When we started planning our trip we knew we wanted to spend time with elephants, but were unsure where we should go that didn’t abuse them as we had heard that there was a lot of mistreatment of elephants in Thailand. As a family, we have very strong beliefs about animals being used as attractions and are always keen to ensure that they are protected as much as possible. Luckily for us, Sarah had a friend who had spent some time volunteering at Elephant Nature Park a few years ago and she recommended that we go there as they were rescuing elephants who had been mistreated.
We would have loved to spend longer at the park, but as we had the girls we were only able to go on the overnight trip, however, we learnt so much from this that we all want to go back in the future – the park has volunteering options for longer stays which sound amazing from the conversations we had with some of the volunteers at the park.
We booked our trip for a Sunday/Monday and unbeknownst to us at the time it is actually the quietest time to go as most of the volunteers go home on Sunday evenings so the park is at it’s quietest.
We were collected from our hotel just after 8am on Sunday morning and we travelled with our guide Tea and another family North to the Elephant Nature Park. During the 1.5 hour journey, we watched a short film about safety at the park, followed by a longer film about the plight of the elephants in Thailand. Whilst we had a good idea about the mistreatment of the elephants, we were shocked by the brutality and suffering they are subjected to on a daily basis for the tourist trade and (the now illegal) logging industry.
Elephants are routinely taken from their mothers in the wild and broken with physical abuse and withdrawal of food and water to make them maleable and able to perform in shows and carry tourists on their backs. Elephants are large creatures that need to eat for up to 16 hours a day and need large quantities of water as well to keep them healthy. Each elephant has a mahout who is their owner and they are the ones responsible for this abuse, they use spears and often threaten to blind the elephants to make them comply.
There were tears from both Sarah and Molly on the journey 🙁
However, we knew we were going somewhere that looked after these magnificent creatures and that our trip would help to support the rescue of more elephants in the future. Elephant nature park currently has a heard of 82 elephants, most of whom have been rescued but sadly the mahouts are reluctant to sell them until they are no longer of use, so many of them are blind and maimed due to the suffering during their working lives.
On arrival at the park, we were shown to the table that would be our base for the day and each given a water bottle and embroidered water carrier. Our first task of the day was to feed the elephants from the platform so that we could get to know them and ensure they felt safe at all times. (Many of these elephants are wary of humans and the project here is all about ensuring they feel safe at all times). Tea showed us how to put the food into the trunk which amazingly has a finger at the end to help them grip and they then put it into their mouth to eat. We were able to feed them a range of things including sweetcorn, pumpkin and watermelon. It was fascinating to see them reject certain foods in favour of others – just one of the many ways we saw the intellect of these gentle giants during our stay.
We then had free time before lunch to observe the elephants from the platform and for the girls to get to know the cats!
What can we say about our first meal – it was amazing! There was a huge range of salad, fruit and traditional Thai food as well as chips for the girls! The food was absolutely delicious and we all ate more than we actually needed. All the food at elephant nature park is vegetarian but you wouldn’t know as there were even the vege equivalent of pork scratchings – fried tofu! We all felt very spoilt and incredibly lucky to be treated so well.
After lunch, we were taken out to witness the elephants bathing in the river and playing in the mud. There were just 8 of us in our group with Tea and we were able to get really close to observe the elephants playing and refreshing themselves. It was amazing to see them squirting water over themselves and rolling around in the water with each other.
The babies were loving the mud and we learnt that this actually has a purpose as it acts as a sunscreen and bug repellent as well as a conditioner for the elephants’ skin.
Tea then walked us back towards the main platform where we were able to get really close to a pair of elephants – Jaemsai and Mae Banyen. Sarah was lucky enough to be able to look directly into the eyes of one of this pair and was astounded at the feeling of looking into their soul. The pair then separated Dave and Sophie from the rest of the group and Tea joked that they were trying to take Sophie as they wanted her as part of their herd. These were the elephants Sarah felt most connected to during our whole time at the park.
After this walk with the elephants, we were able to check into our accommodation for the evening, we were surprised by how big the hut was and the girls loved having their own beds under mosquito nets which they thought were canopies! After refreshing ourselves in the shower and getting settled in we headed back to the main platform for dinner – another amazing meal was produced by the staff at ENP and we were again spoilt. Dinner gave us an opportunity to observe the elephants, play with the cats and talk to some of the volunteers about their experience – one lady was on week 2 of a 3 week trip and had volunteered before, two girls we spoke to were also embarking on a second week and were telling us how much closer you were able to get to the elephants when you were there for longer.
