Saturday, January 5, 2013

Elephant Nature Park

Just three days in to our year away, is it too early to talk of highlights of the trip? Probably, but I am pretty sure at the end of this year, we'll still have vivid memories of today - an opportunity to get up close with an inspiring herd of elephants and their dedicated carers.

We are in Chiang Mai to start off our three week holiday in Thailand enroute to Bhutan. Travellers flock to Thailand's northern city and there are a wide variety of cultural and adventure experiences on offer.

Bob and Remy at Doi Sutep Temple, Chiang Mai.
Many of these are outside our reach with little children (ziplining, white water rafting etc), but for me, as soon as I planned our stay here, seeing elephants was top of the list.

I did a bit of research at home and found out about the Elephant Nature Park, and once I had read about this place there was no turning back. Around Chiang Mai there are many many opportunities for tourists to interact with elephants. Some of these places offer elephant rides, others have shows where elephants perform tricks like playing soccer or painting. For me, seeing elephants in a natural environment doing what elephants are meant to be doing is a much more desirable experience and one that I want my children to see.

Today, from the moment we boarded the mini-bus for the one and a half hour trip we knew we were in for something special. There is no doubt that we paid many more times the cost of other elephant parks, but the entrance fee goes towards the upkeep and welfare of the thirty four elephants that pint-sized Lek has rescued. Apparently it costs $250, 000 a year to run the park, and entrance fees from tourists is how the park is funded.

Sitting with Lek and the elephants.

Lek buys sad and broken elephants, many with despicable injuries and emotional trauma from work in the logging and/or tourist industries and brings them into her sanctuary to recover. They are not expected to perform or do anything other than do what elephants do best - spend twenty hours a day eating and pooing and just four hours sleeping!

As soon as we arrived we were shown the 'pantry' where food is stored for the elephants to eat.


We were each given a big bunch of bananas and taken to feed our first group of elephants by hand. Each one was introduced to us by name and a little of their personal history told. Each elephant here is loved and known and cared for with reverence. Xavier plucked up the courage to feed the elephants their favourite fruit - pineapple, watermelon and bananas, and then we got to the bottom of the basket to the whole pumpkins that they crush in their mouths, but only once all the tastier fruit is gone!

The elephants enjoy watermelon.

We were next taken to see Navann, a two month old baby elephant who was so cute. His mother had an awfully injured foot and is kept for the moment in an enclosure. Navann was full of mischief and playfully kicked a variety of balls around. He is drinking milk from mum (no solids yet) and will continue to do so until he is four years old.

Navann with his injured mum.

The pace of the day was leisurely with plenty of time to enjoy the surroundings, chat with the other tourists, and ask questions of our bright and friendly guide, Bee. She took special care of us, and made sure the little boys enjoyed their experience, including going to the buffet lunch first and filling a plate with hot chips for them in case they wouldn't like all the other food on offer!

After lunch we watched part of a documentary about how the park originated, but it didn't hold the boys' attention so we were able to walk along a covered viewing platform and watch the elephants at play. A particularly 'naughty' male called Hope wears a bell around his neck to alert people to his presence as he can be dangerous. We watched him running here and there from the safety of the platform.

Hope on the move.

The part of the day we had been waiting for was the afternoon splash with the elephants in the river. A group of eight elephants came down to the river and we waded in, no deeper than our calves and filled buckets of water to splash on them. They loved it! It is a special way to show the elephants some love and get very close to them. We were encouraged to pat them and touch their rough, wrinkly, hairy skin, offering healing through a loving approach.

Finally we followed them out of the water to where they enjoy a mud bath, spraying mud through their trunks up and over themselves to provide a protective layer of mud that acts like sunscreen.
Getting pretty close to the mud-spraying action!

We enjoyed afternoon tea of iced Butterfly Pea tea (blue) and rosehip tea (pink) with Thai style biscuits and then went for a final walk across the valley floor to another bend in the river where a group of elephants were enjoying a swim by themselves. It was all action stations when they decided they'd had enough and started to move very quickly and forcefully our way!
The elephant's skin is surprisingly rough and hairy!

The day was full, and yet not rushed in any way. We enjoyed some long and friendly conversations with the other travellers and our guide and soaked up the ambience of this retreat far from the bustling city. I give it five stars and would love it if you'd consider coming here if you ever come to Thailand.

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