop a yellow caution sign. More people begin to gather around the feeding platforms near us, and we see several guides drop a laundry-sized plastic basket full of fruits in their reserved areas. Pim calls to us in her distinct dulcet voice and we assemble around her. Feeding time is about to begin. In our basket sits a few dozen small bananas, most still in bunches, squash and melons sliced crosswise a couple of inches thick. Like clockwork, a family of elephants round the main building and enter the feeding area where the lot of us wait in anticipation. The platform has a reverse “L” shape, and our group is on the corner of that “L.” There are 6-7 elephants in total, two of whom are much smaller―the babies of the herd. They take their time coming down the length of the “L,” stopping whenever and wherever food is being supplied. Their large, agile trunks reach long and wide through the thick and sturdy guard rails installed there for safety reasons, sniffing their way towards the fruit we have in our hands. Once the fruit has been identified and targeted, they curl the tips of their trunks around the fruit in a firm grip and either scoop it into their mouths or let it fall to the ground. Some of them, like us, are very picky eaters. A few times, I wrap the fruit in my palm and let their trunks envelope my whole hand into a tender yet firm handshake. As one basket empties after another, a few people step past the cautionary red line in a swift attempt to grab those fruits that had fallen by the wayside for another chance to feed the elephants. The elephants don’t go for it—leftovers are leftovers. Some people peel their bananas, perhaps thinking it might entice them or make it more enjoyable (or easier?) to eat. I chuckle at humanity’s good intentions.
The feeding lasts about 15-20 minutes, and once the squash and watermelon are gone, we lose the herd’s interest. Pim informs us that the next hour or so will be spent walking around the park, where we’ll learn about Lek, the park and meet a few elephants. We follow her out of the main building and begin our march in the hot, humid heat. Our first stop is the medical building, where along one wall hangs before-and-after photographs of some of the park’s oldest and longest standing inhabitants. Pim explains the process by which Lek rescues elephants, often traveling to different parts of Asia herself to buy an elephant’s freedom, and then transporting them back to the park where she, along with her mahouts, spend months, sometimes years undoing their physical and emotional traumas. We become acquainted with Jokia, an elephant who had been blinded by her original owner for refusing to work after a miscarriage, another who came to the park with a broken hip, another who had stepped on a landmine and was forced to continue work on her wounded foot, another who came to the park emaciated and full of infections―the stories and pictures are tragic and disheartening, until we are reminded by the uplifting “after” pictures of the health and spirit that Lek has rebirthed into each of their lives. Still, not all of the park’s rescues have resulted in happy endings; for some, they were too late.
We walk on. Pim tells us we’ll be meeting a few of these elephants throughout the day, starting with Jokia. To get to her, we have to cross the park and pass through an area occupied by water buffalo, which makes us all very apprehensive. It’s around this time we pick up a medium-sized black and brown mutt—Pim’s favorite canine at the park—who follows us around for the remainder of the day. The five-foot-two Pim, with a small, lame stick she’d picked up from the ground and her elderly watchdog are our fearless defenders as we maneuver our way around the dozens of water buffalo, wary of their wild unpredictability and potentiality to strike. But they are unamused.
A few hundred feet later, we find ourselves before two beautiful creatures, under a large straw sunshade, which are sprinkled across the park. One of the elephants is introduced to us as Jokia, and the other, who has a large tumor protruding from her left side, is Jokia’s new friend. Jokia previously worked in the logging industry, where she suffered a miscarriage while pulling a log uphill. She was forced to continue on, unable to check whether her calf was dead or alive. Jokia refused to work after this―the physical and emotional trauma broke her spirits. In an effort to make her work, two different owners on two different occasions struck her eyes, blinding her forever. She was rescued and brought to Elephant Nature Park in 1999, where she met her best friend, an elephant named Mae Perm, with whom Jokia would share the park’s longest standing friendship until Mae Perm’s passing in 2016. This event sent Jokia into grief once more. For several days after, she roamed the park in search of her friend and refused to drink or eat. Thankfully, resilient Jokia seems to have recovered once more, and a new friend now stands by her as they share a basket of specially prepared food.
We stay with them for a few minutes, observing and watching them as they eat, interact with each other and eat some more. Pim says we can go up to them if we want, and shows us the appropriate way to touch them―on their shoulder just behind the ear. We take our turns, some of us more confident and assured than others. As I step up next to Jokia, lay my hand softly on her right shoulder and feel the rough, bristly surface of her skin, I remember meeting her for the first time six years ago in a similar setting, except it must have been Mae Perm standing next to her then. That day, she pooped right in front of us, and I was awed by the gargantuan droppings that trailed her―it was about the size of her teeth, which is about the size of my whole face, or half my head. One of my responsibilities that weekend was to clean up after the elephants and scoop their excrements into a cart that would then be rolled over and combined with the colossal 12-foot and growing mountain of poop, so I took special notice any time one of them pooped.