We all slept well and loved hearing the sounds of the jungle as the night drew in and in the early morning.
Another early start at breakfast was a 7am, there was a choice of cereal, fresh fruit and salad, rice and noodles (a feature at all Thai breakfasts), croissants and toast – that you cooked yourself over a bbq! Again we were spoilt and very well looked after. Tea had even brought hot chocolate with him for the children.
Our first activity of the day was walking with the elephants at 8.30am – there were just 16 of us walking around the park and observing the elephants in their different herds interacting with each other, playing in the mud and bathing in the river. We had a few scary moments when the naughty baby from the largest family in the park decided to make a run for us all – Tea told us that the dog (who had joined our group) was no. 1 troublemaker and this baby elephant was no. 2 troublemaker! We were all able to safely walk past and on towards another family – this family has a baby also which is usually well behaved for some reason today he too was trying to follow us!
Our walk lasted around 2 hours and we were able to see nearly all of the elephants at the park, find out more about their stories and their relationships with the other elephants in their herd. We were also able to get close to the oldest elephant at the park who is nearly 100 and keeps to herself.
After our walk, we had free time to pack up and check out of our accommodation, before we were taken by bus to another part of the park for lunch. Again we had were treated to a fantastic range of Thai food and felt stuffed! The girls loved exploring the garden here and the views over the jungle were amazing.
Feeding the Elephants
On our return to the park, it was time to hand feed the elephants and we walked down the river where Tilly, Kham Puan and Thai Koon were all bathing. All three of these elephants have handicaps due to their past abuse but they are the best of friends – Kham Puan is fully blind, Tilly has a dislocated hip from her work in the logging industry and Thai Koon was injured by a landmine. We were able to hand feed bananas and watermelon to both Tilly and Kham Puan, however as Thai Koon is still very wary of humans it wasn’t safe for us to feed her but we could watch her mahoot peeling bananas for her. This was the closest we have been to the elephants and we are even able to touch them as we were feeding them.
As we walked back to the platform we were all feeling amazed by the experience we had just had and had time to pause and reflect on this as a heavy rainstorm moved in and we had to take shelter. Tea kindly went and got us umbrellas as he was concerned the girls would become ill if they walked in it – the rest of the group ran back and we were touched by the consideration he had for us as a family.
Making rice balls
It was now time to get messy making the ultimate elephant treat – rice balls. We had a bowl full of bananas – which we peeled and mashed, rice, grain, corn kernels and a few other ingredients we can’t remember! We then had to get stuck in and mix it all together before rolling it into balls. It was lots of fun and Sophie bee loved being responsible for putting the completed balls into the bowl ready for feeding.
We took our bowl and headed out into the park – we had a couple of naughty elephants follow us trying to get the balls before we found the pair of elephants we were to feed. Again we were up close to the elephants, putting the rice balls into their trunks and for the one, we had to break it up into smaller pieces as she has problems with her digestion. Another amazing experience to end our time at the park.
Heading back to Chaing Mai
With a heavy heart, we travelled back to Chaing Mai and our hotel. We have learnt so much about these amazing animals, seen into their souls and at times felt so emotional when hearing their backstories. All of us want to do more to help these beautiful animals and we urge anyone reading this to consider the choices of activities you take part in when visiting Asia to ensure that you aren’t inadvertently helping fund elephant abuse.
As an aside, whilst in Koh Samui we visited the Na Mueang waterfalls and were saddened to see that the car park and surrounding land is all owned by Namueang Safari Park – this organisation offers a number of activities including 4×4 rides up to the waterfalls to reduce the time walking. However we also saw elephants being ridden, as well as chained in small enclosures exhibiting distressed behaviours. We relunctantly paid to park here, however we choose not to spend anymore money here as we didn’t want to fund this. We will be writing a blog about this soon and if our 5 year old can manage the walk you can too so please consider this when visiting these waterfalls.
Please note we have tried to remember the names of the elephants as best we can and apologise if we have got them wrong.