I will be upfront about this. About eight years ago, I rode an elephant in Zimbabwe. All I can say is that I honestly didn’t know any better at the time. The elephants seemed calm, relaxed and as if they didn’t mind. Besides, I thought to myself, nobody would mistreat such beautiful, majestic animals.
As is often the case, I was wrong.
Coming to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was proof of that. This is animal tourism at its finest – where the animal gets to decide what’s what and not the other way around. During our overnight stay at ENP, we had the opportunity to watch a documentary about how elephants are typically treated in Southeast Asia. I can only assume it is similar for the poor African elephant that I rode many years ago. The way to get this enormous animal to do as the human says is to break it of its spirit.
In Thailand, it’s known as “The Crush”. Early on, young elephants are placed in a bamboo cage, not much larger than they themselves. Mahouts, or trainers, then beat the elephant until it is so tired, so exhausted that it gives in. They use bamboo sticks with nails on the end, stabbing the elephant until it submits to the mahout’s will. This physically and psychologically grueling process can take days, often up to a week for male elephants. They are sleep deprived, tortured and some are mentally ill for the remainder of their life in captivity.
It was a hard documentary to watch, sickening, but necessary. People need to know the truth about the elephants that you see begging on the streets in Southeast Asia, the ones that busloads of tourists gear up to ride daily, and those poor elephants who are still used for work (logging being a huge industry for elephants in recent years). In Thailand, elephants are categorized as livestock, so owners may use them as they see fit.
I know, it’s depressing, and probably not the happy post that you were expecting, but there is a bright spot. Lek Chailert, the owner of Elephant Nature Park, is a force of nature. Since the early 1990s, it has been her mission to rescue elephants from captivity and create a home for them where they can be rewarded with love and freedom to roam her expansive park. And her love doesn’t stop with elephants alone. An animal lover at her core, Lek has saved dogs from the flooding in Bangkok and stray cats from across the country.
The current animal count at ENP is roughly 41 elephants, 100 or more cats and over 450 dogs. There are also water buffalo on the property, but I didn’t catch the number.
I’ve never been anywhere quite like ENP. Every single animal that I encountered was loving. The dogs and cats easily let you pet them, the cats purring within instants. The dogs make quick friends with you, lying at your feet. And the gentle giants? As long as you follow the safety rules, they are as loving as anything. What was truly special was to see Lek interact with the elephants, her elephants. They know her, her voice, her touch, her love. She can interact with them in ways visitors can only dream of. She would sit at the feet of an elephant, keeping it a safe distance from visitors, and when it became restless she would squeeze between its legs and sit under its belly, patting its stomach.
In talking with our guides, Lek and her team are human lovers, too. Staff are welcome to bring their families to live and work at ENP. Lek pays for lunches at the local schools so that all children get one good meal a day. Mahouts who have been formerly used to using hooks as training tools are swayed to Lek’s methods after realizing that ENP will boost the lives of them and their families, as well as those of the loved elephants.
Volunteers flock to ENP, but they can always use more. I met one volunteer, a woman from California, who was so sad to be leaving. I could tell from the stories she told and the way she looked, this had been a turning point for her life.
Animals teach you the most about love, I think. If you give, you will receive. What I learned from Lek, however, is about passion. With passion, you can change the lives of so many around you.
From a travel planning perspective, here’s what you need to know:
- An overnight stay costs about $400 for a couple.
- Stays include all meals, but not drinks/snacks (beyond the plentiful filtered water and coffee of course).
- You stay in gorgeous little huts with fantastic rain showers.
- Be aware, there are bugs. Interesting spiders and other things I cannot name, but that’s what a mosquito net is for.
- Transportation to and from your Chiang Mai accommodation is included.
- The cost may seem high for one night (two people), but remember that it costs the park a minimum of $250,000/year just to FEED the elephants. This doesn’t include cats, dogs, volunteers and all the other funding required to run an operation like this. Think of your stay as a donation included.
- Bring bug spray, a hat, sunscreen (hot!) and clothes you’re willing to get soaked in when bathing the elephants.
- Have a fantastic time, and if you’re interested in volunteering, check here for more information.