We send postcards around the world featuring their image, buy t-shirts emblazoned with their silhouettes, drink beer by their name, gasp when we see them through the fence at zoos, and often pay great sums for the opportunity to observe, touch, and ride them. We are fascinated, captivated by these animals.
Elephants are magnificent creatures — and they have suffered greatly for it at the hands of the human race.
For many travelers, the chance to get up close and personal with elephants is the highlight of their trip to the Kingdom. Elephant riding and shows are big business here, as tourists are anxious to commune with Thailand’s national animal. But for reasons I would come to learn through a visit the the innovative Elephant Nature Park outside Chiang Mai, these businesses exploit the very animals they claim to celebrate. But Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary that offers something truly special — interaction without exploitation.
Our day at Elephant Nature Park began with a briefing on how to keep our interactions safe and successful for ourselves, the elephants, and the myriad of other animals (mostly scruffy pups) that call the park home. Then, we watched as one of the giant pachyderms lumbered over to us, encouraged by his mahout (caretaker) and the promise of a heaping bucket of fruit. One by one, we took turns offering mangoes, pineapples, bananas — anything but watermelon, which our particular elephant friend was no fan of.
Finally, we swung around the balcony and entered the sanctuary — we were walking with giants. I giggled nervously as I watched the directions and movements of the elephants, careful not to stand in their projected path.
With no glass or gates between us, we could reach out and gingerly touch the elephants, would responded with warm nuzzles, curious trunk nudges, and occasional trumpeting proclamations.
Eventually, we took a stroll around the sanctuary to meet other elephants. Each one has a distinct personality, and once they are rescued from logging and the tourist trade and brought to live out their lives in the park they tend to adopt one another and turn into small family groups and herds. I was amazed at our guide’s encyclopedic knowledge of the more than 30 elephants at ENP — such as Mae Jam Peng, below left, a former logging and trekking elephant. The hole in her right ear, created by brutal punishments with a bull hook, has been made into an ear piercing by her mahout, who fills it with a fresh flower every day.
Next, we got to ooh and ahhh over Elephant Nature Park’s newest member — Navann, a lucky baby born on the park grounds. We watched as he ran around his pen like a newborn puppy — tons of energy, but not quite a sense of what to do with it. I could have watched Navann play all day!
I couldn’t believe how quickly the day was flying by when we gathered for lunch. I had been somewhat skeptical of the dining situation — vegetarian food often leaves me unsatisfied — but this was such a fantastic meal I barely registered the lack of meat. Oh, and can you really complain with views like these?
After lunch, we were taken to a theater where a documentary would teach us how truly lucky the animals at ENP really are. Some people left the room as the film went into the horrible practice where baby elephants, captured from the wild, endure a torturous training practice known as the phajaan. The goal is to break the spirit of the elephant, a outcome reached using days of claustrophobic confinement combined with cruel beatings. This fear of pain will allow elephants to be ridden by tourists and perform tricks.
I don’t think elephant riding would make the bucket list of anyone who knows about the phajaan. Years ago I rode an elephant in Siem Reap — if I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen differently. My experiences here and at an animal sanctuary in Phnom Penh involved no riding, and were infinitely more rewarding.
I left that room needing a breath of fresh air. I was newly appreciative of the freedom of the elephants gathered at the riverside for a snack — elephants that had suffered so greatly at the hands of humans, but were now being left to live out their lives in peace.
This sanctuary is largely the work of one inspirational woman, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. Born in a hill tribe in Thailand, Lek has dedicated her life to improving the well being of the Asian elephant. She is no unsung hero — she’s been named, among other things, a “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine in 2005 and in 2010 was named by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation.
While she frequently travels across Southeast Asia to coordinate elephant rescues and rally politically for these elephants, she makes every effort to be at the park with the animals she loves. We were lucky enough to catch her on one of those days, and it was amazing to watch her interact with the herd that she truly is an honorary member of.
