Have you ever considered spending time with elephants on a remote reserve north of Chiang Mai, Thailand? Stephanie Jack did just that.
I’ve always liked elephants and since I was planning my first trip to Thailand I decided to go to an elephant reserve. Not the kind of place where you ride around on the elephants, but one where the experience for the elephant is the top priority. The Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai was recommended to me. It is run by this amazing woman, Lek (Sangduen Chailert), who looks after sick, domesticated elephants. She keeps as many as she can afford to adopt and also travels throughout the northern region accompanied by veterinarians to educate elephant handlers on how to treat their animals and to provide medicines as needed.
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In Thailand, elephants are still captured to be used for hard labour or tourism. Some are sent to abusive elephant training camps and others are injured while working in illegal logging camps. When an elephant is injured and can no longer work, their owners may turn them into street-beggars to earn money. When we first arrived we were shown a video about how some owners will put elephants in a wooden box for a week to break their spirit. Hooks were often used to force elephants to listen. Lek instead trains handlers how to use their voice to give elephants commands. One elephant that was there had both eyes poked out by his previous owner and so was blind. He was led around by his buddy who had a broken back and a mangled foot because she was caught in a landmine. She was also pregnant!
Elephants are really quite sociable and form small groups or herds. The elephants in the park live a life of luxury. They get up, have a bath in the river, get fed, and wander around the property. This is repeated three times a day. One herd at a time is fed and bathed. They are well taken care of, not only by the volunteers but by their elephant trainers, called mahouts. The elephants seem to trust their mahouts who also run interference between the animals and the volunteers.
It is so peaceful there. It’s the most amazing experience and so laid back. You just hang out with elephants. One baby was even sleeping while I petted her. The young males can be a little aggressive. One took off while I was there and it is amazing how fast they can run; his mahout had a hard time catching up to him, and there is no fence around the park so the mahout didn’t want him to get away.
The elephants eat huge baskets of fruit and it all has to be cut up. They especially like watermelon. Volunteers do a lot of hard labour but they get to spend their day with elephants so it is a good trade off. I paid $100 for the day and the money goes directly to maintaining the park, paying salaries for the mahouts, supporting the elephants, and adopting new ones. Some volunteers spend weeks there.
I was by myself in Chiang Mai but it is an easy place to get around. So many foreign tourists are there for months, just doing yoga and taking cooking courses and living the Thailand experience. I later flew down to Phuket and was horrified by all the tourists there: the old men, the drugs, the lady-boys. Chiang Mai is still quaint with small cafes and guest houses run by locals.
Was I glad I went to the elephant sanctuary? Yes, and I would go back in a heartbeat.
Photo credits: Stephanie Jack
© Riding the buses 2011