Elephant Nature Park | Chiang Mai, Thailand
The ground began to rumble beneath me as the pack of elephants raised their trunks in distress. The day had started so calm and I had started to become familiar with these magnificent animals. As the intensity rose I was quickly reminded of their sheer power and wild nature.
But let’s start at the beginning many months ago during the planning phase of this trip. And in fact, even before that, when I began to imagine my “dream honeymoon”.
Elephants have always fascinated me. On a prior trip to a wildlife refuge in Ghana these mysterious creatures had eluded me for 3 days on safari. I was as devastated as you could be after spending 3 days on a Ghanaian Safari (so not that devastated because it was still an incredible experience, the warthogs comforted me). Thailand was my chance at redemption. Although these would not technically be “wild” elephants they would be astonishing.
I researched hard as I would encourage you to do as well. Responsible tourism is hugely important and although there is a ton of misinformation about “humane” elephant riding, it is exactly that…misinformation. Let’s make one thing clear right now, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS HUMANE ELEPHANT RIDING. I love elephants with all my heart, I am intrigued and mesmerized by them and the last thing I wanted to do was to ride one. To witness them in the wild, to see how they live, to romp through the forest and bathe in the river, THAT is really experiencing an elephant. That is seeing an elephant as it is and respecting its dignity. That is what Elephant Nature Park (ENP) provides.
An True Elephant Sanctuary
Your Elephant Nature Park experience will begin, as it should at any wildlife rescue, with education. The ride from Chiang Mai into the forest is about 90 minutes. This time is wisely used to show a video about the park itself and its mission as well as Lek, the founder of this paradise. It’s a tearjerker and a little tough to watch but it is important to know the elephant’s backstories in order to appreciate their present circumstances.
As the video finished and we continued to drive further and further into the Thai jungle I reflected on the experience I was about to have. There are several options to choose from when you book with ENP but for me it was a no-brainer. There are few things I have anticipated more than this and I was prepared to spend as much time as I could here. The thick jungle greenery banged against the van windows waking me from my thoughts as we pulled off the road next to a small hut. The excitement in the air was tangible as we stepped out of the van. We haphazardly applied sunscreen and bug spray, in a rush to get to the main event.
It’s Elephant Time Baby
There was nothing… The river running next to the hut was deafening, where are the elephants? Please don’t tell me I am going to miss them again, I don’t know if my heart can take it!
In hindsight this was the perfect way to begin the day. We were waiting on them. These elephants were just going about their normal daily activities with their pack and their mahouts. We were observers, this wasn’t about us and this wasn’t about me. We were being invited into their lives; it was a privilege not a right. Their morning walk through the forest was a leisurely one; after all they were in no hurry to see me, why would they be? I was on elephant time now and things were going to slooooooow down.
CRASH. SNAP. THUMP. They had arrived.
My heart skipped a beat. Through the lush, overgrown forest a line of striking Asian elephants began to emerge. They were coming right at me! No wait, they were definitely coming towards the 5 picnic tables stacked with mini watermelons and bananas. This feast would serve as a morning snack for the 4 large female elephants and 1 elephant calf tromping their way to the clearing. As they got closer and closer it became obvious that a human companion, their mahout, followed each elephant.
If you are looking for the coolest job in the entire world look no further than the elephant mahout. I like to think I was one in a former life, maybe that would explain the elephant obsession. If not that, then I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a future life. A mahout is a caretaker and a friend. Each elephant is given a mahout and each mahout an elephant. They spend all day, everyday together and form a very special bond. At ENP, even the mahouts do not ride the elephants.
What followed next was a feeding frenzy. Ok not really. The elephants were actually very polite. In all honesty they did better than I do when faced with a table full of fresh fruit. The adult elephants stood behind a wooden rail as we hand fed them. Both parties were a little nervous at first. After all a leathery trunk wrapping around your hand is a strange sensation. However it is not quite as strange as what happened when the elephants got more comfortable. If you move in a little closer you can drop the fruit directly into the elephants mouth. What you come away with is a fist full of drool.
A Stroll Through The Forest With An Elephant or 5
Once the picnic tables had been cleared it was time for the elephants to continue their walk. The mahouts “led” their pachyderm pals into the jungle as our group followed along. I use the word “led” lightly because the mahouts were definitely NOT the ones in charge. The elephants wandered through the jungle stopping to eat any tasty greenery, or scratch at any particularly appealing tree. The elephant calf was especially distracted and would turn around right in the middle of the path when something caught her eye.
