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Christmas is coming up with lightning speed, so this Sunday we wanted to take the time to talk about our experience at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. We have written about it a bit in several posts, but we never dedicated a full article on this unforgettable experience which both filled us with joy and broke our hearts at the same time. Read on to find out why. If you are inspired by what you read, you could consider supporting Lek and her elephants this holiday season by sponsoring an elephant or by visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
Instinctively we understood that we would never want to participate in elephant tourism, but for many tourists who visit Thailand or South East Asia this is one of the main activities on their itinerary. We believe that they do this because it seems magical, harking back to an imaginary time where more primitive people peacefully co-existed with the amazing animals who served as friends, laborers and transportation.
What people who ride elephants do not realize is that in order to get these strong-willed, independent creatures to be docile enough to be ridden requires a level of torture and mistreatment that would break their hearts if they knew more about it.
In order for tourists to ride elephants, or watch them paint or stand on their back legs, or even to turn them into loggers carrying tons of wood for miles and miles, elephants must first have their spirit broken.
Breaking an elephant’s spirit means stealing it from their mothers as babies, and squeezing them into a tiny cage where they barely fit. They are then starved, deprived of sleep and beaten with bull hooks and sticks with nails for days and weeks on end until they finally give in and become submissive to humans. After all, these gargantuan animals can crush us in one swift move, so it takes quite a bit of torture to convince them to submit to the tiny humans around them. They then spend their lives being beaten with bamboo sticks with sharp nails on the end and burning it with electric prods to keep them mentally submissive enough to do those tricks or haul that lumber.
You can read more about why you shouldn’t ride an elephant in South East Asia or watch a video showing this horrible torture here, but be warned, this is seriously heavy and heartbreaking and definitely NOT for the faint of heart. It is so awful, Jess started to cry and turned it off in seconds.
Everywhere you see the opportunity to ride an elephant, or see them in the circus, this terribile act of spirit-breaking has gone on. Elephants are made to carry people on their back all day long and suffer spinal injuries, and the wooden chairs that are attached on some of them are even worse, causing blisters and skin infections that can never heal because they carry people day after day after day.
Luckily, there is a way to experience these incredible animals without causing them any harm by visiting them in an elephant sanctuary. Last year, we had heard about the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai, an elephant sanctuary that is home to over 30 rescued elephants that had been terribly mistreated by their former owners. The Elephant Nature Park is one of the very few parks in Thailand where elephants have actually been saved from exploitation instead of being exploited.
The tiny Thai founder of the park, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, has put all of her heart and soul into creating a space where elephants that were previously mistreated or almost worked to death can live the rest of their lives in a peaceful environment. Here we saw elephants in all stages of recovery from the mental and physical stress they had undergone for decades. Remember, an elephant never forgets, and without the luxury of psychotherapy, it takes a very, very long time for the elephants to recover.
However, the elephants at the nature park seem incredibly happy in comparison to what they had gone through, and are comfortable around visitors who come to help feed them and bathe them. They even give you kisses with their giant trunks. You can spend time with the elephants on a day visit or, if you have the time, you can volunteer for a week or longer.
The spacious grounds made up of meadows and fields allow the elephants to roam freely in their natural, but protected, habitat. There are various viewing platforms for visitors and a large terrace to get up close and personal to feed them or just observe them from afar.
The elephants eat A LOT (up to 200 kilos per day) so you have plenty of opportunity to set entire bunches of bananas or watermelon halves onto their trunks, which they then shovel in to their mouths. After the kissing and the bathing and the feeding, there is also an opportunity to be educated on the dark side of the elephant tourism industry. There is a short film covering Lek’s journey to rescue elephants as well as one instance of an elephant’s spirit being broken caught on film. This part of the experience is optional and not advised for young children or overly sensitive animal lovers.
Visit the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai
The Elephant Nature Park has an office in Chiang Mai where you can book your tour. A day at the park is 2,500 THB (US$80) and includes transport from your hotel to the park and back, a generous vegetarian lunch buffet, plenty of time with the elephants and the film. All the money goes directly back into supporting the elephants and Lek’s work against elephant tourism in Thailand and South East Asia. If you don’t plan on visiting Thailand any time soon, you can sponsor an elephant or even buy an elephant lunch – see how you can help an elephant here.