I have been an extreme animal lover pretty much since birth. I’m that person who plays with every stray dog and cat in every third world country, not worrying about rabies, fleas or how dirty they are. I realize I should be worried a bit, but my animal loving heart literally is holding my brain hostage at these times. I even played with most of the cows I passed walking in India. Locals thought I was crazy.
I have come very close to causing international incidents like when the man with a chained monkey in Jemaa El Fnaa square in Marrakech approached me, or someone in the Philippines asked me to go to a cock fight. Yes, I need to chill and be more diplomatic, but something about animal cruelty hits my core and makes me overly passionate. It’s my calling in life to try to help in anyway I can. I donate money, but I only have so much of that. What I do have in endless amounts is my big mouth and a willingness to use it. I researched the hell out of Thailand, looking for an ethical elephant interaction and will tell you everything you ever wanted to know…plus more.
I want to highlight a wonderful heartwarming animal tourism experience I recently had. It was at Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand. This is a place where animal lovers can truly have an ethical elephant interaction in Thailand. You go as a volunteer and can choose a day trip, over night or a week. It isn’t cheap but what you spend is a small price to pay for the experience and to support such a terrific place.
The cost for overnight trip (2D/1N) is 5800 Thai baht or $168 USD. This includes transportation from your hotel if you are in a central Chiang Mai hotel. If not you can meet at the office in town. Delicious vegetarian meals made from locally grown produce is included and they provide a nice rustic cabin with ensuite bathroom. After arrival at “elephant camp” (as I affectionately refer to it), you are placed in a group, usually with the people you rode with in the van. In the van you are shown a video the tells the story of how elephants are mentally and physically abused and “broken” in a process known as Phajaan. I dare you not to cry.
I would like to personally punch in the face whoever came up with this idea. Phajaan involves taking a baby elephant away from it’s family and depriving it of love, freedom, food and movement. It’s legs are tied and it is beaten so that it eventually fears humans. You think elephants like being ridden? The iron seat weighs 150kg. That plus two humans and a mahout (trainer) amounts to over 500 kg (1100 lbs) that is sitting on the elephant’s spine. The only way elephants allow this horrible discomfort and perform tricks, whether it be in the circus or at tourist attractions in Asia, is via this process.Some elephants even try to commit suicide by stepping on their trunks.
Eventually their spirit is broken. They no longer expect joy or happiness and become robotic. While they are painting adorable flowers for tourists to buy, a trainer is covertly stabbing them in their sensitive ears to make them behave. Sounds horrible? I’m actually sugar coating what I learned. It’s even worse.
You are assigned a guide and on the first day you get a quick tour of the sanctuary. Of course you get to see various elephant families on this tour. You are allowed to interact with a few of the elephants, usually the elderly female elephants. Each has a sad story.
Many were in the logging industry where they worked long hours until they dropped. Many are deformed from broken limbs. The circus is responsible for many of theses rescues. Some are partially or fully blind from untreated eye infections and years of flash photography. Some elephants were 70, 80 and 90 years old and spent most of that time miserable as slaves.
I was delighted to find out they rescued dogs and cats, water buffalo, horses and even a giant pig. Apparently there was a huge flood in 2011 resulting in many dogs abandoned on roofs of houses. ENP at this time decided to take them in and the dog rescue facility was born. You can choose to volunteer for a week with the dogs.
Just so you know, they sometimes find homes for the dogs in other countries, but they need somebody willing to take the dog to it’s new home. There is a map showing all the places in the world that he dogs are wanted. This is a great service to provide!
They have a designated area called the Cat Kingdom. It is fun to walk around and play with all the sweet needy kitties. Some would follow us to our cabins and I wanted so badly to let them come in, but we were told not to do that.
Love this buffalo taking a dip…
After the initial orientation and tour (and viewing adorable elephants), you have lunch. It is actually very good food. After lunch, we bathed an elephant. It was super fun being in the river with the elephant and dumping buckets of water all over her while she ate bananas. It’s a spa experience for the elephant and I think they deserve the pampering after living so long in slavery.
We were shown to our cabins, which were nicer than I expected.
You even have a terrace.
In the evening, the day volunteers go home and the overnight volunteers get dinner. Afterwards, we played with dogs and cats the rest of the night while having beers (there is a bar). Could it get any better than that? There is even wifi! Impressive operation.
Nobody cared that this dog was on the table.
The 2nd day we had an early morning jungle trek to see a few elephants that were placed in the forest. Apparently one of them didn’t do well with the sounds of trucks (PTSD from the logging industry) and after she went postal on a truck driver, they took her and two friends to live in the forest. Pretty sweet gig they have! We fed them corn and bamboo (you can see this in the video).
Afterward we bathed another elephant, my favorite sweet old lady, Jam Ping (also in the video. Just watch the video!).
As a volunteer, you will help prepare food for the elephants. Some volunteers cut up bananas or watermelon and some cleaned cucumbers. We prepared rice balls with sticky rice, bits of pumpkin and corn. It actually looked tasty.
We took to food to feed some elephants and ended up feeding a blind elephant. It was important to speak and say her name while approaching. We would place the food near the tip of her trunk so she could smell it. My heart broke for these gentle creatures. How they still put up with humans at all is beyond me.
Looking for more things to do in Chiang Mai? YogaWineTravel has some great ideas.
Many people brought their children. It was fun to spend time with like-minded animal people. The longer-term volunteers who prepared the food would play music and looked like they were having a great time as they worked
Each elephant has a mahout assigned to them for one-on-one care. Some even spend the night with the needier elephants. Usually the elephant chooses it’s mahout and interestingly, the older elephants tend to choose an older male. The younger, ornery elephants prefer young men. Their personalities have to match. No hooks or chains are ever used, only commands. Some elephants will only listen to their trainer. We saw one trouble maker trying to eat the roof of the dining hut and she wouldn’t listen to anyone. They had to find one of the two men she would listen to.
I was happy to see the staff seemed to care so much, not just for the elephants but the dogs and cats too. Furthermore, our guide knew every elephants name and history as well as personalty and whether or not she preferred watermelon or bananas. She also knew every dog’s name.
I was thrilled to be able to experience this and regret that I didn’t stay a week. In addition, I am happy to have spent money at this place and will continue to support their work. For more information or to donate click here: Elephant Nature Park. Also, I am collaborating with an amazing online store called Trunk Collective. All products are sustainably sourced from artisans around the world and are cruelty-free. Right now 5% of proceeds will be donated to Elephant Nature Park. So awesome! If you want to shop and feel good about it, this is a great place to start.
Remember, elephants belong in the wild. They don’t want to play soccer, dance or paint. Also, they have strong family bonds, deep friendships and hate being alone. Don’t be part of the problem. Spread the word please!! You don’t want to make me mad, do you?