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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.