As I mentioned before, elephants aren’t the only ones living at the park — the foundation also runs a very active dog rescue. As many of my readers know, nothing turns me to mush like pups in need, so before I knew it I was signing up for the Name a Puppy program. For a one-time donation, I was able to name and virtually adopt an abandoned puppy, complete with a PDF photo update. I named my puppy after Westley, my beloved, now deceased cocker spaniel — my first true love. It brought tears to my eyes to be able to make a donation in his name.
While riding is a no-no at ENP, there are other, more rewarding ways to interact with the elephants. In the afternoon, humans and pachyderms alike meet at the river for what amounts to an inter-species waterfight — also known as bath time.
This was my favorite part of the day, as we were able to interact more intimately with the elephants. To stand before them, look them in the eyes, and feel their skin under your hand — I can’t imagine how riding on their backs would be more appealing than this.
After getting clean, it’s time to get dirty again. A favorite activity of these elephants is to roll around in the massive mud pits created by volunteers.
All too quickly, it was time to say a final goodbye to Elephant Nature Park. I retreated to the verandah to soak in the day and enjoy one last happy moment of watching these magnificent creatures roam free, safe from harm and fear.
As an animal lover in a world filled with people cashing in on our society’s desire to get close to our various favorite species, I’ve come to appreciate opportunities like this — to be with an animal in a way that says to it, “I am awed by you; I want to share this time and space with you; I respect you.”
I can’t more highly encourage a visit to Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai — you won’t find happier elephants anywhere.
The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’
― Jeremy Bentham
Anyone else had the pleasure of interacting with these majestic creatures?
For more information on visiting Elephant Nature Park, visit www.saveelephant.org, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or +66(0)53272855.
great photos! I wish I had had time to get here.
btw, love that skirt 🙂
Thanks Annie! Actually, I have to admit its those awful hippie pants everyone wears in Thailand 🙂 I needed a replacement for my old traveling pants — at least I like the pattern on these!
Such beautiful animals! Great pics, Alex.
Thanks! Easy with such amazing subjects 🙂
Alex, I very happy that you visited the Elephant Nature Park. The work they do is amazing and vital for the future of elephants. And giving the elephants their bath is a total delight.
Agree Judy — how often can you take a bath with an elephant 🙂 Such fun!
This made my day! Hubby and I are going in August. After much research I discovered ENP and decided we would visit there instead of any riding parks. I feel so strongly about what they do there, I can’t wait to visit and spend the day with them. I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about it and was brought to tears when a documentary on Lek and ENP came on tv, here in Australia. I couldn’t believe that after talking about it so much that I was watching a show about their work. It made hubby see where I was coming from about not riding them.
Awesome Dominique! So glad you chose ENP and you are so excited about it. Be sure to spread the word to all your friends in Oz who are heading to Thailand as well 🙂
This post melted my heart and left a smile on my face! I’m so envious of the opportunity you got at this elephant park. It seems incredible. I would love to visit someday.
Anyone can visit, Jen! Hope you make it there someday… the elephants could use your help 🙂
Absolutely lovely post, Alex. Riding an elephant used to be on my bucket list, until I read a post by Diana and completely changed my opinion. I would love to spend a day or two at the ENP with these beautiful animals. They’re so magnificent and to be able to see them in a place like this would be incredible.
Thank you for sharing all the pictures and stories about your day!
I love Diana! We got to be great friends during my time in Chiang Mai!
What a beautiful and educational post!
I absolutely adore elephants and must admit I have also ridden an elephant in Cambodia unaware of what could possible have happened in that animals past that made him so willing to take me on his back… we did not ask…
The only reassurance I had then of whether they were treated well, was that we only rode them for 45 minutes before and after a 2 hour break in which they were able to roam free and eat- they did seem happy but I hope they had not suffered much in the past.
I definitely want to visit this Park when I next find myself in Thailand to learn more!
