Visiting Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (and why I will never ride an elephant)



I first read about Elephant Nature Park on a blog called dtravelsround two years ago while I was living in the United States. After doing some research into the plight of the Asian elephant, I vowed never to ride an elephant, but instead I would visit this sanctuary and see first-hand the incredible work the volunteers are doing to rescue and create awareness of abused elephants.

Many people don’t realize that elephants are now an endangered species. There are now only around 3000-4000 elephants alive in Thailand, and the growing elephant tourism industry means that they’re being smuggled across the border from Burma, where using elephants for logging is still legal.

Why you shouldn't ride an elephant
One of my favorite photos from the park.

Why shouldn’t we ride Elephants? I mean we ride horses right?

While it may look like elephants don’t mind having humans sitting on their backs, this is because they were broken as babies, torn from their mothers and subjected to something called “phajaan” which means “crush” and is quite literally the crushing of their spirits. The baby elephants are shoved into a tiny cage, beaten, starved, and sleep deprived while being forced to accept humans sitting on their backs, and made to learn circus tricks like painting.

There’s a famous photo of an elephant going through phajaan, and you can click here to see it. Warning: it’s graphic and shows the reality of life for most of these elephants.

Some trekking camps may claim to be “eco-friendly” but every single one of these elephants has gone through this process while they were young, and while they may look like they’re smiling, these beautiful creatures are in pain when people are sitting on their backs.

I’ve had a few people ask me what the difference is between riding a horse and riding an elephant. After all, they’d still both be wild animals if we hadn’t domesticated them wouldn’t they?

Horse’s aren’t subjected to the same excruciating process as baby elephants when they are broken. Elephants will often be hit in the most sensitive parts of their bodies, including their ears and eyes. Elephant’s backs are also not designed to carry humans. They may be huge, but their spines are not strong enough to support our weight, and trekking elephants often end up disabled for life.

Elephants never forget. So when you visit a park that has elephant riding and tricks, and you see men with bullhooks, know that the elephants are remembering being tortured as babies, and this is why they are doing as they’re told.

Big elephant Chiang Mai

As both travelers and tourists, we have a duty to travel responsibly. We need to weigh up whether that photo with a drugged tiger, or that video or us grinning from the back of an elephant, is worth the suffering of the animals involved.

I’m not trying to be preachy here- people travel for their own reasons and some people simply want a vacation. But if we choose not to make a difference as we travel, the least we can do is choose to do no harm.

I hope that people will gradually become more and more educated and soon elephant riding will be a thing of the past. If there was no demand for elephant rides there would be no supply, so hopefully tourists will stop supporting an industry made up of pain, misery, and fear.

The problem is that most people don’t understand the reality of the elephant business in Southeast Asia. The more we spread the message and educate each other about these issues, the better chance these animals have of living a peaceful and painless life

Our day at Elephant Nature Park

At around 8.30am a minivan picked us up from my apartment, and on the way we watched a documentary about Asian Elephants and the Elephant Nature Park.

Once we arrived we fed some of the elephants before being taken for a walk to meet some of the residents of the park.

Vising elephant nature park in Chiang Mai
Feeding some hungry elephants.

 

baby elephant chiang mai
This baby is so cute! I love how fluffy he is.

 

At Elephant Nature Park trainers are taught to train the elephants using positive reinforcement like food.
At Elephant Nature Park trainers are taught to train the elephants using positive reinforcement like food.

 

The park is run by a truly amazing woman named Lek. Lek grew up helping sick elephants and founded Elephant Nature Park in 1996. Since then she has succeeded in rescuing dozens of elephants, many of whom were sick and injured.

Among the elephants at the park you’ll find elephants who have been rescued from logging, the circus, trekking camps, and begging on the streets. One of my favorites is Lucky, a gentle elephant who is blind in both eyes from the spotlight and flash photography after working in a circus for 30 years.

Medo is one of the elephants that brought tears to my eyes. She worked for years as a logging elephant before breaking her leg and was then forced to breed. Her backbone was dislocated by the forced breeding, but she was still made to work pulling smaller logs before Lek found her. It took 5 months before her owner finally agreed to sell her, and she arrived at the park in 2006. You can see how she has suffered permanent damage:

Medo Elephant Nature Park
The beautiful Medo

While the park doesn’t allow elephant rides, we had many opportunities to feed the elephants, and even got to help them cool off in the river.

Elephants in river at Elephant Nature Park

I couldn’t help but be slightly nervous by how big these creatures are, especially when I was up close to them. But they were incredibly gentle and I felt safe the whole time.

After bath time, the elephants like to throw dirt over themselves to keep their skin healthy.

