It was just about as magical as it sounds. Quite possibly the best day of my life. I have definitely never experienced anything like this before but it’s an experience everyone needs to go through.
To be completely honest, I’m actually shameful that I actually had to contemplate this idea. Before I came to Thailand my only expectations were to eat food, lay on the beach, and ride an elephant. I didn’t particularly have a fascination with elephants, but there was definitely something majestic about being able to ride an elephant. Riding an elephant seemed completely normal if you weren’t in Africa, after all many asian countries were built using elephants to help them carry things around. If anything they were kind of the equivalent of horses in the states. As touristy as it sounded, I did not want to ride an elephant in a circle like a pony farm, I wanted to be trekking in the jungle with it.
However, upon further research, I was presented with the idea that this wasn’t exactly how elephants were meant to live. Offering trekking tours and doing tricks of sorts. I continued to read about the abuse these animals are often put through, and the awful “crushing” ceremony to domesticate an elephant. And then I felt completely torn. Fulfill a life dream or taking a stance towards animal rights.I never thought I would ever be in this kind of position given that I love all animals, but I really REALLY wanted to ride an elephant. Or so I thought. I realized later it wasn’t the riding part that fascinated me, it was the ability to interact and be close to the largest walking animal on earth.
So it turns out there is this amazing sanctuary called Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. It’s an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center that was established roughly 20 years ago by an amazing woman named Lek. Grandaughter of a shaman, Lek has rescued about 30 elephants and hopes to change the way people view elephants and tourism. She believes in interaction with the elephants in their natural habitat. So the Elephant Nature Park offers day tours and multiple day tours to visitors. You can volunteer and stay at the park and learn all about the elephants and help take care of them. Day visitors get to meet the elephants, feed them, and help bath them. Learn more about Lek’s work and how you can support her cause on her website.
This is where the elephant bath comes in. When I first read about it I thought..well I guess that could be fun….I had no idea how much fun it actually would be. What an incredible experience. You get to play with these animals and being that I am a water lover…no better place to be playing with an animal than in the water. Lucky for me, our park guide makes for fantastic paparazzi so I have a zillion amazing photos of my experience from her and then some from me.
Long story short, I was beyond impressed with my experience at ENP. For $81 we were picked up from our hotel, driven to the park, got to feed and meet the elephants, was fed a crazy AMAZING lunch (seriously we only made it through 1/3 of the food), gave the elephants a bath, and we even got iced tea and snacks in the afternoon. It was a full day starting around 9 a.m. until about 5:30 or 6 p.m. round trip but I wish it could’ve lasted longer. The ENP does offer longer stays with accommodation but it was a bit more money and I wasn’t sure if Nathan would be down for staying in the park that long. We still have plenty of places on our list to visit in Thailand.
I definitely got my fill of interacting with these gentle creatures and my heart was torn when our day was over. I wish I could stay there for months! There is so much I want to share about this place and yet I don’t even know where to begin. But I have to recommend anyone who even thinks about riding and elephant MUST come here. Once you leave you will never consider the thought again.
If interacting with the animals wasn’t amazing itself, the staff at ENP are amazing. I thought maybe by being with a tour group we might get the whole touristy vibe of being shuffled along and waiting in long lines, but we didn’t experience that at all. Once we arrived we hit the ground running head straight to feed the elephants. There was even a little 6 week old elephant which unfortunately we couldn’t get near…There was a small crowd (about 4 or 5 other people), and it did feel a bit lame to be feeding the elephants behind bars, but slowly we moved on to some older elephants that were safe to feed standing right next to them. That was when the real fun started. The long trunks sway gently and reach around you looking for food. You can’t help but want to cuddle with them!
It really was cuteness overload. Getting to be up close with the elephants is truly incredible. I never felt like a tourist, I just felt like someone who got a backstage access pass to the best zoo on earth. You were getting to help out in a very small way. The atmosphere was so relaxed. They let us roam relatively freely between elephants for feedings and we felt quite relaxed about everything. Our guide was informative and enthusiastic and just a bundle of joy in general. She was patient with those in our group who lingered behind and made sure we were all safe. At one point I was squatted on the ground taking a photo and an elephant came up right next to me. I didn’t feel threatened, but Bee (our guide) did warn me so I wasn’t to be squashed on. She didn’t even reprimand me or tell me to step away, she just said, “Watch out! Big feet!”.
I have nothing but wonderful things to say about ENP and wish I could spend everyday there. If you’re ever in Northern Thailand this is a MUST stop place to be. I’m so thankful for everything I have experienced there and so glad I didn’t go elephant trekking. Just the thought of it kills me now. At the same time there isn’t much work left for domesticated elephants, so if you HAVE to go to one, be sure to give your elephant lots and lots and lots of bananas.
Also, learn more about Lek’s work to save the elephants at her website: www.saveelephant.org.
P.S. This is my friend Nathan that you have been seeing throughout my Thailand posts. He is a good friend of mine from the Pacific Northwest. We share a best friend (Brandon), and Nathan has been travelling all throughout SE Asia after spending over a year teaching English in Korea. His blog posts are MUCH more interesting than mine, as Nathan is a good story writer, so you should read his blog if you get a chance! www.theopenroadbeforeme.com