I’m sad to say that I’ve ridden an elephant before, in Indonesia. Most of us could be forgiven for thinking that if we can ride horses, why not elephants? They’re enormous after all. However, recent research suggests that elephants’ backs weren’t designed for riding. Even worse are long elephant treks, which involve a heavy seat for two people being strapped to the elephant’s back. This harms and tires them, especially when people are riding them for more than 4 hours each day.
We love elephants and wanted the chance to experience just being near to these incredible animals. We researched where to find an ethical elephant experience in Thailand and settled on Elephant Nature Park.
About Elephant Nature Park
Established in the 1990s, this special sanctuary rescues distressed elephants from shows, circuses, street begging, and illegal logging. Here, they are nurtured back to health and free to roam in a huge park where they can eat, play and interact with other elephants.
The park takes health and safety seriously, for visitors and for the elephants themselves. Some newer elephants are kept in their own large enclosures while they overcome their abusive pasts. Other, more aggressive male elephants are also kept in their own large enclosures. This is for the safety of tourists and the other elephants, but the rest are free to roam.
Visitors are also asked to keep their distance from the baby elephants, who have form for ‘bumping’ into people with their trunks! (It’s difficult to stay away, because yes, they are adorable). Obviously, it’s a good idea to stay away from the babies when their protective parents are around, too!
We paid 5000 baht altogether (just over £100), which included transfers to and from our hotel in Chiang Mai, and a vegetarian lunch at the sanctuary. It was SO worth it.
Morning at Elephant Nature Park
During the transfer (which takes around 1.5 hours), we were shown a harrowing video detailing the awful abuse that the elephants suffer. It was upsetting, but everybody in our group agreed that we had no idea how badly some elephants are mistreated in Asia. What made it even more harrowing was when, en route to the park, we passed an elephant trekking camp. This is where we saw lots of tourists riding two to an elephant. It is so very sad that this is happening right on the sanctuary’s doorstep, but sadly they can’t save them all.
As soon as we arrived, two elephants came to the visitor platform waiting to be fed. Our tour group (eight of us in total) was given a huge crate of chopped up watermelon to feed them with. We were also asked to wash our hands before feeding, as any traces of bug repellant can harm the elephants.
Then we took a walk around the park. It really is incredible to just walk amongst these graceful creatures, with no barriers or fences. We saw a couple of elephant families, as well as two mischievous elephants playing in the water! We also saw one of the park’s oldest elephants, before making our way to the enclosure to see some of the separated male elephants. Here, we had a chance to feed them bananas (they eat the banana and the skin). They were pretty greedy, and when they spotted you had more bananas in your hand, they would hold out their trunks waiting for more!
Afternoon at Elephant Nature Park
Afterwards it was time for lunch, before heading back out to see some more elephants and learn about the work the park does to help and protect them. We loved the wall full of photographs at the medical centre, which showed ‘before and after’ pictures of some of the most severely abused elephants. They all looked so much happier and healthier after spending time at the sanctuary!
Finally, we finished the day with a bath. Elephants love water, and soaking them with huge buckets of water while they got stuck into a box of bananas was a great experience.
Was it worth it?
Overall, we had an amazing day that we’ll remember forever. The park does magnificent work to help and heal these animals, many of which have been badly mistreated and abused.
To be honest, the only thing that really concerned me in the park was the sheer number of visitors. Some of the tour groups were much bigger than ours. I can only hope that the elephants are given plenty of time between tour group visits so that they don’t find it overwhelming.
Having said that, to continue their tireless work the park needs as many visitors as they can get. I’d highly recommend a trip here (or to one of the country’s other reputable sanctuaries) when in Thailand.
Where to find an ethical elephant experience in Thailand
If you plan on visiting a sanctuary, do thorough research before you go. We researched Elephant Nature Park in detail to be sure that the experience would be completely ethical and cruelty-free. As a general rule, any sanctuaries or camps that offer riding or elephant ‘tricks’ and shows are not ethical.