This page contains affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.
Many visitors come to Thailand hoping to fulfil a bucket list dream—to ride an elephant. Unfortunately they don’t realise the cruelty of the act, the horrific abuse young elephants suffer during their training known as the crush, which quite literally crushes their spirit to make them submissive to humans by keeping them caged, sleep deprived, hungry, and beaten.
We were just as ignorant when six years ago we rode an elephant on safari in Nepal. Any pleasure from getting up close to rhinos was destroyed by the mahout brutally hitting the elephant’s head with a sharp metal bullhook whenever she paused. She was misbehaving he said, and the reason? She was grieving the recent death of an elephant friend. We swore we’d never ride an elephant again.
Elephant tourism is big business in Chiang Mai and there are many elephant camps to choose from, most offering rides and the chance to see elephants perform. Please don’t visit those places and support cruelty towards these wonderful animals. There is a better option.
The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for 37 rescued elephants including those that are disabled, blind, orphaned or the victim of abuse. They don’t allow visitors to ride them or force them to entertain but provide a safe home where the elephants can roam freely in a peaceful natural environment in a valley surrounded by mountains and jungle.
We spent a day at the park getting to know the elephants, feeding, washing, observing, and hugging them. It was magical to be so close to these magnificent creatures. Here’s what we discovered:
1) Chang means elephant in Thai—you may recognise the name from the popular Thai beer brand.
2) It’s intimidating to stand beside the world’s largest land mammals but they truly are gentle giants.
3) Although hearing one trumpet is rather terrifying.
4) Despite weighing 3-5 tons they move softly with gentle padding steps.
5) Their trunks are incredibly versatile and act as nose, fingers, arm, snorkel, weapon, and water hose.
6) Elephants can use their trunks to pick up everything from a giant log to a blade of grass.
7) The ends of their trunks are wet like dogs’ noses.
8) Elephants follow a similar life cycle to humans and can live up to 90 years.
9) The big difference is pregnancy—elephants have a gestation period of 18-24 months, the longest of any animal.
10) You often can’t tell if an elephant is pregnant and new arrivals can come as a surprise to the park staff.
11) Baby elephants are incredibly cute.
12) Elephants are vegetarians with a huge appetite—they spend up to 16 hours a day eating.
13) They eat around 200-300 kilos of food and drink 150 litres of water every day.
14) We spent a good part of the day feeding the elephants and learnt that they like bananas and watermelons the most, and save the pumpkins for last.
15) They can devour an entire pumpkin.
16) Elephant teeth are like rocks—their molars are up to 1ft long and can weigh 4kg.
17) As they get older they get wrinkly like humans.
18) Elephants sweat between their toenails.
19) They flap their huge ears to keep cool.
20) They love to take mud baths and spray themselves with water using their trunks to cool down.
21) Elephants have one inch thick skin but it’s very sensitive and they spend a lot of time scratching.
22) Elephants don’t see very well but they have an excellent sense of smell and hearing, and use vibrations through their feet to communicate.
23) Rocking indicates that an elephant is stressed, and tapping the ground with their trunk can indicate stress or be a warning.
24) Elephants are very protective—we watched the adults in the herd surround the baby to enclose it in a protective cocoon.
25) Elephants mourn. When an elephant at the park died the others came and stood solemnly around the body.
Visiting the Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is about 60km from Chiang Mai. A one day visit costs 2500 baht ($76) and includes transport from/to your hotel, and a tasty vegetarian lunch buffet. It’s popular so book in advance online or at their office near Tha Phae Gate.
Don’t expect an intimate experience as up to around 100 people can visit the park each day. It is well organised though and you are split into smaller groups with a guide. We felt we had enough time interacting with and observing the elephants but it would have been wonderful to stay the night and enjoy the park after the crowds had left. Overnight accommodation and volunteering opportunities are available.
Help the Elephants and Win a Trip to Thailand
A group of more than 20 travel bloggers have got together to raise funds for the Save Elephant Foundation which runs the Elephant Nature Park. By making a donation you not only help the elephants but also get entered into a raffle to win a $3300 trip to Thailand and get access to an exclusive weekly travel blog. You can read more about it and donate here.
Which tour do you recommend for a day? They have a bunch of 600tbh sunshine tour, etc….hard to figure out or just go with the 2500tbh? Hmm, wonder if their is a big difference between these tours
Lovely post! It’s sad what people resort to for income nowadays, particularly in the tourism sector. And it’s great that you decided to shed light on this reality and discourage pursuits that promote animal cruelty.