Elephant riding chiang mai

 

We then spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the park. So many of the elephants have severe injuries, but it was awesome to see them living their lives in peace and hanging out with their friends.

Elephants are extremely social creatures and have a life span similar to humans. They mourn their dead, and mothers will sometimes carry a dead calf for days before laying it to rest. At the nature park, they’ve formed smaller herds and there are even a few babies running around. Considering most of these elephants are not related, it was heartwarming to see the herd surrounding and protecting the babies when we were near them.

elephant herd thailand

 

elephants in Thailand

The baby was curious and kept getting closer and closer to me, to my delight. The leader of the herd was not impressed, though, and he managed to sneak up behind me very quietly considering he weighs around 4 tonnes.

baby elephant chiang mai

Huge elephant thailand

Baby elephants don’t realize how much they weigh, and they really just want to play. When this little girl charged at my mum she thought she could stop her with her hand and nearly fell on her butt. It was the funniest part of the day.

should I ride an elephant

 

So for those who were hoping to ride an elephant in Thailand, visit the Elephant Nature Park instead. The park has day visits, and you can also volunteer for a week or two, which I’d love to do at some stage. I guarantee it will be an incredible experience, and after meeting these wonderful animals you’ll never want to ride one again.

We were lucky enough to meet Lek, the woman behind the Elephant Nature Park
We were lucky enough to meet Lek, the woman behind the Elephant Nature Park

 

 

Elephant Nature Park

 

 

10 comments on “Visiting Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (and why I will never ride an elephant)

  1. Nicky Duyvelshoff January 21, 2014 @ 8:08 am

    This is so awesome! I was one of those people who didn’t realise elephants are an endangered species. I can’t wait to eventually visit SE Asia and see some of this amazing work too. :)

    • Stacey January 21, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

      Thanks Nicky! SE Asia is a great place to explore, and the Elephant Nature Park is doing some incredible work. It’s estimated that almost half of the population of Asian Elephants has been wiped out in the last decade, and there are so many other animals that may be gone in the next twenty years as well.
      After seeing how hard Lek and the volunteers work it’s definitely given me hope though!
      Stacey recently posted..Visiting Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (and why I will never ride an elephant)

  2. Graefyl January 31, 2014 @ 3:16 am

    Glad to read a post about the refuge for the elephants. My great niece is/was working there recently. Good post.
    Graefyl recently posted..En-route floods in France

    • Stacey January 31, 2014 @ 6:22 am

      Hi Graefyl, thanks for reading :) It’s certainly an amazing sanctuary and your niece must have been one of the many hardworking volunteers I could see around the place.

  3. Todd Anthony March 7, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

    Hi Stacy

    Great post and imformatiom regarding Elephant Nature Park in Chaiang Mai . We’ve visited there on several occasions and look forward to returning and visiting Khun Lek and her team who take care of these beautiful creatures . Also thanks for visiting Flight of the Gibbon Angkor and your feedback for my team here. Hopefully next time you come through Cambodia you can stop by and catch a view of the mated pair of wild Gibbons that Wildlife Alliance released in December in the area we are located . We often see them gliding through the canopy early in the morning and it’s very magical .
    Safe travels
    T.A.

    • Stacey March 7, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

      Hi Todd, that’s amazing I’d love to see some Gibbons up close! I had a brilliant time ziplining, and the Elephant Nature Park is definitely a very special place.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Stacey
      Stacey recently posted..Two Weeks of Bad Luck in Beijing

  4. Amanda April 6, 2014 @ 7:41 pm

    Ahh! I saw this on the dtravelsround blog as well just a month ago, and am currently planning a trip to this Elephant Nature Park!! I am so excited. It looks like you had an incredible time!

  5. ActivityFan March 7, 2017 @ 6:50 am

    The story about elephant cruelty is sadly true.

    Some people still think that it is okay to treat the elephants like horses. Many elephants were put into situation where they need to carry heavy stuff, including the carriage so human can seat comfortably – this is horrible. The pictures on the Internet that show how bad elephants are treated in their ‘training sessions’ are very very bad.

    I really hope this post can educate more and more people about how we suppose to treat elephants and support right one – great post! :)

  6. ActivityFan March 7, 2017 @ 6:51 am

    The story about elephant cruelty is sadly true.

    Some people still think that it is okay to treat the elephants like horses. Many elephants were put into situation where they need to carry heavy stuff, including the carriage so human can seat comfortably – this is horrible. The pictures on the Internet that show how bad elephants are treated in their ‘training sessions’.

    I really hope this post can educate more and more people about how we suppose to treat elephants and support right one – great post! :)

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