Do you remember before we left I wrote that I wanted to bathe an elephant? Well, after almost two and a half months in Thailand, I finally did it.
To be honest, I had put off a visit to The Elephant Nature Park because I was being frugal (a tight ass, if you will). A one day visit is 2,500 baht, or $80, which is a lot on our conservative budget.
“A visit for two is worth two week’s rent!” I rationalized, trying to talk sense to myself.
But as I have learnt, there is no space for rationalisation in the business of following one’s dreams.
I wanted to bathe an elephant, damn it, and I knew there was only one place to do it.
You see, I had seen some baby elephants back on Koh Chang (Chang is Thai for elephant), fenced into a dry, dusty pen, their owner charging for feeding and photographs. I was taken with them, I must admit, and I did watch them frolic and play with each other, lumping their cumbersome but surprisingly agile bodies over each other in playful wrestling.
They were beautiful, all the more reason why I couldn’t pay for them to be kept in such cramped conditions.
In Pai, we passed an ‘Elephant Camp’, on the way to the hot spring resort.
“Pull over! Pull over!” I ordered Tyrhone, jumping off the bike before it had completely stopped.
I chatted to the owner for a bit, who would have charged me only $10 for the privilege of bathing the Elephant in the river.
But then I got that feeling again.
The enormous creatures were chained up by their tree-trunk like legs, and held captive in a concrete pen. Once I got past my initial excitement at seeing them, guilt and discomfort overrode my desire to save a few bucks.
So, with our time in northern Thailand drawing to a close, and many hours of research, I booked a one day visit to the Elephant Nature Park for Tyrhone and I.
The day began at 8am, when we were picked up, and finished at 6pm.
The park is a conservation sanctuary, founded by an amazing Thai woman, Lek, who has dedicated her life to saving the elephants of Thailand, and promoting conservation through tourism and volunteer programs.
The park is huge, and home to 34 elephants. Most have been rescued or bought from either hill-tribe villages or elephant camps. Some are orphans. Some have been abused.
One beautiful female is completely blind. Her eyes were poked out when she refused to work after her just-born baby fell down a mountain (as if she hadn’t suffered enough). When brought to the park, she was immediately befriended by an older female, and today, they are inseparable.
The park is as close to a natural habitat as these elephants are likely to get. It’s lush and green, flanked by jungle with a river winding through it. The land was donated, and the whole enterprise, which employs hundreds of staff to maintain both the ‘residents’ and the grounds, is run on donation and the proceeds of visits like ours.
So, not only did I get to bathe and elephant, I got to…
Ogle at their huge, flapping ears,
and their strong, wrinkled trunks.
I even got a kiss!
I also got an education on the plight of these endangered creatures in Thailand, who once played a vital role in the logging industry.
Once logging was banned in 1998, the elephants and their owners (called mahouts) were out of work. Some had to abandon their elephants, as they couldn’t afford to care for them. But the elephants had nowhere to go, as most of their habitat had been destroyed. There are only about 1000 elephants left in the wild in Thailand, and the rest work in tourism.
Lek works with the elephant camps and hill-tribe villages, not against them. She realises that elephants are better off working in camps than used to beg for money in cities like Bangkok or Phuket. She hopes that by educating local people, mahouts and tourists, she can secure a cruelty-free future for Thailand’s elephants.
We witnessed not only close relationships between the elephants themselves, but also strong bonds with their Mahouts.
This guy is the busiest Mahout on the park, assigned to ‘Hope’, the naughty (but much-loved) teenage boy:
I loved watching this woman with her elephant. She is the head Mahout of the park, and the only female. Her obvious ease and comfort with her elephant was such a joy to observe:
So, how was the bathing?!
It was pretty great, kind of like ‘Elephant Songkran‘. It was fun to pat their rough folds of skin and cover their wide backs with cool water. They looked like they enjoyed it.
I know we did.
As for the cost, it really was worth it. I felt happy and guilt free the whole day, which I know would not have been the case had I ridden one at a regular camp. Personally, riding an elephant doesn’t interest me, though I can understand the appeal for some.
The day was well organised, included a fantastic vegetarian buffet lunch, and we had heaps of hands-on time with the elephants, as well as a bit of free time to wander around. Actually, at the end of the day, we were like, “What? we’re feeding them again?”
I well and truly got my elephant fix.
I would encourage everyone to put the Elephant Nature Park on their ‘must do’ list for Northern Thailand. If you can afford it, stay overnight, or even longer. We met several interesting people volunteering at the park for a week or more, and I have no doubt it would be an amazing experience.
But like I said, I got my fix (and might I add, so did Tyrhone, who was quite the ‘elephant whisperer’). More importantly, I know that my tourist dollar is going into a sustainable, responsible enterprise, run by people who truly care about and value the lives of these amazing animals:
Realising a dream is one thing, but knowing it wasn’t at the expense of these magnificent creatures makes it complete.