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One of the national symbols of Thailand and important to Thai culture is the Asian Elephant. But sadly, for many tourists, riding an elephant is on their bucket list. Thanks to animal conservationist-type friends sharing compelling stories about the abusive history of elephants in the circus, trekking camps and the logging industry, we put Elephant Nature Park – a sanctuary for elephants – on WAVEJourney’s bucket list for a recent visit to Northern Thailand.
WAVEJourney took a memorable day trip to Elephant Nature Park (ENP) – located in the rain-forested Mae Taeng Valley about 60 km (37 miles) north of Chiang Mai – a sanctuary that was founded in the mid-1990s by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. ENP gives rescued elephants the chance to rehabilitate and live out their lives with dignity while roaming free in this 250-acre oasis. Lek has given refuge to elephants rescued throughout Thailand, some blind, some lame, all traumatized. Currently, the herd is comprised of 36 elephants with individual pasts which include suffering from the circus, forced breeding, logging camps, trekking outfits, street begging or even land mines.
At ENP responsible tourism is the buzz. Yes, these elephants are face to face with tourists, but the folks who visit will never see a bull hook or chains. The elephants here are treated with love and respect and it is the visitor who gets the lesson from these highly intelligent gentle behemoths.
With decreasing habitat in Thailand and a nearly extinct population of this revered creature within the country, Lek is at the forefront of saving the Asian Elephant. The mahouts (elephant keepers) have learned her method of instilling trust and love with rewards of food to ensure the elephants are treated with the respect they deserve. The passion and love demonstrated by Lek and her staff (many are volunteers) for these beauties leave a mark on both man and beast.
ENP is also a safe haven for 400+ dogs as well as cats, water buffalo, cows and pigs! Veterinarians are on site to enhance this best care facility. It really is an opportunity to appreciate many different critters, all on the mend, in a safe and friendly educational environment.
There is a maximum of 100 guests for day programs with visitors in groups of 10 or so. ENP offers other day and overnight programs with 40 volunteers and 300 full-time workers. All this comes at a whopping cost of US$1.5 million per year to run… Contributions are gladly accepted!
Our day trip to ENP started with a pick-up at our hotel just after 8am, where we joined 8 others on our van ride out to the sanctuary for these beautiful creatures. A documentary that was played in the van during the ride helped set the tone for the upcoming experience. Our journey took just over an hour with a restroom stop along the way.
Upon arrival we dropped our gear on our designated table and we were encouraged by our guide for the day to apply bug repellent. Once we all thoroughly washed our hands (so no chemicals transmitted to the elephants) we headed out to feed any and all that were hungry – elephants consume a tremendous amount of food in a day so we had plenty of takers!
We each had the opportunity to hand feed the elephants while we stood behind a rail running along a raised platform area. Touching the elephant, feeling the rough skin and looking right into his/her eye make for quite a remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After a 90-minute lunch break provided by ENP that included both Thai and Western selections, our crew then moved to the river which borders the sanctuary. Here we waded into the water with a mahout and his elephant and proceeded to throw buckets upon buckets of water on “our elephant” as it happily enjoyed its bath. It is best to be prepared for this activity by bringing along extra clothes as the water flies in all directions!
As mentioned, these peaceful giants eat and eat and eat. And so, it was feeding time again. No one felt left out in participating in handing off bananas or steamed mushy pumpkins to the waiting line of trunks. We reveled in another chance to commune with these social animals who definitely feel and display emotions.
Around 3:30pm we climbed into our van for transport back to Chiang Mai. On our drive back we passed trekking camps where we saw elephants in the distance chained in place on small patches of cleared ground. They appeared helpless under the scorching sun.
May the Love of Lek infuse the countryside and perhaps one day all elephants will be as lucky as those at Elephant Nature Park!
WAVEJourney were guests of ENP on this day trip. See our full disclosure statement to see that this has no effect on our opinions or reviews.