Do you like elephants? Well, you’d sure better, because in this post, I’ve finally gotten around to winnowing my 300+ photos (plus action cam vids!) from my visit to Elephant Nature Park down to a discreet 70-something. I still have plenty to blah-blah-blah about in this post, but let me just say that the this visit was everything I’d hoped for and more. If you are interested in interacting with elephants in an environment that is focused first on the well-being of these wonderful creatures, this is the place for you.
So, our guide for the day, Ging, showed up at my hotel as scheduled and I piled into the van with, at that point, one other couple. At our next stop, the first person to board looked quite familiar to me. “You were sitting in front of me on the flight from SFO to Tokyo, weren’t you?” Answer in the affirmative – this was Jodie, traveling with her step-daughter Katie (on a break from teaching English to school children in Korea). As it turned out, not only were we geographical neighbors in the Bay Area, our respective itineraries had much in common. The two of them had just done the cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School and declared it a rollicking success – it was good to hear, as my own class was coming up later in the week. After our tour wrapped up, the three of us had a nice dinner together (making friends with several resident kittens at the restaurant!) back in CM.
We continued to pick up other folks and the van filled up – kind of a surprise to me, given that October is still the tail end of low season and the other tours I’d been on were rather sparsely populated it seemed. On the halfway point of our journey to Elephant Nature Park, we stopped for a bathroom break and there were probably 20 similarly populated vans, all on their way to the same destination. Another surprise – I was a little concerned about what this would mean in terms of crowds at our destination. But thanks to a large parcel of land and an extremely well-run program for visitors, our tour that day was extraordinarily intimate and with little overlap with other folks at the park.
Anyway, we arrived at our destination, clambered out of the van and there were three gorgeous elephants hanging out in the grass. Seeing a group of easy marks for bananas and watermelons, they made their way toward us immediately. It was really quite remarkable that literally the moment we arrived, we were interacting with elephants. I was also pleased at how relaxed it was. I’ll be honest – large animals can be a scary to be around. But these gentle old ladies (all in their 60s and 70s) seemed pretty content to scarf up the food we had to offer and were clearly used to being around tourists. Of course, our guide and the mahouts were close at hand to make sure nobody got trampled…
From there, we and our new elephant friends ambled along toward the river – most of us visitors attempting to master taking photographs while also feeding our rather demanding companions who knew exactly what was in those bags we were carrying (bananas… sooo many delicious bananas…). And we all adjusted fairly quickly to the fact that one winds up covered with rather a lot of elephant saliva when feeding them.
I have to say, touching the elephants was amazing – most especially so when they were grabbing food from your hands with their trunks. It was fantastic to see exactly how both agile and delicate those trunks are – not to mention how incredibly strong.
At the river, we forded on foot, humans and animals alike, and continued our trek up into the hills a bit. As I got used to the idea of chilling with elephants, I finally noticed how really beautiful the setting was. We were surrounded by tree-covered hills, the sky bright blue with fluffy white clouds. And from the hillside, we had great views of the river and the rest of the sanctuary, seeing other small groups of elephants in the distance.
A stop for lunch, a simple vegetarian spread that was that special kind of delicious that goes with a healthy appetite after a good hike. We all got to know each other a little better – it was a fun mix of Yanks, Brits and Aussies in our particular group.
After lunch, we headed back down to the river along a different path, though we crossed at the same place. Once across, we got buckets (and more watermelons!) to give our elephant friends a nice soaking, followed by a group photo.
Once back to where we started, we piled back into our van – though not before I took the opportunity to purchase what is likely to be my most cherished memento from my visit to Thailand, a small elephant carving, made by one of the mahouts. Not only does this little guy have a ton of personality, but like each of the carvings for sale, he is based on one of the local residents – in this case, a handsome fellow called Banyen.
For some reason, I’d forgotten that the particular program I was enrolled in – “Pamper a Pachyderm” (IKR?) – included a raft trip. And this was in spite of the fact that Ging, our extremely personable and knowledgeable guide, had mentioned it repeatedly – though he’d also been quick to pull my leg about a couple of things, so I thought this was just him ribbing another camera-laden city slicker.
Anyway, it was no joke! Which was fine… but I suppose I imagined a gentle ride down the river while I sipped a cocktail. Well, it was a bit more athletic than that (and required me to don a highly unflattering life jacket! And to paddle!), but it was a super-fun trip down a mostly gentle river, with a couple of small but exciting rapids.
Our raft trip ended at ENP HQ, home to the main lodge along with all of the various support facilities, like the kitchen, vet, etc. This is also where we met lots and lots of wonderful dogs and cats who reside at ENP – and who are for the most part ready to be adopted.
We spent the rest of our time observing a couple of groups of elephants, one including a toddler who happily played with his tire and frolicked in the river while his adoptive moms bathed. Wrapped things up with a beer in the lodge before heading back into Chiang Mai.
I can’t recommend Elephant Nature Park highly enough. They do a really amazing job looking after their resident elephants and their programs for visitors are well-organized and provide a truly memorable experience. All of the staff appear to be really engaged with the organization’s mission and to care deeply about the elephants in the park – and they are certainly a huge part of what made this day so special. A superb highlight of my visit to Thailand.
Here’re a few excerpts from my head-mounted action cam. It’s a little Blair-Witchy, so if you’re prone to motion sickness, maybe skip it. But I hope it gives at least some sense of exactly how up-close visitors get to interact with the elephants. I know I keep using the word, but it was really quite amazing.
And here’s a bit of rafting!