We booked our trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand with one thing on the agenda – Elephants. Chiang Mai was the perfect setting to tick ‘visit an elephant jungle sanctuary’ off our bucket list, and Elephant Nature Park proved to be the perfect place.
Thank you to Elephant Nature Park for all that they do, visiting there was a highlight of my South East Asia trip and it truly left an impression on me. This blog post details everything you need to know about Elephant Nature Park before going and talks about why I found this day so inspiring.
Booking Your Trip to visit Elephants in Chiang Mai
I heard about Elephant Nature Park through Christian LeBlanc’s short film – Black Tusk. I had no idea about the horrible elephant tourism industry before watching it. I was immediately taken by Lek’s story of saving her hard earned cash to buy an elephant, save it from harm, and rehabilitate it. When I sent my friend Nikita the link to the video, we both agreed that this was the Chiang Mai elephant jungle sanctuary we wanted to visit.
The Elephant Nature Park price is around 100$ for a day, including transportation, lunch, elephant feeding, and a guided tour of the park in a small group. Elephant Nature Park has recently changed their practices to disallow elephant bathing because it was dangerous to both the elephants and visitors. There’s a variety of tours on their website here.
If visiting an elephant jungle sanctuary is on your list of Chiang Mai things to do, then book Elephant Nature Park at least 1 month in advance. You can also book elephant jungle sanctuary trips upon your arrival in Chiang Mai through hotels or travel agents, but doing your research and booking before allows you to ensure your spot with this organization.
Booking a trip? This blog post that details how I planned my trip to Thailand.
Our Day at Elephant Nature Park
A driver and tour guide from Elephant Nature Park picked us up at our hostel in the center of Chiang Mai and we headed off into the surrounding mountains.
There are lots of other tour companies along the route. Elephant Nature Park has inspired other Chiang Mai elephant jungle sanctuaries, all with their own philosophies. One elephant at Elephant Nature Park was actually rescued from a nearby sanctuary because she wasn’t being treated properly. So, again, do your research before supporting any park.
Feeding the Elephants
Meal time is all the time for these guys, they eat 450 pounds of food each day. We could see the stacks of fruit when we walked into the lodge, I’ve never seen so much fruit in my life. All of the fruit is bought from local markets and paid for the foundation.
We fed two elephants some bananas, watermelons, and pineapples – all unpeeled. Their trunks have a little finger on the end, allowing them to grab on to whatever we gave them or pick up what had fallen on the ground. I already knew this day was going to be amazing.
Impactful Experience – Meeting Rescued Elephants
After those elephants got fed, we walked out to the park area where the elephants roam freely with their mahouts.
Each mahout has their own elephant to care for and each one is trained to their elephant’s needs. Elephant Nature Park employs local tribe and village people as mahouts, allowing them to stay near the park with their families and providing their kids with a bus to the nearest school.
The elephants come from a variety of abusive backgrounds – some had landmine accidents, others were in the logging industry, and others were from tourism or the circus. A lot of the rescued circus elephants are now blind from the constant show lights and camera flashes. We had to approach these ones tentatively, giving them their food by touching their trunk first to let them know where we were.
We walk around the sanctuary – watching all the elephants do normal elephant things like play in the mud, scratch against some posts, and bath in the river.
All of the elephants we saw were female, the males are sectioned off across the river in a separate spot. Our guide explained that Elephant Nature Park simply doesn’t have space or resources to have any baby making happening. Most of the elephants roam around in pairs. They are known for being loyal friends and our guide filled us in on who was BFFs and who wasn’t getting along.
One of the elephants we met was Tilly, she was brought to the park from a trekking company with a dislocated hip. Tilly is friends with two other elephants – one that also has a leg issue, Thai Koon, and another that’s blind in both of her eyes, Khaum Paun.
Because Tilly is no longer suitable for riding, she would’ve been used for forced breeding so her babies could be used for street begging in Bangkok. Thankfully, Elephant Nature Park rescued here before that happened. My friend Nikita asked our Elephant Nature Park guide if there was anything they could do for the hip. Doing medical work on elephants, he explained, is not easy. There was nothing they could do for her beyond diagnosing the pain.
For an elephant named Dalah, Elephant Nature Park built her a private pool. Dalah’s injuries and emotional trauma require her to be sectioned off from other elephants. Swimming gives her a chance to take some weight off her injured legs, and enjoy a cool bath. Things like this really prove to me that Elephant Nature Park put the elephants, not the tourist’s, best interests first.
Our day at the elephant sanctuary concluded with some tea and cookies before heading back to Chiang Mai. We were able to take a look at their newer dog project, which began after Bangkok’s massive floods in 2011. The volunteers went out in the flood waters, rescuing dogs in their boats, and building dog areas for them back at Elephant Nature Park. Dogs continue to come to Elephant Nature Park, either as strays from the area or rescues from the illegal dog meat trade.
They’ve since started to allow people to sponsor or rescue dogs, and the price is quite reasonable. Also, if you happen to be going to ENP or Chiang Mai, they are looking for people to volunteer to fly a dog to some international airport for the dog’s rescue parents.
Of course, I’d recommend Elephant Nature Park to anyone. If you want to go for longer than one day, The Surin volunteer program gives visitors the chance to learn about the local mahout culture in a homestay for about 500$/week – here’s a blog post Erica wrote on her experience there. There’s also a similar dog volunteer program, Cambodia elephant program, and a seven-day vet work experience program.
Elephant Nature Park is quite the impressive operation. They’ve grown so much since the owner, Lek, began rescuing elephants in the 1990s. I’m thankful we got to experience this, and I hope this post has made you add visiting an elephant jungle sanctuary to your bucket list.
Other things you can do to “help our big friends”
As we were leaving, our guide thanked us for coming. Visitors like us help the park to continue operating. He left us with a simple line – “our big friends need our help”.
In the last century, the amount of elephants in Thailand has decreased from 100,000 to just 4,000.
This didn’t happen by accident. Programs like those at Elephant Nature Park are working to redress the harm done against Elephants in Thailand. However, things like circuses and elephant trekking or riding tours still continue. Even if you’re not able to make it to Chiang Mai, you can do your part by spreading awareness and not supporting these industries.