Meeting the Rescued Elephants of Chiang Mai

Published 26 April 2016

Round the World Experts blogger Helen Winter

Helen Winter

Slightly intimidated by the giant creature stood in front of me, I gingerly held out my offering of watermelon. My fingers were suddenly brushed by a rough, strong trunk which snatched the fruit from my grasp and swooped back to a large gaping mouth. I erupted with giddiness as I fed my first elephant and eagerly grabbed another slice of watermelon.

When planning my trip to Thailand I knew that I wanted to get up close to Chiang Mai’s elephants but I also wanted to do it with peace of mind, so I was relieved to come across the Elephant Nature Park where I booked an overnight visit.

As soon as I entered the park, the ‘animals come first’ belief was evident. Elephants happily strolled around a large grassy opening, snoozing dogs made an obstacle course on the walk way, and cats would suddenly jump down in front of you hoping for a cuddle. I had been here for less than five minutes and I couldn’t wait to see what the next 48 hours had in store.

Elephant mud bath, Chiang Mai

Mud bath

The park ethics

Just an hour and a half out of Chiang Mai, the minibus, which had picked my up at my hotel, slowed down to let a trail of tired elephants pass, each of them heaving heavy tourists on their backs. This was a sadder sight than usual as we all knew that just around the corner was a sanctuary for elephants that had been saved from such trekking camps, the logging trade, and poachers.

The founder of the Elephant Nature park is a Thai woman named Lek from a nearby hill tribe. Lek started the park in 1995 with just four elephants, and now it is home to 69, including five babies, 450 rescue dogs and just as many former street cats who all share the acres of land.

Meeting the elephants, Chiang Mai

Meeting the elephants

Meeting the elelphants

Once we arrived, our enthusiastic guide Mix took our group of eight around the vast park to meet the elephants up close. We were informed that we would not be allowed to meet any elephants that were new to the sanctuary or the male elephants as they are kept in a separate – but spacious – enclosure as they are getting ready to be the first generation of elephants to be released back into the wild. This already reassured me that the visitors here experience the elephants on their terms, which was exactly the kind of ethical approach I wanted.

Walking around the dusty ground I couldn’t get over how amazing it was to see elephants roaming freely just a few feet away from me. Mix was very knowledgeable and knew the name of each elephant and upsettingly, their horrific stories as well. One particular elephant was Jokia who is blind in both eyes after her previous mahout shot her with a slingshot. Sadly, Mix told us, the Elephant Nature Park has to pay the old mahouts to rescue the elephants and the baby elephants, which get saved alongside their mothers, can cost as much as 3 million baht each, which is about £60,645.

Mahouts walking elephants, Chiang Mai

Mahouts walking the elephants

Elephant stories

Mix then showed us the long term damage of elephant rides, logging and forced breeding. The elephants from trekking camps have triangular shaped backs from where the seats put pressure on their bones and muscles, elephants from forced breeding programs often have broken hips, and elephants with straight shoulders come from the logging trade. I’d always though elephants were robust creatures but it was clear that they are both physically and mentally fragile. My heart broke hearing their stories, but it was exhilarating to see them happy, relaxed, and now gentle around humans after being showered in love – and food – here at the sanctuary.

After feeding the elephants some watermelon and bananas, which is bought from local farms or grown at the sanctuary, Mix took our group of eight around the vast park to meet more of the elephants and their personal mahouts. Mahouts, who tend to have a bad reputation as elephant trainers, are more like elephant babysitters here, reinforcing the elephant’s behaviour with positive treatment, like food – surprise, surprise. Even better, all of the mahouts here are Burmese refugees who have been given accommodation for them and their families in exchange for supervising the elephants. This has to be the most generous place on earth.

Helen feeding the elephants, Chiang Mai

Helen feeding the elephants

The overnight visit

Many visitors came to Elephant Nature Park just for the day but I had opted for the overnight stay to make the most of my time with the elephants.

Unlike a normal nature park we weren’t here to just gawp at the animals, we had work to do! Luckily for us, elephants eat for up to 18 hours a day, so we had plenty of opportunities to do some hand feeding. Our first elephant to feed was blind in her left eye so we all made sure to stand on the right so she could see where we were and more importantly where her food was, but as she has digestion problems it was only skinned watermelons and soft rice balls on the menu. Next up was bath time!

Washing elephants, Chiang Mai

Washing the elephants

Bath time

We got changed into our swimwear, shorts and t-shirts and headed to the river, buckets in hand. Standing in the cool water was my favourite elephant, Taboo. She was easily identifiably by her disfigured front leg which had broken when she was just two years old after a log had fallen from her mother’s logging cart, and sadly instead of resting she was forced to carry on working. Now though, Taboo gently reached out her trunk to us, and then went back to her basket of food as we grabbed our buckets and gave her-and ourselves-a good soaking. This was a completely surreal experience; here I was among the most beautiful mountain scenery, in a clean, clear river, splashing water over a huge elephant. But soon bath time was up after Taboo decided she had had enough, and even though we hadn’t been in the water for more than ten minutes it was another reassurance that we revolve around the elephants, not the other way round. Plus, I would be back in the river tomorrow to do some more bathing.

After a wash with the elephants it was time to say goodbye to the day trippers and visit our rainforest hut. We were not expecting much but we were soon amazed by the beautiful lodge on stilts which we would be calling home for the night.

As the sun set we headed to the large wooden observation deck and joined a few waking dogs. With a Chang beer in hand we watched over a few of the elephants recovering at the onsite vet and discussed with our group our excitement of more elephant interaction tomorrow.

Orphan baby elephant and adopted family

Orphaned baby elephant with its adopted family

The next day

After an early breakfast, we met our new guide called D’Sign. She was a bubbly young woman from the nearby hill tribes who had been working here for four months but already knew so much about the elephants. We wandered around and met the baby elephants and their families. We watched a young boy elephant play on a huge suspended tree with tyres swinging off it, and, an orphan baby and his adopted Mum and Nanny, who were kept separately from the other baby elephants. This was all clear as to why when we came over to them.

The poor baby had a disfigured foot, caused by an infection after he was trapped in a snare for three days but now at the park, two of the older elephants had called him their own and it was wonderful to see the small unrelated family together, even if he couldn’t play with the other baby elephants.

Preparing food for the elephants

Making food for the elephants

Elephant restaurant

Next it was more elephant washing, then to the ‘elephant restaurant’ as D’Sign called it to prepare some rice balls for the elderly elephants. These rice balls were made from boiled rice, bananas and roasted pumpkin which was all mashed up. They took about an hour of hard pounding to put together and all of about five minutes for the elephants to eat them!

Sadly, after walking some of the puppies from the dog shelter it was time to pack up our bags and leave. I mournfully waved goodbye to Taboo, and climbed into the minibus vowing to come back one day for even longer, as surely, this is the most generous place on earth.

Chat to your Expert about our Thailand Journeys and to add the Elephant Nature Park to your itinerary. The park fills up quickly so make sure you book well in advance. The overnight stay cost around £80 and all the money goes back into the park.

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