From Singapore, my friend and I headed back to Thailand together! Since she only had one week I let her decide between going north to Chiang Mai, or south to the islands. After copious amounts of research, weighing every factor from activities to weather, Elephant Nature Park, an Elephant Sanctuary just outside of Chiang Mai, solidified her decision to go north!

Eeeeeek! I can’t even find the words to express how much I LOVED Elephant Nature Park. We chose the two day one night tour, to get a more in-depth experience. We learned so much about elephants, including the horrors of the tourism industry, and spent a night sleeping among them!

Getting to Elephant Nature Park

After a whirlwind from Bangkok to Singapore, Singapore back to Bangkok, Bangkok to Chiang Rai and Chaing Rai to Chiang Mai, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t whooped! I actually contemplated backing out of the tour all together the night before. We both did. (Another example of how pre-booking can be problematic- We had no clue how tired we’d be when we booked tickets to Elephant Nature Park 2 months earlier). But we powered trough and are both so glad we did!

At 7am a shuttle bus picked us up from our hotel in Chiang Mai. After making a couple of stops to pick up other passengers, the driver started an informational video about Elephant Nature Park. It included information on the founding of Elephant Nature Park, the abuse these animals have faced, and what to expect during our visit.

About half way through the video, we hit traffic. My heart sank when I first saw the accident up ahead. “Is that a body?” I asked my friend, elbowing her in the side without taking my eyes off the road. “Yes,” she responded sternly, her eyes were peeled to the road ahead as well.

A motorbike was in pieces and a man was lying face down, in the middle of the oncoming traffic. His thin flannel shirt was ripped, exposing road rashed skin. There were no police or paramedics around. A few locals were directing traffic around the man while a few others attempted to coax him to his feet. He showed subtle signs of movement but by no means looked like he would be hopping to his feet anytime soon.

Sick to my stomach, I turned back to the video. Footage of famished, abused elephants, begging in city streets were on the screen. Pity. I felt pity for the man in the street and pity for the abused elephants in the video.

I don’t know what happened to the man in the motorbike accent and can only hope he’s on his way to a full recovery. As for the elephants, I am pleased to say elephant street begging has been banned in Thailand.

Unfortunately, elephant riding, elephant shows and other forms of elephant tourism are still legal. And all of these cause harm to elephants as well. If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this: DO NOT EVER RIDE AN ELEPHANT OR USE AN ELEPHANT FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT. EVER. PERIOD. 

Problems with Elephant Tourism

Capturing Babies in The Wild

Baby elephants are illegally taken from their mothers in the wild. Young elephants sell for a higher price because of their longevity and ease of training. This traumatic process often results in the death of the mother elephant when she attempts to protect her offspring.

The babies are then sold to handlers and trained to be entertainers. Trainers use bull hooks, whips and other means to inflict pain during training. The elephants learn to obey their trainer’s commands to avoid pain. This process breaks them down mentally and emotionally, leading to post traumatic stress in many cases. The effects of such “training” are no different than when a human gets abused into submission.

Lack of Care and Nutrition 

In the wild, elephants live in herds, with the freedom to roam for miles, eat fresh fruit, drink water, and bathe in the river. They cover themselves in mud to cool off and protect their sensitive skin from the harsh sun.

While in captivity, elephants are kept in small arenas with limited mobility and limited food and water. They are expected to carry tourists on their backs and perform tricks in the heat and direct sun light, without their layer of protective mud. Elephants also have very sensitive feet, ears and eyes. Standing on cement for long periods of time and being subjected to the camera flashes causes irreversible damage to their feet, backs, and eyes. With limited veterinary care these injuries often go untreated, leading to discomfort untimely deaths.

Don’t Be Fooled by Buzz Words

Because elephant abuse in the tourism industry is a trending topic, tourist companies have added buzz words to their facilities such as “sanctuary,” “rescue,” or “retirement home” to make them sound better. Facilities that offer any kind of elephant shows, tricks or rides DO NOT have the elephant’s best interest at heart and should be avoided at all costs.

While nothing will ever be as good as if the elephants could be released back into the wild, Elephant Nature Park is doing the best they can to give formally abused elephants a second shot at life! All of the elephants at Elephant Nature Park have been rescued from abusive situations. Many have permanent health issues such as damaged feet, hips, and backs, blindness, and mental and emotional disorders.

Elephant Nature Park Photo Journal

I have compiled several photos from our stay at Elephant Nature Park to give you insight into this AMAZING elephant sanctuary!

Feeding an elephant at Elephant Nature Park!

Feeding an elephant a bushel of bananas. Did you know elephants eat between 200-300 kg per day!?

Elephant love!

PURE LOVE!

A family of elephants hanging out by the river.

A family of elephants hanging out by the river. These elephants aren’t family by birth. Most elephants come to Elephant Nature Park alone. Within the park they form new families. This a group of female elephants who formed a bond and stick together within the larger community of elephants.

Baby Elephant

The Baby! … Is he smiling or is that just me?

best friend elephants

These two are best girlfriends! Like the family, these two ladies bonded with each other and live life side by side!

family of elephants

Another family! This one consists of 4 adult female elephants who adopted two babies. The adults are referred to as “nannies,” sharing the role of mother to the orphaned babies. They do everything together. When they feel threatened, for any reason, the 4 adults encircle the babies to protect them!

An elephant mud bath for skin protection and cooling off!

Right after bathing in the river, elephants cover themselves with mud! This has a cooling effect and also protects their very sensitive skin from the sun. Think about this next time you see a clean, gray, elephant. Most likely the mud was cleansed away to make him more appealing to tourists, putting him in serious danger from the heat and sun!

dogs and an elephant

Do you see all the doggies behind the muddy elephant? Elephant Nature Park also rescues dogs, cats and water buffalo!

Special feeding for the old girls

More feeding! Elephants spend around 15 hours per day eating!

people food at elephant nature park

PEOPLE FOOD at Elephant Nature Park! We indulged in 4 all you can eat vegan buffets while at Elephant Nature Park. This photo doesn’t even show half of what was available or convey how delicious it was!

Additional Notes from My Visit

In addition to the experiences expressed in these photos, we had the opportunity to make food for the older elephants who can’t chew due to teeth loss. We mushed together bananas, tamarind fruit, oats and other soft, filling foods. After it was blended together, we rolled the mixture into baseball sized balls and fed it to the elephants. It was kind of gross but also strangely satisfying to get in there and mush it up with our hands! Like squishing wet sand between my toes! Clearly this process left us dirty and sticky, hence why I have no photos of it!

We had free time before and after dinner. In the afternoon we got traditional Thai massages in the open air loft in the center of the park and in the evening we chatted with other travelers over a couple of LEO beers.

The accommodation was rustic but more than sufficient. They provided mosquito nets over our beds so we were able to sleep with all the windows open. With the elephants sleeping just outside our room, we could hear them trumpeting in the early morning!

My photos and words don’t do our experience at Elephant Nature Park justice. I highly recommend checking out Elephant Nature Park if you’re ever in Northern Thailand!