One of the things that I was most looking forward to in Thailand was getting to see elephants, so just a few days before bidding Chiang Mai farewell, I finally made it over to the Elephant Nature Park.
Set in the lush countryside of Northern Thailand, the Elephant Nature Park is both a rescue centre and a sanctuary that is currently home to 37 elephants: 32 of them females and 5 of them males. Each of the elephants at ENP has a unique story to tell, and while some of the younger ones were lucky enough to be born in this haven, most of the elephants you’ll meet here have tragic pasts which range from performing in circuses to toiling away in the logging industry.
When you come to the Elephant Nature Park it’s not to watch elephants perform tricks or to ride atop their backs through the jungle. You won’t see the elephants chained to a tree, and you won’t see them twirling paintbrushes in their trunks. This is a place where elephants are free to roam in a natural environment, and isn’t that the way it should be?
Here’s a look at how I spent my day at the Elephant Nature Park:
Feeding the elephants
Shortly after arriving at the Elephant Nature Park, the elephants approached the lodge eager for feeding time to begin. Basketfuls of bananas and sliced watermelon were brought out and within minutes hungry trunks were wriggling in front of us.
I grabbed a generous slice of sweet watermelon and before I knew it, I had made a new friend. The elephant wrapped its trunk around the piece of fruit, slipped it into its mouth, and greeted me with its trunk again wondering why I didn’t have a second handful of treats ready to go.
This is where I learned that elephants are big eaters – finally an animal after my own heart! On average elephants sleep around 4 hours a day, and the rest of the time is spent grazing. This allows them to eat the equivalent of 10% of their body weight every day!
An eye-opening documentary
After lunch we had the option of either enjoying some free time at the lodge or watching a documentary that dove deeper into the plight of the elephants. Hoping for a better understanding of the challenges Thailand’s elephants face, I made my way upstairs for the screening.
The most difficult part to watch was the phajaan, also known as the crush. Wild elephants are precisely that – wild. There is no way one of them would allow a human to hop on their back and ride merrily through the jungle, which is why elephants that are used in the tourism industry are forced to undergo the crush.
The phajaan is an excruciating experience which is meant to break down the elephant’s wild spirit and make it submissive to man. It involves keeping the elephant in a bamboo cage for days, where it is sleep deprived, starved, beaten and pierced with bullhooks. It is heartbreaking to watch and you can see the pain and agony in the elephant’s eyes – these young elephants are often torn away from their mothers and they don’t understand why they are all of a sudden alone and being subjected to all this abuse.
I turned around when the documentary ended to see that only four of us remained in the room. Considering the park welcomes an average of 100 visitors a day, I found it a little disheartening that many chose not to become better informed, while others simply walked out when things looked grim.
Bathing in the river
Bath time was my favourite part of the day! After lunch we walked down to the river where the elephants awaited a nice bath to help them cool down. With buckets in hand, we stepped into the shallow water, where we splashed around while the elephants gingerly munched on watermelons.
I remember the water feeling ice cold when I first stepped in, but I quickly forgot about that once we started bathing the giants. I don’t know who enjoyed the experience more – the elephants or all of us visitors having a refreshing water fight in the river!
The stories behind each elephant
Later on in the afternoon, our guide Andy took us for a walk around the park and stopped to introduce us to many of the different elephants along the way.
There was Malai Tong who worked in the logging industry and fell victim to a landmine. One of her back legs was disfigured and noticeably shorter than the others. Today she thrives in the park and has even found an elephant group where she plays the role of auntie to one of the new born elephants.
We also met Yindee, who was born last summer. His name means ‘welcome’ in Thai and as the youngest member in the park, he gets a lot of love and attention from the older females in his group.
Then there was Lucky, who lost her eyesight after years of working in a circus where the bright lights lead to blindness. She was rescued from the Surin province and now spends her days wandering freely.
And I also met Mintra, whose body speaks of a very hard life. Mintra has a sloping back and limps when she walks; these are injuries she may have received when she was a baby and had to follow her mother who worked in the logging industry. Mintra also spent time working the tourist circuit in Bangkok, where she was forced to beg in the streets and was hit by a car. Despite all her hardship, she is the one who gave birth to the little baby boy, Yindee, and together the two of them are very happy at the park.
Even though I only spent a day at the park and I didn’t get to meet all 37 elephants, it felt like a privilege to hear about each of these stories from our guide.
And while the Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for elephants, I was also surprised to learn that it plays home to a number of different animals including dogs, cats, water buffalos, horses, and pigs! After meeting a few of the different elephants, I got to visit the dog rescue centre which is home to more than 350 dogs, many of which were rescued from the streets of Chiang Mai as well as from Bangkok after the flood of 2011. While the dogs looked very happy and well taken care of in the park, I was happy to see that the centre is always actively seeking suitable homes where these pups can enjoy a real family.
Visiting the Elephant Nature Park
- The Elephant Nature Park is located about 1 hour north of Chiang Mai and the outing is a full day affair. You will be picked up from your accommodations in Chiang Mai around 8:00 am and return to the city sometime after 5:00 pm.