Jokia doesn’t look like she’s aged a day since I last saw her and seems in good spirits. She, whether intentionally or not, keeps pulling the shared basket of food closer towards her center and away from her friend, so that every time her friend reaches her trunk down to grab more food, she misses and end up having to scrape the scraps off the ground. After awhile, we set off to meet a few other older elephants who are not a part of a herd and keep mostly to themselves. Each time we come to a new elephant, Pim and her friendly canine sidekick sidestep under the nearest shaded structure, where she downloads us on the elephant and leaves us time to touch, observe or take pictures. We watch one consume an unconscionable amount of water direct from a hose placed in her mouth, and then we watch her collect dry dirt from the ground with her trunk and with perfect aim, disperse it across her back again and again. We watch Pim’s loyal canine friend lay down near the elephants half a dozen times and get up with haste any time an elephant stirs in his direction. We watch their giant ears flap back-and-forth like a gargantuan fan, their tails whip upwards-and-downwards in boredom or perhaps testiness, and their bodies sway from side-to-side as they wander with bullish grace.
An hour and eight elephants later, we are brought back to the main building where a vegetarian lunch buffet awaits. We have about an hour of free time, and are told to meet at our designated table at 12:45 pm. Jeff and I ladle a few different salads onto our plates and head to the upstairs deck, where I had fond memories of from my last visit. A few feet away, we watch a sweet, contented grey cat stretch out on a spacious, well-cushioned chair, only to be solicited a few seconds later by a pair of doting humans who breech her space, sit down and attempt, with some physical strain, to keep her there with them. The cat does not stay.
We eat quickly, and as soon as we finish, we walk downstairs, clear our plates, and head towards Cat Kingdom. We are stopped in our tracks by a stunning long-hair, blue-eyed Siamese, or perhaps Persian, whose eyes are fixated on something in the dirt a few feet away. As we trace her line of vision, we see two thin, linear and angular green lines form into the shape of small praying mantis, motionless in space, knowing its position has been compromised. The Siamese wears a married look of measured curiosity and pure assassin. Opposite her is another cat who hasn’t yet noticed the defenseless prey that lie between them. We stand and watch for awhile—the stillness stifling and silence deafening—and wonder who will surrender to movement first. Both of us whisper a little prayer for the wounded mantis who looks as though he is bowing rather than praying, and just then he attempts a jump that lands him no further than where he was. The Siamese pounces.
After a few seconds of torment and what surely added to the mantis’s injuries, the Siamese backs off and returns to her original position. The bowing mantis limps a few inches, looses his balance and regains it in a static stance just as the darting eyes of the other cat locks onto him. Stay very still, I whisper. I could watch this for the remainder of the hour―it’s real life Planet Earth―but Jeff comes up from behind, strategically wraps his arm around my shoulders and turns me towards the gates of the Kingdom.
The Kingdom isn’t big, and looks much the same as it did. It’s a secured area of around 30 meters long by 10 meters wide, and in it are dozens, if not hundreds of cats. Upon entering the gate, there are two identical sections that mirror each other exactly; both are elevated slightly off the ground and require going up a half dozen steps. Each section has a large enclosure, big enough to fit a dozen humans, fitted with vertical shelves stocked with cat beds, water bowls and food bowls, and as you continue past the initial enclosure, you come upon a narrow external hallway lined with wooden benches on one side and on the other, a dozen or more smaller enclosures for the young, the disgruntled and the elderly. Cats, cat toys and cat beds litter the benches. With the exception of the cats and kittens in the smaller enclosures, all others have the freedom to roam freely within their kingdom. Jeff and I move slowly from one enclosure to the next, staying still just long enough for the same few felines who took an immediate liking to us upon entry to weave between our legs. A few times, we are thwarted by a pile of too-cute kittens, clumsily climbing and falling on top of one another, inadvertently putting on a show of pure delight for the passerbys.
Five minutes before 12:40 pm, I begrudgingly bid farewell to the friendly felines. We walk back towards the main building―the Siamese cat is nowhere to be seen, and the mantis is gone, too.
We reunite with our group and head out for our final adventure around the park. Pim tells us we are headed to the river, where a couple of different elephant families are getting ready for their mid-day bath. This is one of the few things that changed since my last visit―it used to be that visitors were allowed to enter the river and “bathe” the elephants, which really just meant sploshing them with small buckets of water and hoping some of it would make actually make contact. It was more fun for the humans than it was for the elephants, and I think it is for this reason that they’ve removed this from their programming―to allow the elephants more freedom to bathe and play in the water as they would in nature, and for us to be able to observe them in their uninhibited, unencumbered state. The reasoning behind this decision resonates with me, and while I would like to get in the water with them, more to cool off from the mid-day heat than anything else, it doesn’t detract from the experience. We watch the different families of elephants wade their way towards the middle of the river where it’s deepest, attentively guarding the little ones by keeping them at the core of their configuration, taking turns submerging themselves fully as their grey coats transform from light and dusty to dark and sleek. But this shiny coat hardly lasts―the moment they exit the river, they begin to gather dry dirt and mud, scattering it across their backs as a way to stay cool.