What a beautifully written and moving article. We must show the respect that these lovely animals deserve, it is unacceptable to inflict such cruelty on another creature. I think your photos clearly show the best way to get up close to elephants! What a wonderful experience that you and the elephants appear to have enjoyed enormously!
It’s unfortunate that many people don’t realize this prior to arriving in Thailand. I was the same, and had my first experience riding an elephant as part of an organized tour near Chiang Mai. I was shocked at the treatment of the animals, and could not wait to get off and finish this part of the tour. It unfortunately marred the remainder of the day, so I’m glad for posts like yours to hopefully prevent others from having the same experience!
I’m glad you’re bringing attention to the issue of the horrible elephant abuse going on. Most people riding the elephants don’t even know what’s happening or what cruelty is involved in their training. They are astonished and shocked when confronted with the facts. It’s great that you’re showing a good alternative that still lets visitors interact with the animals without supporting elephant rides. Thanks for a great post!
Don’t believe all you read, Tiffany.
There’s a huge amount of hysteria right now from westerners who come to Thailand and talk about the ‘mistreatment of elephants in parks’. It’s not remotely true on many levels at many of the parks (but, sure, it is true at some of them), and I get incredibly angry when I keep hearing these lies being repeated by westerners who have spent 2 minutes in Thailand (or never even been here) and think they are ‘experts’.
And as for ‘hitting the elephant with a metal prong’, in most cases they barely feel it as their hides are so thick. It’s like gently swatting a dog because it’s misbehaving. Feels just about the same ie: barely there.
Elephant Nature Park, by the way, has a terrible reputation in Thailand among Thais and that’s not always due to the treatment of the elephants (although that’s dubious) but because of the owner, Lek (I see mention of her has been taken off their website unless you really search for it).
She’s seen by Thais as a hustler, a liar about her background, a liar about the things that go on at the park, and a woman who is so desperately obsessed with being famous she’ll do anything to become that (thus her many appearances on National Geographic, the BBC etc). Thais also say the amount of money she is charging tourists (almost always westerners) for visits to the park is tantamount to ‘daylight robbery’.
My Thai boyfriend who is a tour guide for an American company based in Chiang Mai doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone, and he has warned me again and again over the 12 years I’ve been in Thailand to stay away from the park due to the very high expense of anything you do through them, and the condition of the elephants not being ‘all it’s cracked up to be’.
Just a warning. Places like this are good at putting on a show and telling western tourists what they want to hear. It’s not always true, however and you will rarely see a Thai go anywhere near the place.
As for legit places to visit if you’re interested in elephants, The Thai Elephant Conservation Center is government owned and under patronage of the Thai king and is an excellent place to learn about and interact with elephants – /.
Friends of the Asian Elephant runs one of the only legitimate elephant hospitals in Thailand – it’s an amazing organization. I’ve met the founder several times and she does amazing work with elephants that have had limbs blown off from land mines on the Thai-Cambodian border.
Just saying, do your research before you go and don’t believe some of the ‘shock articles’ you read online. Thai culture is difficult to understand, and what goes on in Thailand even more so. So what you see on the surface is often not what is reality (good or bad). I’ve lived in Thailand for 12 years, speak fluent Thai and I still don’t always know. A westerner who has visited Thailand for a days, weeks or months is even more in the dark so will be taken in by things they believe to be ‘legit’ for are not always.:)
We were lucky enough to recently spend some time volunteering at Elephant Nature Park. Beautiful animals who’ve been through so much and yet still have so much to offer and teach us. Medo, who Simon is standing next to in the last picture, was one particular elephant who really stole our hearts (and whose backstory was equally heartbreaking). So glad you were able to visit ENP and share your time there!
Woow…what a wonderful pictures
Can i know what camera do you use to shoot this pictures ? :D
Thanks! It’s an Olympus OMD EM5 mirrorless camera.
Incredible creatures! I had no idea they eat that much during the day and also that they become wrinkly!
Sad to hear about the conditions of how some elephants are kept though :(
I’m always happy to read a post about this park. Ever since I heard of it I swore I wouldn’t ride an elephant and tell all my friends not to ride elephants either! If I do go to Thaïland I will go to this park for sure.
Elephants are such beautiful, majestic creatures. Loved the fact about a pumpkin!
I had a sad experience in Vietnam seeing elephants kept in poor conditions and worked too hard (tourism funded mostly by Vietnamese tourists and a few Westerners). More awareness is definitely needed!
What a wonderful experience spending time with the elephants. What beautiful creatures they are. Great photos!