Chiang Mai: A Day at Elephant Nature Park

You’re going to Thailand? Are you going to ride an elephant?

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This is one of the most common questions asked when people hear you are visiting Thailand. Unfortunately, many people are not aware that this question raises serious ethical concerns about the treatment of elephants. Before you answer the question of whether or not you plan to ride an elephant on your next trip, read this first.

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Elephant Crossing signs are posted throughout the jungle near Chiang Mai.

Let’s start with the basics: elephants do not naturally let humans ride them. Remember, these are wild animals, not domesticated horses. Therefore, humans must “teach” the elephants to submit to riders. In Thailand, this process is called the Phajaan, or the crush. Essentially, elephant trainers, known as mahouts, tear young elephants away from their mothers and over time, mostly through abuse, “crush” the animal’s spirit until it becomes submissive to humans.

Beyond this process of abuse, riding an elephant is actually quite damaging to the animal. While one might think that their sheer size would protect them from the weight of a mere human, elephants are not built like the horses we have bred over centuries. An elephant’s spine is not designed to carry heavy loads. Looking at an elephant’s skeleton you can see that it is quite different from that of other animals. Instead of smooth, round spinal disks, elephants have sharp bony protrusions sticking up from their spine. According to Carol Buckley, president of Elephant Aid International, “[t]hese bony protrusions and the tissue protecting them are vulnerable to weight and pressure coming from above.” Additionally, the chairs fastened to the elephant’s body for the rider can cause painful lesions and longterm damage.

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Elephant skeleton showing long bony protrusions along the top of the spine.

It is difficult to even write about this, and knowing it I realized I could never visit a camp that treated its elephants in this way.

Luckily, a short drive outside the bustling city of Chiang Mai lies a sanctuary unlike others: Elephant Nature Park. Here, elephants roam free. Unbridled and playful, these creatures thrive in this caring environment. What makes Elephant Nature Park so unlike many other so-called sanctuaries in the area, is that the elephants here are not treated like circus animals. They do not perform for visitors, and there is certainly no riding the elephants. The founder of Elephant Nature Park is a Thai woman named Lek, who has spent her entire life caring for abused and neglected elephants. She has been working tirelessly to protect these animals and change the way Thailand views and interacts with them. If you want to learn more about Lek and her amazing work check out this short inspirational video here.

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Lek and a baby elephant at Elephant Nature Park. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

All of the elephants at Elephant Nature Park have been rescued; from the wild, from farms, and even from other camps. Traditional camps that don’t treat the elephants very well are more like mills, forcing the animals to work and perform for tourists. When the animals are finally beaten and broken down so much that they can no longer perform, they are often left to die. The same happens to elephants who work on farms. Elephant Nature Park rescues these animals.

And it is important that they do. The Asian elephant is a highly endangered species. While this magnificent creature numbered in the hundreds of thousands at the turn of the 20th century, its population has now dwindled to roughly 40,000. In Thailand in particular, the numbers are more staggering: a population of over 100,000 is now hovering around a mere 2,500, most of which live under the ownership of humans. Additionally, the elephant’s natural habit, particularly in industrial Thailand, has been decimated by human activity.

This is what makes a visit to Elephant Nature Park such an amazing experience. Here, you will walk amongst the elephants and other animals in a natural environment. You will view the elephants going about their daily lives. You can feed and even touch the elephants. You may even get a chance to bathe the elephants in the river. But that is all. And that is enough. You do not need to see an elephant perform tricks or ride on its back to appreciate the wonder of this species. Just spending the day around these amazing creatures will give you a sense of awe and a connection to the larger world around you. Just take a look at these photos from our trip below.

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It is always snack time at Elephant Nature Park.
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Elegance and grace comes in all forms.
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Get up close and personal with these amazing creatures.
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Wading in the river.
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A playful young elephant.
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There’s always time for a dance break.
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Hanging out by the river.
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Just grazing.
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Herd gathering in the shade.
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Flapping those big ears.

At Elephant Nature Park, you have several choices for your visit, ranging from a few hours to a few days. We chose the single day visit because it fit best into our schedule (and let’s face it: half a day is too short). Park staff will pick you up from your hotel in Chiang Mai and drive you to the park.

First, you will spend the morning feeding and roaming with the elephants.

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Feeding the elephants is at first scary and then amazing!
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Elephants love to eat.
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Staff carry baskets of food everywhere for the elephants.
Feeding is fun for humans and elephants!
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This elephant really wanted to visit with us.
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The herd encircling the new baby.
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A baby elephant surrounded by the protective herd.
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Comfort and style.
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One of the viewing platforms at Elephant Nature Park.

Then you will eat a healthy lunch cooked by the staff, which is amazing (and entirely vegetarian), by the way.

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Lunch tables at Elephant Nature Park.
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Delicious homemade food.
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A wonderful, fully vegetarian meal.
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Fires ablaze preparing food for the elephants.
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Elephant food storage.
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Elephants gathering at the main viewing platform for their lunch.
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Lunchtime draws big crowds!

Finally, in the afternoon you will bathe the elephants in the river and spend more time exploring the park and just spending time with the elephants.

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Carrying pails to the river to toss water on the elephants.
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Groups gather on the banks to bathe the elephants in the river.
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Bathing the elephants is a truly unique experience.
Post-bathing mud and dirt baths to keep help keep the elephants cool.
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This elephant, Jan Peng, whose name means Full Moon, was born in 1943, and wears a flower in her ear to cover a scar from a hook injury.
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Posing with the beautiful Jan Peng.
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Hanging out during snack time.
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The elephants are always ready for photos.
A baby elephant enjoying some water.
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We had an amazing day with the elephants.
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Feel your own fragility in the face of these giant creatures.
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The skin is much softer than you’d expect.
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Such beauty.
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A lovely end to an amazing day.

So if you come to Thailand and want to spend some time with elephants, I highly recommend you come to Elephant Nature Park and see these beautiful creatures in this amazing and loving space.

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Chiang Mai_ A Day at Elephant Nature Park

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