Thankfully, we woke up the next morning feeling vastly better. No more fevers and although we were a bit weak and tired, we could at least stand and walk around without being uncomfortable. We called Elephant Nature Park to see if perhaps we could postpone by a day but they were booked out so we decided to risk it and the reward couldn’t have been better.
The bus for the park picked us up early in the morning and we introduced ourselves to our guide, greeted the other passengers and headed off for the park. The trip itself takes about an hour, which seems like a while, but the time flies by and you get to see all of the countryside around Chiang Mai. Once you get into the mountains, you start to see signs for various elephant trekking camps and such and see the elephants wandering through the forests with up to four people on their back. Asian elephants are big but they’re not quite as big as their African cousins are. So imagine the sight of a few overweight tourists sitting on their backs for a moment. Then during the trip the guide tells you about the cruel abuse that elephants are put through to break their spirit. After seeing the appalling conditions these elephants live and work in (you see into many camps from the road), you’ll never think about spending money on elephant trekking.
The park itself is surrounded by lush, green forests (which would be greener if it wasn’t the dry, burning season) and relatively secluded. After arriving you’re allowed to feed a few elephants watermelons and bananas before sitting down for a final safety briefing in addition to what you hear on the bus. Our guide then took us out into the field to meet two of the gentlest of the elephants in the park. These two really went through a bad time and one of them had her eyes essentially gouged out, leaving her blind. Despite the hardships the two elephants have been through, both were rehabilitated over a long period and are now extremely friendly towards humans. Each group walking through is relatively small, being only about eight people at a time, so you don’t feel rushed or like you’re stressing the elephants with so many strangers. The elephants in the park, not just the first two we encountered, are very independent and will come to you if they want to otherwise you keep your distance. Some are friendlier towards humans in general while most others haven’t exactly warmed up to the idea of strangers and only trust their handlers or other elephants. Getting near the calves was expressly forbidden, though, and the only time you got “close” to them was when there was a protective barrier and during feeding – the calves are so rambunctious and strong that only the other elephants can really stop them from doing many things.
After observing and interacting with some elephant groups (after arrival the elephants join one of the smaller herds within the larger population) we had a tasty lunch buffet (kept to light foods after the previous night…) and then bathed one of the elephants. Everyone got a small bucket, walked into the river and began throwing water on the elephants. Bathing is a daily ritual for them and while the elephant snacked on fruits, we humans bathed them (I thought we were the ones on vacation) by throwing water on their backs to wash the old dirt off them.
Once we finished bathing it was more elephant interaction time peppered with coffee breaks and other breaks throughout the afternoon. We watched one of the larger herds graze, saw a calf realize it had wandered too far from the group before panicking and running back, only to be sheltered immediately by several adults once it got back. We then returned to the main camp for another round of feeding. After we finished it was time to pile back into the bus and head back to Chiang Mai. Most of us ended up sleeping on the ride back – we were all so tired after such an active day.
This is another activity that I would strongly recommend if you’re in Chiang Mai and have the time. The experience is truly special and something you may not ever have the chance of repeating. In addition, you don’t contribute any cash towards further elephant abuse but rather towards an organization dedicated to ending it. The elephant interaction was somewhat repetitive but if you appreciate animals and are fascinated by elephants, this is the place to go. There are also a number of rescue dogs and cats roaming the camp and a large herd of buffalo but let’s be honest – the elephants are the stars. ;)
Here's a brilliant article on the park itself that was written last year. This goes into detail on the stories of many of the individual elephants, provides further information on the park and its founder and also gives some insight as to where it is heading.