Nearly an hour is spent along the river, as the elephant groups take their turns cooling off in the rust-colored river and then find their way to the mud pit. The whole landscape is one that generates a sense of calm―the sun blankets the kingdom with its heat and brilliance, a few voluminous clouds speckle the sky, adding to its dimensionality without undermining its sovereign sun, lush green hills provide an earthly contrast to the Prussian blue heavens, and the russet river and its elephants run through it all. After most of the elephants leave the river for mud, a black mutt with a light brown snout runs into the river while his friend chases and barks at him from along the banks. At first, I think he, like the elephants, is taking a quick, cooling dip, but it soon becomes clear that although he is being swept downstream, he is swimming against it with aplomb towards the other side. I hadn’t noticed the other side for what it is until this moment―seeing only what I want to see, it is only when I track the little black mutt as he shakes the water off his coat and races up the hill that I see a group of humans, some visitors and others not, accompanied by a group of four or five elephants. A couple of these elephants are about to enter the river, led by one mahout walking in front of them and another sitting on one of their bare backs. The tourists wait and watch. Not even five minutes in the river, the elephants are redirected back onto land―the tops of their backs still light grey and dry. The other two elephants, having just exited the water, now positioned themselves in a kneeling position so the tourists can climb on. I watch them march down the hill, mahouts in front, elephants in tow with a happy human on each of their backs as they disappear into the trees on the other side. I don’t know how to feel.
Pim meets my stubborn gaze and with a shake of her head says, “Yes, they big headache for Lek-kaaa. Have many elephants. One day. One day.” Not even 100 yards separating them, yet the elephants at Elephant Nature Park are living such a different life than those across the river. I wish upon a fallen eyelash that one day soon, the little black mutt might lead those elephants back across the river to a new and better home, where they will all be allowed to stay.
At 2:00 pm, we head back towards the main building where we have a few minutes to gather our things, use the restrooms and buy some souvenirs prior to heading back to Chiang Mai. I feel sad that we will be missing the sunset, a stunning time to sit on the upper deck and watch the sun bleed pastel pink and purple into the dusk sky as it withdraws into the horizon. The park quiets, the only sounds that remain are that of the elephants, dogs, cats and water buffalo winding down and bidding farewell to the day. As we retrace our steps on the same dirt path that we’d come in on, I feel a visceral connection to the place―to its spirit, and I know that one day, I will be back again.
ELEPHANT NATURE PARK: PRACTICAL INFORMATION
There are a few different ways to experience Elephant Nature Park:
Time Pick-up at around 8:30 am and drop-off around 3:30 pm (6-7 hours in total)
Includes Transport, vegetarian lunch buffet, knowledgeable park guide
What You Do Feed the elephants, walk around the park, watch elephants bathe and play in the river, visit the dog rescue or cat kingdom during your free time
Price 2,500 baht or $75
Time Pick-up at around 8:00 am and drop-off around 5:30 pm (8-9 hours in total)
Includes Transport, vegetarian lunch buffet, knowledgeable park guide
What You Do Same as above but more time at the park and thus slower-paced
Price 2,500 baht or $75
Time Pick-up at around 8:00 am and drop-off around 5:30 pm the next day
Includes Transport, breakfast, two lunches and one dinner, plus a private room in a rustic, bamboo hut
What You Do Same as above but even more time and slower-paced, learn about conservation in Thailand and have a chance to meet and help the volunteers
Price 5,800 baht or $175
Time Pick-up at around 9:00 am and drop off around 3:30 pm on Sunday
Includes Transport, three meals per day, plus a shared room for the week
What You Do Help clean and prepare food for the elephants, feed them, cut food from the plantations, help with park maintenance, scoop poop, learn about conservation and help at the dog rescue and/or cat kingdom
Price Contribution of 12,000 baht or $363
Time Pick-up at around 8:00 am on Sunday and drop off around 6:00 pm the following Sunday
Includes Transport, three meals per day, plus a shared room for the week
What You Do Work from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm daily with a 90-minute lunch break—volunteers help feed and walk dogs, clean and maintain dog rescue area, socialize with dogs, etc.
Price 5,000 baht or $152
There are several other projects in and around Chiang Mai that are supported by Elephant Nature Park, called the “Saddle Off!” project, in which similar experiences are offered. Some of these may have be smaller (in land and number of elephants), but they can also be more intimate, up-close-and-personal. Consider supporting these projects (especially if Elephant Nature Park is booked up) as many of these were previously riding and trekking camps that have since converted.
SUPPLEMENTARY RESOURCES & INFORMATION
Elephant Nature Park ― Official website for the park just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand
Save Elephant Foundation ― Official website for Lek’s non-profit organization focused on rescuing all Asian elephants
Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story ― 2018 documentary following the rescue of one elephant and Lek, featuring Elephant Nature Park
Gardeners of Eden ― 2015 documentary following Kenya’s David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and their fight to save African elephants from the ivory trade
The Ivory Game ― 2016 documentary with a deeper and more technical look into the cross-border ivory trade that is fueling the extinction of African elephants