I’m ashamed to say I don’t even remember how the elephant looked that I rode — it was a long time ago of course, but I think I was quite swept up in the idea and not thinking about the animal I was sitting atop of. I don’t judge those that do ride elephants, I think it’s a failing on the part of those of us who do know the truth. Let’s try to spread that knowledge!
Alex… there are days I think ‘how can she live such a crazy lifestyle??’ and there are days I think OMG I am so jealous of her life!!!! This post made me have a major jealous day.
Today would have been one of those crazy days… check your email!
Beautiful post… Elephants are definitely my favorite of the animal kingdom. It amazes me that a creature so majestic walks the earth!
That’s how I feel about the whales swimming in the oceans 🙂 How lucky we are to share the planet with these animals!
Wow, very well written and educational, i thought bull hooks were a thing of the past but apparently not. I so would have been a ride on an elephants back kind of person but not any more. When i was younger i wanted nothing more than to swim with dolphins, when i finally did i felt sick to my stomach because something about that was not right. Anyways love your posts i check my email daily for them!
Breanna, thank you so much for saying that! Makes me feel great 🙂 I know what you mean about the dolphins — I often hear people say the same thing about their experiences riding elephants. Unfortunately at that point it’s often too late. What we need is more education, better spread of information!
Thanks for writing this blog post, Alex! I’d always wanted to ride an elephant, but this has changed my mind completely. I had no idea that they had to be so broken and abused so people could ride them. I’m definitely going to have to pay the ENP a visit (I hope they’ll still be there by the time I get there!)
Stephen, so glad to hear you were affected by this post. I don’t think ENP is going anywhere — they’ll certainly be there when you get around to Thailand!
I absolutely love the first picture. Looks like you had a excellent visit. I’m going to ENP in December. I hope the little guy is still small and rambunctious then!
Yay, Julie! So glad you are planning a visit to ENP! Say hi to the elephants for me 🙂
I am so glad you posted this because when we are back in Thailand in a few months, we definitely want to do something with elephants. And I knew that the area around CM was the region to see them and work with them, but I also knew that some of the places that claim to be refuges actually are not as they have things like elephant riding or elephant painting, etc., We are not interested in contributing to that kind of thing, so I am glad we now have the name of the place that actually does the good work!
There doesn’t seem to be anywhere like ENP in terms of getting great feedback and attention from the international conservation community. I don’t think you could go wrong with them! Enjoy!
Such a great post, Alex. It breaks my heart when animals suffer for our entertainment. I am so glad there are places like this that provide opportunities for people to interact with animals in a way that isn’t harmful–and they are so fun to visit too! I definitely want to visit when we eventually make it to Thailand!
Yay! Another future elephant friend 🙂 I hope you make it there soon.
This was a really great post! I will actually be leaving to Thailand in less than two weeks for an internship at the ENF. I wish I could leave already! I especially enjoyed your pictures. As someone who is interested in wildlife photography, can I get some information on what camera lenses you used?
Hey Karla, wow! You are going to have such a great time, enjoy! You can see all about my cameras and lenses under my Gear and Products page. Let me know if you have any additional questions!
I realized after my post that you had a Gear and Products page. I do have a few more questions though. Do you use any kind of polarizing filter? I can never get my pictures to look so sharp and have such great contrast. How do you edit your photos to make them look so great? I have both Photoshop and Lightroom, but I am not the best at them.
I do have a polarizing filter with me but didn’t bring it to the park. Some of it is definitely editing — I put all my photos through Bridge (like Lightroom) to as least color correct and lightly edit. But mainly I think it’s all about lighting… being super conscious of where the sun is. I took some classes for my degree but I’m no expert… I think it’s mainly just practice! Good luck!
Beautifully written post! I was at ENP on January 1 2013 and loved it. I’ve been planning to write a post about my experience also but have found it a daunting task to put such a spiritual connection with these magnificent giants into words. Your post accomplishes this nicely! Thanks for doing your part in educating others.
