When we first started planning our trip to Thailand, riding elephants was at the top of our list of things to do. I was excited about it and the kids were thrilled! Think about it: Riding on top of a massive elephant through the jungles in Thailand – Amazing!
But then I started doing some research and our plans changed…
Selecting an Elephant Experience
There is truly no shortage of places to ride elephants in Thailand – I wanted to find the best experience so I began to do a lot of research. The more research I did, the more distraught I became because I realized that the elephants at these parks are severely mistreated. In order to get an elephant to allow a human to ride on its back, they are tortured as babies to break their spirits. They are confined to small spaces where they can’t move, beaten with clubs, pierced with bull-hooks and deprived of sleep. This process is called Phajaan or “the crush”. And even though many places that allow riding claim to treat their animals with kindness now, we just couldn’t be sure, and wanted to instead support a park where they allow the elephants to roam free as they were intended to do.
While the kids were initially disappointed we wouldn’t ride the elephants, like I was, they understood the reasoning and didn’t want to contribute to any activity that would lead to the mistreatment of animals. The good news is that there are elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that protect elephants while still allowing visitors to interact with them.
Elephant Nature Park
We chose to visit Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai because it is a sanctuary and rescue & rehabilitation center for elephants. The elephants that reside here have been rescued from the logging industry and the tourist trade (such as circuses, street performers and riding treks). You can read about each of their stories which are posted in the main lodge. We would still be able to interact with the elephants, but it would be in a respectful way. Many of the elephants here are injured and unable to take care of themselves. Some had broken bones, many were blind and most were recovering from broken spirits.
Most elephants come here when they are of no use to the owner’s anymore – they are too old or sick, cannot perform their duties or have more babies. In these cases, the elephants are too costly to keep so the owner’s sell the elephants to the park. The caretakers at Elephant Nature Park cannot rescue elephants against their owner’s will. I had this vision of caretakers storming in to save elephants from terrible situations, but this isn’t really what happens. There was only one elephant we met whose owner had treated her with respect & dignity during her logging days and actually still came to visit the elephant in retirement. That was a happy story.
Elephant Nature Park provides free transportation from hotels in Chiang Mai city. We had a pickup window between 8-8:30am and we returned around 5pm. The ride to the park was approximately 1 hour. Our driver was also our tour guide for the day and the other 8 passengers on our shuttle were in our group.
Feeding the Elephants
The first thing we did when we got to the park was feed the elephants. There were a couple of baskets of fruits and vegetables and the elephants loved it! So did we! This elephant ate almost everything, but she was a little picky when it came to anything too overripe or past its prime. She was so gentle and let us pet her trunk as she reached across for a treat.
There are a few options for visits (including an overnight stay). We chose a Single Day Visit which included two elephant walks, feeding elephants, watching them bathe in the river, and lunch.
On our first morning walk, we learned about the personalities of all the elephants we met. Some were very social and had other elephant friends – others preferred to stay to themselves – and even some preferred no human contact at all. We didn’t see these latter elephants as they are respectfully kept away from visitors. Each elephant has a mahout (a caretaker) who is always near the elephant. It was pretty amazing to see the relationship and the amount of trust between each elephant and its mahout.
Between our two walks, we had about an hour break where we ate lunch (provided to all visitors) and were able to explore the grounds. They had a shop where we purchased a beautiful hand-carved wooden elephant & baby by one of the mahouts. Most of the proceeds go straight to the mahout.
Elephant Nature Park not only rescues elephants, but it also is a sanctuary for a retired water buffalo as well as approximately 300 dogs and hundreds of cats. Many of the dogs were adoptable and our kids spent a good amount of that hour in “Cat Heaven” chasing kittens around.
Bathing in the River
Not too long before we arrived, the tour included bathing elephants in the river. But Elephant Nature Park had recently moved away from that model and instead the elephants spent their time freely in the river. Our guide mentioned that when they allowed guests to bathe the elephants, the elephants got in and out of the river quickly. However, once they allowed the elephants the freedom to bathe alone they would spend 30 minute or more playing and enjoying the water.
And while we were allowed to touch the elephants during our walks, it appears they have implemented a “hands off” policy since we left. It sounds like visitors can still touch them while feeding them.
After the elephants bathed, most of them headed straight for this mud pit where they covered themselves in mud! We loved watching them and listening to them squeal and they flung mud all over themselves!
Where Your Fees Go
One might ask, why support elephant tourism at all? Here’s my answer:
The elephants at Elephant Nature Park could not survive in the wild. They are injured, sick, and unable to care for themselves. Elephant Nature Park provides a sanctuary for these elephants to live out their retirement. However, elephants are expensive to look after, especially those with ongoing medical issues. When you visit Elephant Nature Park, your park fees directly contribute to expensive medicine, the elephants’ large appetites, staff wages, funds for rescuing more animals, the expansion into a more natural elephant habitat, as well as the upkeep of the park itself.
These hefty expenses are why Elephant Nature Park accepts visitors at all: to pay for the elephants’ basic care and to educate visitors about elephants, and how to be savvy about animal tourism.
Your park fees contribute and support the local community, as Elephant Nature Park provides employment opportunities for the elephant mahouts, safety staff, tour guides and many other staff members who work in the kitchens, cafes, gift shop and in many other roles. Also, the food served here, both to the elephants and the visitors, is locally grown which further supports the local community.
And finally, money talks. Where and how you spend your money sends a message to the Thailand tourism bodies that visitors want these animals to be well looked after. We hoped that by visiting Elephant Nature Park, we were supporting higher standards in elephant welfare and animal tourism practices across Thailand.
Whether you decide to ride an elephant in Thailand, or anywhere else, is up to you. I totally understand that we may not see eye-to-eye on this and that’s fine. Many people who do ride elephants don’t know about the conditions under which they live so my only goal is to share what I learned based on our experience in Thailand.
What it Cost
The total cost for 3 adults (12+ years) and 2 kids was 10,000 baht (2,500 baht/adult; 1,250 baht/child; kids under 2 are free), or approximately $300 USD. This included our full day of activities, lunch, and transportation to/from our hotel in Chiang Mai city. We tipped our guide separately.
We paid a deposit online at booking (4,000 baht) and were required to pay the remainder in cash the day of our trip. Be sure to bring cash! I booked this activity a couple of months before our trip and almost missed this note in our confirmation!
We found the cost to be well worth it and would highly recommend Elephant Nature Park to everyone.