Once I’d arrived in Chiang Mai, I took a big red shared taxi to my hostel for 30 baht. I spent the rest of the day trying to change my kip to baht. It seems the only exchange kiosks which will take kip are the Bangkok bank ones (I found one opposite Boots on the north east corner of the canal) and even then, they only take notes of 10000 kip and larger. First day in Chiang Mai was admin. The second day was more fun.
I’d booked myself onto a full day tour at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. After researching into the various different elephant parks around Chiang Mai, I decided on the Elephant Nature Park as there were no gimmicks. There’s no shows where elephants paint or play music and there’s no riding the elephants. It’s just elephants getting to be elephants which is how it should be.
The Elephant Nature Park focusses on rescuing elephants who would otherwise be left to die. They may be injured and unable to work, orphaned or just plain mistreated. The Elephant Nature Park takes them in and cares for them. I paid 2500 baht for a full day which included collection and return to my hostel, elephant feeding, elephant washing and lunch. I’m not sure the guide we had was a particularly good one but it was worth the money but only because I got to be so close to the elephants.
The park is about an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai but we watched a documentary featuring the parks founder (Lek) in the minivan on the way so it didn’t feel tedious at all.
Once you get there, the first thing you do is feed the elephants. The mahouts bring their elephants to the raised walkway area and you begin feeding. We had an elephant called Lucky. Here she is.
Lucky was badly treated and as a result is now blind. This makes feeding her slightly tricky. She can smell the food and is eager to eat but she can’t see so she waves her trunk around in front of her to try and locate her meal. This results in the feeders having to dodge powerful trunk swipes whilst attempting to place food in it. We all took more than one hit to the shins but Lucky was successfully fed eventually.
After morning feed, we took a walk to meet the newest elephant at the park. This little calf is only 7 weeks old and was a complete surprise. No one knew that Mum was pregnant. One morning, her mahout came to fetch her and there was the baby!
A baby elephant is still very large. The calf wanted to play with the mahout whilst we were watching and I can assure you that, as cute as the calf is, he is waist high on a man and more than a handful.
Another elephant we met along our walk was Bua Loi. She’s a very chilled out elephant and was probably my favourite for the day. Bua Loi was rescued from a forced breeding programme that left her with a broken hip.
Bua Loi is actually a Thai dessert of taro balls (taro is probably my favourite thing in Asia) in young coconut milk (young coconuts are probably my second favourite thing in Asia) so the elephant is actually named after a pudding (dessert to the Americans/Canadians). Pudding is my favourite thing ever. Therefore, Bua Loi and I were destined to get along.
Another elephant who had been rescued from abuse is Jokia. When Jokia refused to work after her baby died, her mahout shot at her eyes with catapults until she went blind. She was rescued by the Elephant Nature Park. We met her as we were walking down to the river so I strolled alongside her for a while.
At the river you get to wade in and wash the elephants using buckets of water. It’s quite hard work actually and the mahouts certainly enjoy making fun of you if you can’t quite get your water onto the elephants back. It’s much easier if your elephant decides to sit down like this one.
Lunch is provided at the park and is a huge buffet. Very tasty too.
After bath time, there is more videos to watch featuring Lek. The videos cover the ongoing problems surrounding elephant mistreatment in Thailand. Some of it is quite graphic especially with regard to the more traditional methods of elephant training. Before being trained to work, the elephants are put into a contraption called a crush where they are basically tortured for days until they submit to the will of the mahout. There doesn’t seem to be any real need for it but it’s tradition so it continues.
After seeing the videos, it was all the more lovely to return and feed the elephants again because I had a new appreciation of just how these elephants really had been rescued.
I had brilliant time at the elephant Nature Park and would recommend it for a day trip. The main thing I learned about elephants that day is that, the do not divert around you. You clear a path. Also, elephants are actually pretty quiet when they’re walking so keep your eyes peeled!