After what was supposed to be a 5 hour bus ride, actually 7 hours ‘cos you know thai time, we arrived into a sunny and blue sky Chiang Mai. We used what was left of the afternoon to explore the old city. Now this is what I love. Winding alleyways turning into narrow streets filled with treasures from cool, hippy bars to abstract art shops and of course vendors at every turn selling fresh coconuts and barbecued beef. Occasionally stumbling onto on a hidden temple that we probably wouldn’t of found if we’d been looking for it.
We made our way into the largest temple which is also a Buddhist University. There we got to speak to a former monk who gave us an insight into Buddhism and their temples.
Down the street from our hostel there were flourishing markets. One selling fruits and vegetables, the other selling trinkets, clothes and jewellery. We spent a while pondering the stalls wishing we could take home the wall hangings, paintings and cushion covers to adorn our rooms with.
It was an early start the next morning as this was the day we were going to see the Asian elephant. I had done a lot of research regarding the Elephant industry prior to the trip and had found the Elephant Nature Park matched my views and passion for conserving these majestic animals. The founder started with 6 rescued elephants and has now grown to over 60 elephants, 400 dogs, done cats, monkeys and ponies.
The park is situated in a lush valley with a river running through an hour and a half’s drive from Chiang Mai. There are other numerous elephant camps on the drive to the park, but not all are up to the same standard of elephant care and conservation. One of these camps used to take tourists on elephant rides but they were losing money so turned to the founder for help.
She taught them her ways, how to treat the elephants with respect, positive reinforcement and to get rid of the bull hook and cane. They in return stopped riding them and assigned one guy to each elephant to look after. The elephant gets to know the carer and the carer gets to now the Elephant. She also included them in the Elephant Nature Parks day trips to help drive tourists to them. We were one of those.
We were picked up in a minibus and introduced to our guide A. On the way we watched a film about the plight of the Asian Elephant in South East Asia followed by an introduction to the Elephant Nature Park. There were 9 of us in our group, me and Zorro, 2 dutch guys, an Indian family of three and 2 friends from the US. Once we arrived at the base we were given an outline for the day, bottles of water and instructions. Then the fun began!
First up was feeding! The carers brought the 4 adult elephants and one baby, about three years old to the rails. Here we could feed them watermelon upon watermelon. The elephants trunk were very gentle but you could feel the immense power there as well. I had no qualms about feeding or touching these big beasts, just a bigger version of a horse right. The instructions were similar, always approach side on, never stand behind them and don’t tease them with food.
It was such a privilege to hang out with these big friendly giants and witness the positive reinforcement at work. After the ellies had demolished all of the watermelon we started our hike through the jungle. We were given bags filled with bananas and sugar cane to feed to the elephants as we walked. The elephants are very clever and sometimes had no qualms about reaching into the bag to help themselves. It was a fun walk with lots of stops to get everyone, 2 and 4 legs included, caught up.
There was one particularly muddy downhill section where Zorro lost her foot to the mud. I was behind her and all I heard was a “My SHOE!”. At this point one of the mahout made me a Gandulf walking stick to assist my descent, so no sodden, muddy shoe for me!
It was surreal at points to be hiking through the jungle then glancing around and there was a ginormous elephant behind you. They walk so softly so are very good at creeping up on you without noticing. The young calf was particularly inquisitive and she was a firm favourite with everyone, especially the photographer who came with us.
Suddenly it was time for lunch, and what a special lunch it was. We had a specially prepared lunch of rice, noodles, fries, pineapple and papaya salad on a wooden bench by a running stream. And for dessert sweet sticky rice and mango. Amazing. That’s a hard lunch spot to beat.
The elephants caught up with us after that, they’d had their lunch grazing in the jungle. And we walked a bit with them more feeding them scraps left over from lunch. We parted ways to go explore a waterfall. The rock was very smooth making it the perfect water slide! Wheeeeeeee
After getting our fill of adrenaline we headed back to the base camp to bath the elephants in the river. The baby especially enjoyed herself, rolling around and splashing anyone nearby. The big ellies were content to stand there and let us bathe them, some mahouts were cheeky and tried to get us wet more than the elephants which resulted in a bit of a water fight.
Once we’d changed into dry clothes we went to the Elephant Nature Park. It was huge! Imagine a vast green valley with a river running the centre and dotted everywhere were elephants roaming freely in there herds with their mahouts. The main building has a shop, restaurant, hotel and lounge as you can volunteer there for a week or more. After a compulsory browse through the shop we headed to the river to watch one of the herds have their evening swim. This herd had quite a few youngsters who were very playful and boisterous. It was great to see them interacting so much with Nanny and Mum watching over.
After they’d had enough of the water it was time to say good bye to our new friends and head back to Chiang Mai. What an awesome day. Whew.
I would highly recommend Elephant Nature Park if you want to have a close and personal experience with Asian Elephants who respect the elephants and actively discourage the riding and ill treatment of them. Remember kids, ride bikes not elephants.