There are a lot of choices when it comes to visiting the elephants of Thailand. There are options that include riding and not riding. Swimming and not swimming. Half day and full day treks.
Based on reviews and my own belief that riding elephants isn’t kosher I chose Elephant Nature Park. I wish I would have asked around a bit more. For 2,500฿ ($70) the tour company picks you up at your hotel at 8:30am, drives you to the site in a comfortable, air conditioned van, feeds you lunch and drives you back to your hotel after a day of elephant fun. This is by far the most expensive thing I have done in Thailand, but I think the money is going to a good cause and it’s a bit far to travel alone.
While I believe the park is extremely conscientious of the creatures they contain, they are still contained creatures. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I experienced, I wouldn’t do it again.
Here’s why I don’t recommend Elephant Nature Park:
- When the passengers are done being picked up, a 40-minute shock video is played to scare the shit out of everyone. It’s basically propaganda against any other elephant tour, showing abuse, injury and a few interviews of why ENP is so great. It’s really difficult at 8am, not to mention just very aggressive.
- There are about 60 female elephants, 5 males and 1 baby, all separated respectively.
- I get that the males can become aggressive and we heard them (we never saw the males as they are behind massive fences), but isn’t caging still not very natural?
- The baby, which is more or less seen as a cuteness factor and often pictures are showed of people “snuggling” them, is kept behind barricades as well with it’s mother and nanny. Again, another safety precaution, understandable, but still a bit misleading.
- The elephants are led by their Mahout (elephant trainer, like a buddy system). To be friendly and led around, they are plied with food and phrases and occasionally a push. I didn’t see anything unethical, like abuse, but still these are wild animals and there is nothing wild about here’s a watermelon, be good.
- Swimming with elephants to help clean them… let’s get this straight right now. You don’t swim with anything. You don’t need a bathing suit and when we were on our way to the river, the guide said you can wear your bathing suit if you “want to be sexy.” WTF? No one wanted to be sexy, but we were led to believe we’d be bathing the elephants and swimming in a river. That river was knee deep at best and you’re given a child’s beach bucket and you literally stand on the edge and throw water at the elephant.
- It was so strange and uncomfortable, the people in my group basically left.
- The elephant is kept standing there with a laundry basket of watermelon. When that’s gone, the elephant is gone.
- Besides your assigned table, there’s absolutely no shade. For humans or other animals. A few umbrella huts dot the property and you can see the animals fight for cover when the sun blasts down.
- There’s so much downtime that it’s often confusing about what you’re supposed to be doing.
- Shop – they literally give you over an hour to shop in the gift shop
- Lunch – The food wasn’t good, it ran out quickly and flies were all over all of it. It was very open and while feeding a herd of people is no easy feat, I know I barely ate because I was afraid of getting sick.
- Rest – Rest for an hour after… who knows? Walking around a walled field? It’s so strange.
A few good things that made it sorta worthwhile:
- I believe in good intentions and I think this park is trying to make it natural, it’s just missing the mark
- You next to a lot of elephants really puts size into perspective
- It is educational when it comes to the treatment of elephants around the world
- Water buffalo also roam the property and these are pretty rad, if not terrifying
- Cat and Dog sanctuary – over 400 cats and dogs are fed and kept at the property. They do adoptions all over the world
- The park is a beautiful, picturesque postcard-like setting
Bottom line: I heard other tourists spent less and had more fun and a better overall experience participating with elephants (also at no-ride parks). Elephant Sanctuary was one that came highly recommended and people seemed to love.
It was an interesting day and I enjoyed learning about the elephants. I also learned that I do no want to touch, ride, play or really engage with wild animals. I’m an absolute baby, but maybe that’s better. Wild animals aren’t meant to be touched and hugged and hand fed. They are meant to roam free, make babies, have aggressive man fights and live in a safe environment.
Is it better for an elephant to live at Elephant Nature Park over a torture park where they are chained up? Yes. Is it better for an elephant to live at Elephant Nature Park over being hunted for ivory? Yes. But free will always be better than living in captivity.
After over a week of Chiang Mai, I needed to move on and see what else Northern Thailand had in store, so I headed to Pai to meet back up with Harriet and Emily. But that’s for another post.