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Throwback Thursday: Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park (February 2010)

June 6, 2013

I’ve appropriated the recent social media rage #throwbackthursday to start a new weekly series!  Throwback Thursdays share pictures and information from some of my earlier travels between 2007 and 2010 that have yet to make it onto this site.  After a long blogging hiatus, this series is to catch you, my readers, up on these past travels, while using the rest of the blog to recount my more recent trips.

I’m headed to Thailand tomorrow for nine days split between Bangkok (my favorite city in Asia) and Koh Samui (a new destination!).  So, I thought I would share one of my favorite experiences from my first trip to the country in 2010: a day at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai!

Elephants and their mahouts at Elephant Nature Park

Elephants and their mahouts at Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center about 60km outside Chiang Mai.  ENP rescues Thai elephants that have been abused or abandoned by their previous owners and introduces them into the park’s herd.   The park itself is set in a valley and surrounded by a river and hills, creating a natural habitat for the animals.

While there are an abundance opportunities in Thailand to ride and interact with elephants (the country’s national symbol), ENP educates its visitors about the ills of many such tourist activities.  The companies that run these tours and shows often harm and exploit the animals.  We would learn, for example, that the elephants used in these types of entertainment  are commonly captured and trained through a tortuous process called phajaan that seeks to break the animal’s spirit by forcing it to endure confinement and beatings.

Unlike the types of elephant tourism that destroy and denigrate the species, Elephant Nature Park allows visitors to volunteer at their sanctuary between 1 and 14 days.  Here, instead of riding elephants or watching them do tricks, volunteers participate in the animals’ daily routine of eating, bathing, and playing.

At ENP with new friends.

At ENP with new friends.

After breakfast at my fantastic B&B in Chiang Mai, the ENP van arrived to take me and several fellow park-goers on the hour-long journey to the park.  On the ride, I made fast friends with two cousins also from the States, and the van’s TV played a video introducing the park, its mission, and the current plight of the Asian elephant.

When we arrived, the park staff gave us a brief tour of the facilities while we dropped off fruit treats for the elephants’ morning snack.  Then, it was time for the first highlight of the day: the elephants’ feeding on the main platform.

Snack time!

Snack time!

The elephants’ snack consisted of watermelon rounds, clusters of unpeeled bananas, and other melons.  The elephants would take these directly from your hand with their trunk, carrying the delicious treats to their mouths, before chowing down.  One particular blind elephant, Jokia, would let visitors place the fruit directly into her mouth and looked so adorable opening her mouth wide to prompt the next bite!

We quickly figured out the different elephants’ favorite fruits.  The ones who preferred watermelon would ignore the many hands holding other fruits to find someone with a watermelon round.   While those who liked bananas would seek out hands with that fruit.  It was incredible albeit amusing to see how like humans they were in this regard.

After watching the elephants finish off the many barrels of fruit, it was time for our lunch!  The park had a large spread of Asian and international dishes lined up buffet style, and we all sat at picnic tables eating and chatting.

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Next, as the hottest part of the day was fast approaching, it was bath time for the elephants.  The herd walked down to the river that spans one side of the park and waded into the refreshing water.  Standing there, the elephants threw water over their backs with their trunks and waited for visitors to splash them with buckets full of water.

Bath time in the pond.

Bath time in the pond.

After the elephants were thoroughly doused and cooled down, they headed toward the mud hole for a nice frolic in the cooling mud.  Some elephants would pick up the mud with their trunks to throw it over their backs, while others would lay down and roll around.  The babies in particular were a joy to watch as they galloped about like hyper-energetic puppies.

This was also the elephants’ opportunity to scratch any itches on the massive wooden stumps around the hole.

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Finally, it was time for a photo shoot with the herd.

While most of the elephants come from all over Thailand as rescues from the tourist or logging industry, our guides explained that when they arrive at ENP, they often form close friendships and make-shift families with one another.  You can see how they cluster together below, and often two “friends” will become inseparable.

Additionally, quite a few babies have been born in the park, and these offspring of the herd members are perhaps the happiest and certainly the most rambunctious additions to this ever-growing community of elephants.

Mahouts with the elephants.

Mahouts with the elephants.

One of the most fascinating things I noticed at ENP wasn’t just the relationship between the dozens of elephants, but the relationship built between these elephants and the many staff and volunteers who care for them.  Each elephant at the park has their own mahout (caregiver) who looks after them like a family member.  The mahouts and the elephants gain one another’s trust and respect, and the interactions I saw between them throughout the day were the most heartwarming.

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This type of communion between human and animal is what places like the Elephant Nature Park are all about.  The mutual affection and respect fostered at ENP serves as a reminder of our larger responsibility, as humans and fellow occupants of this earth, to the Asian elephant and all other animals.

Have you interacted with elephants or other animals in Asia?  Let us know about your experiences in the comments!

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