In an earlier blog post, I wrote about why our family would not ride elephants while vacationing in Thailand. At the time of that writing, we hadn’t yet gone on our trip, but my research into the subject revealed the dark side of elephants in the tourist industry. I learned about the cruel training methods used to make these remarkably intelligent and empathetic animals compliant enough to do tricks and allow humans to ride them. I also realized how tourists perpetuate this grim situation through a misguided desire to experience elephants in these ultimately exploitative ways.
As disturbing as all of this research was, it also led me to the discovery of a place where elephants are allowed to live freely and happily, and whose founder is working tirelessly to change the way elephants are treated and perceived. That place is the Elephant Nature Park, located outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Our one-day visit, booked months in advance, was for me the most highly-anticipated day of our three-week adventure in Southeast Asia. My expectations leading up to our June 21 visit were sky-high, and I’m happy to report that our actual experience soared even higher.
While we would have liked to spend more time there– they offer an overnight experience and longer-term volunteer opportunities – the one-day visit was fantastic and just enough to peak our interest in volunteering someday. Our ENP guide picked us up by van at our hotel in Chiang Mai, and we enjoyed a video about the park on the scenic hour and a half ride.
ENP is set on a magnificent preserve of several hundred acres surrounded by lush mountains and a river in which the elephants love to bathe. There are 37 members of the herd – most are females, and there are two adorable babies, Mae Do and Navann, who are constantly under the loving and protective watch of their mothers and the other females.
Our group consisted of about 10 people, and we stayed together the whole time with our guide. Others were there as well for the two-day visit or one of the volunteer programs, but overall I was impressed with how ENP limited the number of visitors. The park never felt crowded, and we had a lot of time and space to explore.
The visit, which included a fabulous vegetarian lunch, lasted till about 4:30 p.m. (though honestly, I was enjoying myself so much, I lost track of time) and during the day, we got to feed, observe, touch, and bathe many of the elephants. The babies were, of course, adorable, though we kept our distance so as not to upset mother. (This is where the telephoto lens comes in handy!)
In addition to elephants, ENP is home to about 400 rescued dogs, and at the end of the day, we had the opportunity to drop by the “dog area” and also meet ENP’s founder, Lek Chaillert, and her husband. My daughters fell in love with several of the pups and begged us to adopt one. (Yes, this can be arranged, though we chose not acquire another pet on this trip!)
As I mentioned above and described in my earlier blog, the training that elephants traditionally endure in order to be compliant around humans is nothing short of cruel. It involves chaining the elephant to a confined pen, jabbing it constantly with a sharp instrument, and leaving the poor animal without food and water for days. The goal is to break the elephant’s innate “wild” spirit so that it can be trained to do what its handlers want and what tourists like to see. With the exception of the babies recently born here, as well as one male, named Hope, who came to the park as an orphan, all of ENP’s elephants were rescued from long “careers” in the logging industry, trekking camps, or other tourist-related activities. Many came to ENP with terrible injuries and still bear the physical scars of their earlier hardships.
Each elephant has an assigned mahout, or elephant handler, who has fostered a special bond with their animal. The mahouts at ENP use a gentle hand and positive reinforcement, instead of punishment, to control the elephants. It is a training philosophy that Lek is working to promote throughout Thailand. During our day at the park, the mahouts were always in close proximity to their elephants, and we felt completely safe around the animals, even while hand feeding them bunches of bananas, watermelons, and squash.
For me, our family’s day at ENP was life-changing. Never before had I been so close to an elephant, and it was, in a word, magical. Unlike being at a show or a circus, the interaction with the animals at Elephant Nature Park is respectful, even humbling. Observing elephants in their element and seeing how happy they are, was infinitely more rewarding than riding on one’s back or watching one do tricks.
See more photos from our visit to Elephant Nature Park at http://flic.kr/s/aHsjGBhMz6.