Thanks Carol! Its definitely the responsibility of those of us who have learned these things to pass them on to others… if we don’t, we can’t get frustrated when people do things like ride elephants! Glad you loved ENP as much as I did!
This is such a beautiful post. I have a strong attachment to ENP, the animals and staff there as I have volunteered twice. It is an absolute paradise and I am always pleased when other travel bloggers promote it on their own blogs.
That’s awesome Michelle! I would love to go back and spend a whole week there. Seems like such a peaceful places, especially once the crowds leave.
Yeah, I was finally able to watch one of your videos! =) You did an excellent job with it, now I really want to go there (thanks to you my travel-must list is getting pretty long). I love the baby elephants with their funky hair. The little one in the video cracks me up!
I went to a similar place in Sri Lanka (Pinnawela Orphanage) but I am not so sure if they treat the elephants there correctly or not. Back then I didn’t know about what the elephants have to go through so that tourists can ride them but luckily I decided against it anyways. But thanks to your post now I never will, I think it is really inspirational that you are educating yourself and us about such important issues!You can be proud of yourself!!!
Yay! I wonder why you can watch that one and not the others? Oh well, I’m happy you got to see! Thanks so much for your kind words as well — I’m just happy to have an outlet to share what I have learned.
Great post and superb pics! I was surprised to learn how “wirey” elephant hair is…they are more like spike rather than hair! A great experience indeed you’ve had.
So true! I’m often shocked when I get the chance to touch animals for the first time… they never feel quite the way I expected.
Whooooo doesnt like Navann right? Hahaha so cute. You are lucky you have been to the sanctuary..remains a dream for me till now. I used to dream of riding elephants before my trip to Thailand last year, but Diana’s articles were so effective. I just played with them during Songkran!
Great photos Alex, i almost cried while watching the video!
Thanks Apol! Glad Diana’s message got through to you, and that you got to see some elephants during Songkran! Hope you make it to the sanctuary some day 🙂
I’m so happy more people are writing about the issues with elephant tourism in Thailand. If people knew how the animals were treated they would never ride them.
Yup, agreed. This is an example of how important responsible tourism and education is!
Great title — and skirt wow lol. I am so glad you got out to the sanctuary. But a little jealous of your visit with Diana and Gisele and Cody!
It’s actually those awful hippie pants :/ They look okay in photos, and I love the pattern, but every time I wear them I feel like I’ll spontaneously grow dreadlocks! (Disclaimer: Love dreads, just not on my head!)
These are great lady! LOVE THESE.
Thanks! Can’t claim any creative genius when photographing something so amazing though… any picture looks great!
That’s incredible… I lived over a year in Thailand, been to Chiang Mai a few times and never made it to ENP… I need to go back! Great photos!
ALWAYS have an excuse to go back to Thailand 🙂 Looks like you just found one!
THOSE BABIES. I am melting. Seriously coolest thing ever. Glad you got to go here!
Me too! And in a lot of ways I have you to thank for bringing me and Diana together!
I’m loving your Thailand posts; they are getting me really excited for when we visit in August. I was already tentatively planning a visit to both Pai and the Elephant Nature Park and now I’m convinced I need to schedule both of those activities in. Looking forward to getting some more inspiration from your posts!
Awesome Amy! Be sure to book ENP ahead if possible because they do fill up sometimes. Enjoy your trip!
Between this post and many of Diana’s, I have decided that whenever I get to Thailand, I’m going to have to make sure to spend a few days here. It’s such a great mission, and there are cute baby elephants. Plus bath time sounds too good to miss!
I know, I really would have liked to have spent the night here. I’m sure it would be so peaceful at night and in the mornings.
Alex, my wife and I found your blog through your “Diving in Koh Tao” post for Nomadic Matt’s website, and after reading this post, we are DEFIINTELY going to visit the ENP when we’re in Thailand for 2 weeks in August/September. Look forward to hearing more about your travels! Your blog has already been so helpful for us as we plan our trip! So many questions answered, but many more popping up every day! Thanks again.
