Elephants are awesome. They are huge, but don’t flaunt it; they are vegetarian after all. They’ve got the whole tusk and trunk thing going on that other animals don’t have. They have (relatively) smaller babies who look like little mini-me versions of their parents. And they stick together. We enjoyed watching elephants so much during our safari in Kruger National Park, we wanted some more elephant action while we were in Thailand. We came to the right place – elephants have held a special place in Thai culture for centuries.
Visits to elephant parks in Chiang Mai are big business; it is practically mandatory for vistors to hang out with elephants in some way, shape, or form. But not all elephant parks are created equal. Some exist solely for the tourist’s entertainment and the owners’ pocketbooks. In those types of places, elephants dance, give rides, and even paint pictures. Others exist solely for the elephants, and the tourists’ entertainment is a secondary byproduct or a means to support the elephants. Elephant Nature Park seems to be one of the latter places.
I first learned about the Elephant Nature Park from Jessica and Tim over at Hedgehogs Without Borders. Their one day at the park turned into three which turned into seven whole weeks! They even returned to Thailand from the United States to adopt their dog Belly and bring him home from the jungle heat to the snow of New England. (Sadly, Belly passed away earlier this year). Jessica and Tim’s enthusiasm for the park and its mission was contagious, and when I read about Bessie and Kyle’s experience over at On Our Own Path, I was totally sold and signed us up for a day at the park.
We spent the day hanging around the elephants and learning their stories. The parks serves as a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants, and many of them were abused before they came to the park. Although I had the best of intentions to remember all of the elephants’ names and their stories, as usual, I failed miserably. Luckily, I had a cheat sheet. We met and learned about Jokia. Before she came to live at the Elephant Nature Park, the logging company who owned her forced her to work during her entire pregnancy. While she was at the top of a hill, pulling heavy logs, she delivered her baby and the baby rolled down the hill away from her. Her mahout wouldn’t allow her to go to the baby. Jokia, depressed over the loss of her baby, protested by refusing to work over the next several weeks. In return, her mahout slung rocks in her eyes with a slingshot, rendering her completely blind. We met and learned about Hope, an orphaned elephant so named after the founder of the park gained Hope’s trust and taught him to become a gentler elephant through non-aggressive methods. We met and learned about Lilly, an elephant who was forced to work under the influence of methamphetamines, so she could have the stamina to work all day on trekking expeditions and all night pulling logs. We learned about elephants that are forced to put on a happy show for tourists but beaten behind the scenes. We learned about elephants who are forced to roam Thailand’s city streets so that tourists and others will buy bananas and feed them for money, while they rock back and forth from the stress of being out of their element.
During our day at the park, we fed the elephants (watermelon is their favorite but they also need their veggies). We got right in the river and bathed the elephants (and watched them dirty themselves promptly thereafter). We were reminded that elephants are still wild animals (when one of the babies ran away from her protective mother who was determined to not let her own of her sight). I even got kissed by an elephant (which turns out to be a rather wet and smelly experience). And, as an educational bonus, we learned by firsthand experience exactly how big an elephant schlong is (really big, in fact. Really, really big).
Each elephant has his or her own personality, and spending a day up close and personal with these fantastic animals was definitely a highlight of our Thai travels.