It was a leisurely stroll indeed but one where you had to watch your toes or risk getting stepped on by one of the largest animals in world. An hour wander and it was time for the humans to eat lunch. One of the local ENP employees used to be a chef and he made an incredible meal of traditional Thai food. The green papaya salad had an incredibly spicy yet tangy sauce and the fresh egg rolls were to die for. Even the elephants agreed!
They had been waiting nearby for us to finish eating (very impatiently I’m sure) and when we had almost finished they found their way back over to finish off the left overs. Just like humans they have their own sense of taste. This particular elephant LOVED the egg rolls but did not like tomatoes. With bellies full and enough photos of our elephant picnic to fill an album we walked another 30 minutes back to the original jungle hut.
An Afternoon Dunk
In my research of elephant rescue facilities most offered a jungle trek and feeding time. One thing that made ENP stand out was the river bathing experience. In some of their packages it is possible to bathe with an elephant in a river. How is this not the coolest thing ever? Whatever you are picturing in your mind, it is going to be better than that and here is why. Elephants LOVE the water! This is where you really get to see their goofy personalities shine. If you are lucky you will have a calf on your trip because that girl was a hot mess. Rolling in mud, splashing everyone around her, and just having a grand ‘ole time, she had been waiting all day for this.
In fact each one of the elephants laid down completely in the river to fully soak in the mud and water. If you think they’re big standing up, they REALLY seem big lying down at your feet. Keep an eye out and try not to get crushed. The cool river water feels fantastic after the hot and humid jungle walk. That sticky layer of sweat, sunscreen and bug spray washes right off.
* As of April 2018 bathing with the elephants is no longer allowed but they have built a viewing platform where you can watch the elephants enjoying themselves in the water.
The Elephant Nature Park Facility
A quick change into some dry clothes and you will be on your way to see the full ENP facility that spreads over 25 acres. The number of animals fluctuates regularly but we saw around 25 elephants as well as a huge pack of rescue dogs. There are several things lying around for the elephants to do but their favorite activity seemed to be picking at the palm frond umbrellas that were providing shade in the heat of the day. That seems like a terrible idea.
There were tires and ropes for them to play with and wherever there was an elephant you did not have to look far to see a mahout hanging around. To pass the time the mahouts carve beautifully realistic elephant statues out of wood. These are for sale later in the gift shop.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Get Separated From The Big Elephants!
Standing in an open field the ground beneath us began to shake. We turned to look as several large elephants from a pack began to run in different directions. Our tour guide motioned for us to stay still and be quiet. My heart was beating out of my chest. So this is it huh? Trampled by a pack of elephants in Thailand? Honestly that’s not so bad, it would at least make for a good story. Tell Pogo I love him.
The noise that had been shaking the ground was now deafening in my ears. It was like nothing I had ever heard or felt and I had no idea what the hell was happening. I turned my head slowly, ever so slowly, towards the elephants. Hey if I’m going to get trampled I at least want to watch it happen ok?
One of the elephant calves has wandered off and gotten too far from the pack. They had lost sight of her and freaked out! The loud trumpeting and vibration was a warning sign from the pack and a way for the calf to find it’s way back. The calf immediately turned on its heels and made a beeline back trumpeting as loud as it could. I imagine it was saying, “Here I am!! I’m sorry, I’m sorry!!!!” As soon as the pack made eye contact they began running towards the calf at full speed. The ground continued to shake now as several elephants sprinted towards their baby.
Elephant 101: How To Protect An Elephant Calf
As soon as they met in the middle the calf was surrounded by big ‘ole elephant butts. The elephants created a circle, butts in, trunks out to protect the little one. They rumbled and hit the ground with their trunks to show they were ready to fight to protect their baby. It worked I was frozen in place, super intimidated.
If there is one thing I regret not getting a video of it is this experience. My husband is a nature documentary aficionado and I’m not sure if I have just never seen that documented or if it just can’t be done justice on the TV screen.
When my heart rate decreased and my legs would let me walk again we finished our tour. That’s one hell of a way to end the day!