As we planned our trip to Thailand, online searches kept bringing us to the Elephant Nature Park. It is a natural sanctuary and rescue center for elephants from all over Thailand. While many dream of the experience of riding a massive 9 ft tall, 4 ton animal, the process of taming a wild elephant to do this is very unfavorable. Baby elephants are taken from their mother at an early age and are beaten into submission and simultaneously starved and deprived of sleep for days. Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and they remember this very negative experience forcing them to remain submissive to humans. So while elephant trekking is not encouraged, visiting an elephant sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park is highly recommended.
We opted for the Karen Elephant Experience at the Elephant Nature Park. A shuttle picked us up in downtown Chiang Mai, fully loaded with food for the elephants. We drove through a mountainous region of northern Thailand and even had to transfer to a 4-wheel drive all-terrain vehicle to make the last stretch of dirt road up to a secluded area where the elephants were free to roam. Tour guides instructed us on how to properly feed the elephants and how to gain their trust. If you hold food out in your hand, the elephant will use his/her trunk to grab the food from you. If you approach the elephant along the side of his face holding the food very visible in your hand, the elephant will open his/her mouth for you to drop it in. It is amazing to watch such a huge animal chomp on food with an absolutely insatiable appetite. Elephants eat approximately 10% of their body weight every day, so as you can imagine, a lot of time is spent eating.
Once the elephants have eaten a “reasonable” amount of food, we then bring food with us and begin hiking through the rain forest. Since elephants love to eat (and you have proven yourself as a good food source), they happily follow. As they walk through the rainforest they stop to chomp on foliage, rub their bodies up against the trees, and extend their trunks to request more food. The experience is truly delightful walking just feet away from the elephants and feeding them along the way.
Later in the day, the elephants get to enjoy a playful mud bath in the river. Elephants love to play and splash in the water and in particular, they enjoy covering their skin in mud. It helps protect their skin from the sun acting like a sunscreen for the elephants. Everyone is encouraged to hop in the water with the elephants and rub mud all over their bodies. One of the elephants we were spending time with in the water lifted his trunk in the air and smiled. One of the tour guides yelled out, “Happy, Happy!” It was so refreshing and heart warming to see the elephants have so much freedom to play and have fun.
Following the mud bath, we trekked through a different area in the rain forest and worked our way to another river. This was the area to bathe the elephants and wash off the excess mud. The elephants would roll around in the water and splash everywhere. You could see how much they enjoyed interacting with each other and having the mud washed off them.
Since most of our experiences of elephants in the United States are limited to the zoo, having the opportunity to witness elephants in a much more natural habitat where they are properly and thoroughly cared for is a truly life changing experience. It was the highlight of the entire trip to Thailand.