I love elephants but I avoid zoos, preferring to see wild animals in a more natural setting. Visiting Thailand, I wanted to have a meaningful encounter with the native Asian elephants.
I chose from more than 15 experiences near Chiang Mai, creating a shortlist of four that met my requirements: They didn’t have an “elephant show” involving circus tricks or painting, and they appeared to treat their elephants well. I considered visiting each and reporting back to you on which was the best experience for visitors and which was best for the elephants. Well, as lofty goals go, this one needed to be amended.
Several environmentally conscious bloggers have made statements about which parks are “good” and which are “bad” based on a visit to just one park. I believe that is unfortunate. The issue of elephant conservation—really, conservation in general—is complicated. I don’t want to make judgments on an issue that I’m not completely informed about, so instead I’m going to share my experiences at the two parks I did visit and let you come to your own conclusions about which experience you’d enjoy.
My first pick was Lek Chailert’s Elephant Nature Park (ENP). Lek is a widely recognized conservationist who runs a nonprofit as well as the for-profit park, which is funded by tourist visits. A daytime visit is 2,400 THB (about 80 USD), and an overnight stay is 5,800 THB. There are also multiple-day stays and week-long volunteer experiences.
ENP is 1.5 hours north of Chiang Mai. Our guide, Olive, picked Brian and me up at our apartment and played a video about the elephant situation in Thailand along the journey. She also gave us many rules for our park visit, including:
- Don’t stand in front of an elephant’s trunk, because you can be hit.
- Don’t stand where an elephant can’t see you.
- Don’t stand between two elephants.
- Beware the young bulls, including the two-year-old baby boy, who are rambunctious.
There were so many admonitions, we were a bit uncertain of what we could do.
Our first stop upon arrival was the elephant kitchen, where several tons of produce are prepared to feed the park’s 35 elephants. Elephants can eat up to 25% of their body weight each day and, at an average weight of between 9,000-12,000 pounds for an adult, that’s a lot of melons, bananas, papayas and cucumbers.
The park was more crowded than I expected, with at least 100 visitors present the day we visited. We were grouped in units of 6-8 people and each group shared feeding responsibilities for one elephant. Being naturally reticent in a crowd, I found myself watching more than participating in the feedings. I fed a few bananas to our elephant—putting them onto her trunk for her to put in her own mouth—and then we all went over to the paddocks to see the “babies,” a three-year-old female and two-year-old male. Both were born to elephants that came to the park pregnant, as ENP does not have a breeding program.
After a brief tour, we participated in bath time, which involved heading to the river, grabbing buckets and throwing water at the elephants. People and elephants were everywhere, but we’d been told to not stand between elephants, to not get too close, etc. I was a little uncomfortable and confused, and Brian declined to participate, watching from shore instead.
Then we were led to a tall wooden viewing platform—much like at a zoo—to watch the babies have bath time and frolic in a nearby mud pit. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the people, and began wondering if I’d get any quality time with an elephant.
“Human lunch,” as they called it, was a tasty vegetarian buffet. The tables filled quickly so Brian and I sat on a bench in the viewing area where we could enjoy some quiet time and watch the elephants come and go.
After lunch, we watched two more videos. While the first set in the van was difficult, showing street-begging elephants; the second was far worse, showing the controversial phajaan training that all domesticated Asian elephants experience. We’ve since learned that even the video we saw is controversial. Many Thais swear it is false and that the filmmakers were egging on the trainers to be more brutal than is typical. As I’ve never seen phajaan training in real life, I can’t say what is the truth. [Here is a link to part of a PETA video featuring phajaan training]
Following the videos, there was another round of elephant feeding and bathing, and then “kisses,” where elephants smooch their trunks on unwitting tourists’ faces. Getting covered in mud didn’t sound like a comfortable way to spend the afternoon and evening, so I stood aside. Now that I’ve heard more about where elephants stick their trunks, I’m glad I did. (More on that later.)
Around 4pm, day visitors left and the overnighters were assigned to cabins. Brian’s and mine lacked hot water but we were a couple of doors down from the communal shower stalls, so all was well. We enjoyed an early, quiet evening after the hectic, crowded day.
At dawn, we awakened to chirping birds and elephants shrouded in morning fog. The park was blissfully quiet; it was changeover day for the weekly volunteers, so they too were on a skeleton crew. Our ENP visit was starting to look up.
I and several other members of our group were surprised to see the elephants chained overnight, but staff explained that it was for their protection, both from each other and the surrounding neighbors. Even domesticated elephants have wild tendencies and would battle for supremacy if allowed, defeating the purpose of the park’s goal to allow elephants to live out their lives in peace. Also, if unsecured, the elephants might leave the park to seek food at neighboring farms, which the neighbors would protest.
Following human breakfast, we mashed together bananas with corn and rice meal for older elephants whose teeth are no longer capable of masticating grasses, then we were invited for a walking tour of the park grounds.
Our overnight group of about 15 was subdivided into two groups and led out into the enclosure for up-close elephant viewing. Our guide, Jody, allowed us to pet the elephants and she shared all of their personal stories. Many are harrowing.
One elephant had been given amphetamines so that she would work non-stop because her owners were in such desperate financial straits. She participated in tourist treks during the day and performed illegal logging activities at night. Another, after losing her baby, had become depressed and difficult, so her owners blinded her to make her more docile and obedient. Two others were victims of land mine explosions from neighboring Burma. Despite the tragic tales, all the park elephants seemed to be thriving at ENP.
We also learned that elephants typically eat their own and other elephants’ feces. Some even go excavating, if you catch my drift, when they can’t find excrement to their liking. Brings a whole new meaning to the elephant “kisses” mentioned above, doesn’t it?
When we returned from our morning tour, the daily visitors had arrived and it was almost lunchtime. As overnight visitors, we had more free time to relax and enjoy our surroundings on day two. Brian likened it to an eco resort with elephants.
While I participated in many of the scheduled activities, Brian relaxed and even enjoyed a Thai massage. At one point, he found himself talking to Lek. The conversation was brief, however. When he mentioned that I had chosen ENP but that we were also interested in visiting Patara, Lek turned and walked away. Interesting…
In summary: While we enjoyed our visit to ENP, we felt there was too much emphasis on the dangers of elephants at the park and there were too many visitors. Frankly, ENP would have felt like going to the zoo had we not chosen the overnight stay. We also came away with the feeling that the elephant situation in Thailand is dire, that Lek is the only person doing anything about it and that ENP is the only “good” park out there. You know I had to test that theory… Stay tuned for my second Thai elephant adventure.
In brief, the pros of ENP are:
- The park allows elephants to be elephants. No rides, no shows, no forced interaction with humans.
- It serves as a permanent home to older elephants, who often are no longer able to work and might starve otherwise.
- It offers overnight & weekly volunteer experiences in addition to day trips.
- Meals are tasty and vegetarian, with ample variety.
- Overall, the park facilities are nice, and Brian enjoyed the low-responsibility elephant experience.
- The one-day program is crowded & doesn’t allow any 1:1 time with elephants.
- The park really stresses negatives and shows several disturbing videos, which may be too much for small children (and some adults!) to handle.