After languishing for two weeks on a beautiful beach in Koh Lanta, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the myriad of activities available in and around Chiang Mai. Top of the list? The Elephant Nature Park.
This beautiful park, 60 km outside of Chiang Mai, is a sanctuary for elephants (more on that later). Set in a valley surrounded by mountains and with a river flowing at the foot of the park, it’s easy to see how it got the name of “Elephant Heaven.”
So how did I spend my time with the largest mammals on EARTH?! (To be fair, the Asian elephant is only the second largest land animal, after the African elephant. I was going to make a really off-color joke about that but in deference to my mother, I shan’t. Just know it’s there.)
After being picked up at my hotel and loaded into a van, we took the 1.5 hour bumpy drive out to the conservatory. Our guide briefly explained what we would do and then popped in a video that Animal Planet made on elephants in Thailand, including a highlight of the ENP, to prep us. My favorite part of the video is that the entire time they kept teasing about the “conservatory music video” they would be showing at the end, which was basically just shots of Thailand and elephants rolling through music and credits.
After arriving at the park, we jumped right into feeding time! This basically involved hesitantly putting the food in the elephant’s trunk and then delighting as they stuffed it into their mouths, or rejected it (elephants are quite human-like in that some just don’t have a taste for watermelons or bananas, for example). Also… the inside of an elephant’s trunk feels kind of weird, you guys.
After that, we did a tour of the sanctuary – including the medical area where we all got to feel an elephant’s tooth, which I think should be added to Clue as a possible murder weapon. It was Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the ELEPHANT’S TOOTH!
One of the highlights? A very hairy baby elephant had been born four months ago! A few fun facts:
1) This may not be true for all elephants, but at the park a lot of the babies will have both their elephant mom and an elephant nanny who basically decides to be an auntie to the baby, and they all hang out together and protect the baby. I can’t wait for Hollywood to make the movie Elephant Nanny, personally.
2) It’s pretty impossible for us to know if elephants are pregnant – they can assume if the elephant is getting fatter and her breasts are, you know, milky, but they don’t really know – and didn’t know in this case – until the kid pops out. I’ve heard this one before.
After tucking in to a delicious vegetarian Thai buffet, we came to the main event: bathing the elephants. Essentially this involved standing in the river and throwing buckets of water over them.
At one point, someone in our group mused, “Do you ever think the elephants are like, ‘…Why are these humans doing something to me I can do myself?'” But as they sat there munching on their watermelons while getting bathed, I thought, you know, I wouldn’t mind that lifestyle.
So why does this sanctuary exist? Despite the veneration elephants receive in Thai culture, and the important role they have played in Thai history – both warfare and work – they have an exceptionally tough life. The elephant population in Thailand has dropped 95% over the past century. However, only wild elephants are counted as endangered; domesticated elephants are considered livestock and have little to no rights, and there are very few legal punishments for misuse or abuse.
As logging was made illegal in the late 1980s, elephants who previously had been used for work have been shifted to tourism – trekking, rides, and street begging. However, the methods used to break the elephants of their connections to their mothers and make them submissive is absolutely horrifying. I won’t preach at you, but I encourage you to do your own research into the technique known as elephant crushing.
Anyway, the vast majority of elephants who have been rescued by ENP had pretty tough lives before – broken backs from giving rides (or from men elephants getting too rough with the females…), broken legs from logging or chains, blindness from their cruel owners shooting rocks into their eyes to try to get them to work faster, or from the lights at elephant shows. You can see the previously broken back of one of our elephants below – once they are broken, they can’t be reformed back into proper shape.
So to round out this kind-of-depressing post… I’m so glad I did this. It was by far the most expensive thing I’ve done on this trip, but knowing what the money goes towards – and seeing how happy these elephants are – made it worth it. Once these elephants get to the sanctuary, they get an awesome life of just romping around, forming herds, eating, and getting love.