- The cost of the full day visit is 2,500 baht (around $80 USD) and this includes transportation to and from your guesthouse, a delicious vegetarian buffet, a knowledgeable guide, and a fun day bathing, feeding, and learning about the elephants.
- You will be outside most of the day so you’ll want to dress accordingly. I’d recommend wearing flip flops and perhaps bringing a change of clothes for the bath time with the elephants.
And if you want a closer look at what the park looks like, here’s a little video that Sam and I made during our visit to the park:
Have you ever come face to face with elephants? What was it like?
What a lovely place and the elephants look so happy! Incredible creatures. I wish to visit the park one day 🙂
They do! 🙂 The elephants are very well taken care of here and it’s nice to see them roaming free as opposed to being chained up – something that happens in a lot of other parks.
This is SO awesome. I love that there’s such a focus on humane treatment and educating visitors about the elephants! Thanks for sharing 🙂
I like the short stories of the elephants 🙂
Sad to hear so few people remained watching the documentary. I am sure the people from ENP do their best to educate people, apart from giving them a chance to have a closer contact with the elephants.
We have recently volunteered with Bring The Elephant Home and Erawan Elephant Paradise, which was so much educative for us!
Happy travels, Audrey 🙂
Chiang Mai is such a great place for nature,animals and others thing you could enjoy.
Also in Lampang,which province is nearby about 90 km away. There’s Lampang Elephant Conservation Centre,where you can play , enjoy and watch elephant performance closely.
Wish you a good time in Thailand.
Lovely! I have reverence for this post! I really want to have the same experience as yours. I am also trying my best to spread awareness about the plight of elephants. Hopefully the abuse should end in the coming days.
This is brilliant. I love elephants and love being around them. I’m very lucky that I got the chance to ride them a lot when I lived in Chiang Rai, as my friend’s village had a large elephant camp there.
Of course, at the time I didn’t realise that maybe they had things they’d rather be doing that walking around with fat pale humans on their backs. To be fair, in the village they were well cared for, and sometimes the only way for their mahouts to feed them was to earn money by providing rides, so it’s a catch 22. But if there were a way – such as at the park you went to – where they could be cared for without having to give rides or do tricks to earn their keep, then that’s just awesome.
There is a place in Phuket called Siam Safari where Michael and I spent the day caring for elephants, and got to feed and bathe them as part of it. Unfortunately they also give rides, but in terms of elephant welfare it’s still miles ahead of any other elephant camp in the south of Thailand. If you ever find yourself back in Phuket, you might enjoy it. (www.siamsafari.com).
This brings back such great memories – and reminds me that I have my own ENP video to work on soon! I volunteered at ENP for a week last month, and it was probably the highlight of my time in Southeast Asia. What they are trying to do there is just incredible, and elephants are such amazing animals!
This looks incredible and I can’t wait to visit! I’m so glad that the plight of Thai elephants has been highlighted by so many bloggers and I am happy that I know a lot more about the subject now, before I travel to Thailand. Thanks 🙂
It makes me so sad to learn more this. I didn’t realize what happened to them until about 6 months ago, A couple years ago I rode one in Goa. I even took my friends who came to visit and was planning to write about how great it was. Not sure if I should even share about it on my blog now because I don’t want to encourage people to go.
Great to see a sanctuary that not only caters for elephants, but other animals as well, especially dogs. I just saw a facebook post about animal trafficking in Thailand as well, which is really awful. We visited the Elephant park in Taro, Ubud Bali a few years ago. They too are rescued elephants and are absolutely amazing. I’m baffled as to how people can treat living creatures like they don’t have a heart or soul. It’s so sad. I’m grateful for everyone who posts ‘good news’ reports such as this – there is definitely hope 🙂
Great post and photos Audrey. What they are doing at ENP is incredible. I can’t wait to have this experience myself someday.
Audrey…my kind of place. I love elephants. It seems like a must-do! Great photos.
Super jealous! We’ll be headed to Chiang Mai for the first time in 2 weeks but unfortunately it’s just over a weekend, so we won’t have time for the Elephant Nature Park 🙁
Next time for sure though! It looks like you had a lot of fun, a great way to end your time in Asia!
I loved this post!!
The pictures of the elephants are so cute, and so are yours!! 🙂
Dan and I also spent a day at the park. We really wanted to spend a week volunteering, but they were all booked up! So if you are interested in volunteering, make sure to put in your request a few months in advance. I wrote up a review of our time at the sanctuary on our blog, from the perspective of two vegans: http://veganhop.com/elephant-nature-park-review/ Overall, we think Elephant Nature Park is supremely necessary. There is simply nothing else like it in Thailand for retired “working” elephants. Glad you made it out to the only true sanctuary for elephants in Thailand (and possibly all of South East Asia). Looks like you had a wonderful time (and wasn’t the lunch amazing?!).
Love love LOVE this! Thanks for sharing your incredible experience.