Hey Jeremy! So glad you found me here 🙂 I’m happy to hear you’ll be heading to ENP, it really is a special place — as is all of Thailand! You’re really going to love the place, let me know if you have any questions!
I visited ENP this spring too and your post does a great job of capturing the majesty of the elephants and the wonderful experience of it all. So much so that I linked to it in my World Elephant Day post. Cheers & Happy travels!
Life is a Journey, Savor it.
Thanks for including me Lale! And happy Elephant Day 🙂
Hello Alex! My husband and I are wanting to take the trip to ENP within a week, and I was wondering what package you bought? Did you do the Single Day package or the Pamper a Pachyderm? Thank you for your amazing info!
Hi Amanda! I was a guest of the park but I believe that the program we did was a single day package! I’m sure the staff at ENP would be happy to answer any questions you have — they are very helpful!
thank you so much for this! quick question, did you do the full day visit or the pamper a pachyderm tour?
i can’t wait!
Hey Lily! I am so sorry to say what a bad blogger I am but I’m really not sure! I would contact the park directly though and I’m sure they can let you know. Apologies I can’t be more helpful!
FYI. The Pamper A Pachyderm Program just started in February 2014. Alex did the Day Tour. I highly recommend the Pamper A Pachyderm over the day tour. The PAP is limited to 6 guests a day and you meet, feed and walk with 3 elephants. With PAP, you get close interaction with the elephants and really get to see how intelligent they are. Everyone who were on PAP while I was there, stated they will never forget PAP and their time with the elephants.
Just to let you know, the rains are starting in the mountains, I just left there so there maybe be some adjustments to the PAP. If you have any questions about PAP, just ask. Lek said I set a record for going on PAP. My photo us even on the PAP blog on SaveElephantFoundation website.
Thanks for those details, Dave! Very useful info!
Just to let you know, that Stumpy, the 3 legged dog on your blog passed away in April. Also Mae Tee, who came up to me in the field on the 14th, passed away on the 17th. She was so gentle and kind.
Do you and your followers know they can sponsor an elephant, or make a specific donation or a general donation if they like to help. I’ll be happy to provide more details.
I’m so sorry to hear that about Stumpy! I did indeed know about the donations — I think I mentioned it in this post, I did a naming donation of one of the pups at the park while I was there 🙂
Just breathtaking! They’re such incredible creatures, and I can’t imagine how anyone could cause them such pain. That little bebe running around! Ah!
You should plan a trip there, Maddy 🙂 They’d love to hang with you! You can volunteer for as long as you want!
It’s a unique experience, and will stay one of the highlights of my trip in Thaïland for sure… Your pics are beautiful BTW!
Thank you so much — it’s one of my very happy memories from Thailand as well 🙂
Definitely doing this when I go to Chang Mai. I’m thinking of staying for a whole week. I am so glad I found out about since it’s been my dream to spend some times with elephants since I was little and saw pictures of my parents riding them through the jungle 30 years ago. Back then they were still treated fairly and with respect. I can’t believe how much this changed in such a short time!! I hope others will realize what price the elephants are paying because of the growing tourism and stop supporting these awful activities!! Thank you for sharing this with us !!
I’m not really sure about the history of elephant tourism… based on what I learned at the park about the domestication of elephants (through a cruel practice known at the phajan) I’m not sure if things were really so different thirty years ago. But I’m not sure! That would be a great question to ask if you go… and to report back on 🙂
From what my parents told me they were in a village in the middle of the jungle and the locals gathered the elephants directly from the jungle and returned them afterwards. I trust their impression that everything seemed very fair towards the animals but I’ll definitely ask about it when I get to the Elephant Park. I do hope it wasn’t always like this !!
A friend of mine did the overnight package here a few months back and ENP will definitely be a stop on my trip to Thailand next year! I could cry just looking at the pictures!
It’s a must-do in Northern Thailand! You’re going to love it, Leigh!