Happy travels 🙂
Wow looks absolutely amazing, Brendan and I will definitely be heading there in two weeks. I’m glad the horrible elephant abuse is getting some attention.
Someday I will visit there. I am trying to help the poor abused sad elephants here in the US. Do many rotting away in the zoos here or being abused in the circuses here. They are intelligent and social and need to be at Paws or Tes. I have fostered some elephants at David Sheldrich. When we get in our new house I will foster some of your eles. I sent some tea tree oil shampoo to Soi Dog rescue and I will send some to you too!! Bless you for what you do!
beautiful animals, beautiful organisation and absolutely beautiful post!
I love reading posts about the Elephant sanctuary. Before I started traveling, I had always wanted to ride an elephant in Thailand. But I’m glad I began researching before I set foot in the country. I hate how these animals are mistreated and would have never supported it had I known sooner. I’m glad there is a sanctuary for these elephants and wish more could be rescued. Instead of riding the elephants, I look forward to showing them some love by visiting the sanctuary when I head to Thailand!
This is AMAZING. I would love to go here. I’ve never liked the types of places that offered elephant rides, elephants painting things, elephants being made to do tricks for our pleasure…I would never want to participate in that type of thing. A rescue operation is much more my style, and this place looks fantastic. I can’t believe that all of those people left during the movie. I think it is important to understand why the sanctuary exists, and that we should all be aware of the abuse. Bathing and feeding the elephants looks like lots of fun! I’m so happy that they have the space to roam around and live as naturally as possible.
It’s great to know that the elephant nature park in North Thailand is also indeed a natural home for elephants with a sad, agonizing past. I sometimes can’t understand how some people would have the capacity for being heartless to such loveable animals like elephants.
I saw some in Cambodia, but they were used for tourism and at the time I had no idea how much they suffer to make them ‘workable’ for the tourism industry. I have since read loads about this elephant sanctuary, which is a good thing, because it will raise awareness about how badly elephants get treated and that tourists can still interact with them in a nice and unthreatening way. So thanks for sharing and spreading the word. 🙂
They’re so beautiful! Seems like this place really has it right – it’s so important for people to learn where they should and shouldn’t put their money when they go traveling. I’m jealous! 🙂
Nice post. Just came back yesterday from volunteering for a week at the Elephant Nature Park. It was really rewarding to did all the stuff like washing, scooping poo, preparing their food etc. You get a lot of background information about the elephants. I think it was the best experience so far during my Southeast Asia journey. And I have gotten more respect and love for these animals, especially after hearing what some of them have gone through.
This is so fantastic! If I do nothing else in my travels, I have to at least go here. Elephants are such amazing creatures!
I met Lek (the founder) at the AWE conference in KL last year. She was so amazing and so inspiring, I wanted to drop by and check out her nature park as well. Unfortunately its so popular that you need to book in advance. But Fortunately her work is going well and she mentioned she received permission to open one up in Myanmar as well!
This post make me feel a bit nostalgic. I was at ENP for a month last year and loved it every second of it!
Elephants are SUCH amazing creatures. I’m told that we’ll be able to hang out with some in Nepal, at the Chitwan National Park. I hope so!
Nice! This trip must be very memorable to you because you’ve seen these beautiful elephants that are living their lives freely with the help of a good community in Thailand. I’ve only seen pictures of elephants but I’ve never seen them in real life. When I look at them, I can see that what they need to live their lives is to be free with everything they have such as their food and water to take. I think I should really go to Thailand and see how lovely these elephants are so I can also somehow be a part of their lives for just a few days. Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience.
Do you think I would make it through the Chiang Mai airport (7:50 landing time) in time to be picked up at 8ish for the trip? Is it a small airport? Thanks! 🙂
I would recommend you save the visit to the Elephant Nature Park for the following day, otherwise you may not make it. Yes, the Chiang Mai airport is fairly small, but flights can be delayed, immigration can sometimes take a while, and you also have to collect your baggage. You likely won’t be out of there in 10 minutes…
This is fantastic! really enjoyed the story and the video, thanks for sharing. would love to check this park out
Ok I’m a little late reading this post but I’m planning on visiting the Elephant Nature Park when I head to Thailand at the end of this year and it’s made me 100 times more excited for it!!! Loved the video too! Thanks for sharing! 😀
This is amazing! I’d love to do something like this. Elephants are one of my favorite animals. They are so gentle and beautiful – it makes me so sad that people can be so cruel to them.
Elephants were definitely a highlight of our time in Thailand. I went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary however. The whole thing seemed very well organised and the elephants well-treated (the proof is the little 1-year old elephants playing around!)
I also went to the Elephant Nature park after reading your blog and a bunch of others as I was trying to figure out the most ethical place to go to. I took some clips during my amazing day there! https://youtu.be/aQSCldsUJAk
Thank you for sharing your pictures and helping the rest of us decide on which place to go to.
This looks like such an incredible experience… I hope I can try it myself some day. The closest I’ve ever gotten to anything like this is feeding giraffes at the zoo… haha.