A Day Tour With Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
In Bangkok I knew that when I was in Chiang Mai I wanted to book a tour with Elephant Nature Park. Though, being only two weeks out and in the busy season many options were booked out (fyi book way in advance if you are thinking about it). Luckily, I did manage to find one tour with Elephant Nature Park that had a free space called The Freedom Program.
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About The Freedom Program
Located south of Chiang Mai City is the Karen village where the Freedom Program by Elephant Nature Park is held. The purpose is to encourage locals to participate in ecotourism and to show that tourists will still want to interact with their elephants even if they aren’t riding them.
Elephant Nature Park has had great success in building their own sanctuary and are now encouraging these smaller Karen communities to start doing the same. I was truly interested in the tour. Though at the time of booking this new tour had only been running for a couple months so their wasn’t much information available about it. Nevertheless, I was curious so I took the plunge and bought the $75 ticket.
My Experience With Elephant Nature Park
The Van Ride There
The morning of the day I am waiting outside my hostel for the van to pick me up. A friendly lady walks down the lane way and brings me to the Elephant Nature Park van as the street is too narrow to drive down. Along the way we pick up more groups who have also signed up for the tour, until there is about eight of us in the van.
Once everyone is seated and ready we are shown a video about the Elephant Nature Park and the efforts they do to encourage ecotourism. Elephants in Thailand have been used commercially throughout the years, having their spirits broken in order to be trained and satisfy the demand in the industry. They have been used as nothing more than an instrument for gaining money with no regard towards their overall well being. This is the ideology Elephant Nature Park is attempting to change.
The van ride to the sanctuary takes about an hour and a half through rolling countryside. Chiang Mai is so much more than just a city. Even though it may seem like a concrete jungle, there are plenty opportunities to get away. You can even go on a camping excursion from Chiang Mai. We stop on the way at a seven eleven for snacks which I take advantage of, stocking up on chocolate and chips. Onward into the countryside we venture and spot numerous elephant riding companies along the way. I honestly did not realise how many there actually were, its ridiculous!
On arrival we park up at the Karen village under the cover of a large wooden hut. In the surrounding area is a locked room to store our stuff, some bathrooms and an eating area. Oh and of course the elephants a short walk across a path!
Huge sticks of sugar cane are dragged out by one of the staff members and a couple people in the group are given machetes and shown how to cut them up. A young Chinese boy starts eating the sugar cane himself, encouraging us Westerners to join as well.
Buckets of water are filled up to the brim with bushes inside for us to clean the cucumbers. They tell us the pesticides on them can make the elephants very sick and that it is import we get it all off. The cucumbers change from a white pale green to the usual dark green with each scrub.
With food preparation complete we put them into buckets and bring them across the path to where the elephants are housed. A small wooden fence which is open on one side separates us and these magnificent creatures. There are four larger elephants, two which must be teenagers and two babies. They all get excited as we stand by the fence as they reach their trunks over for some food.
Unlike other animal sanctuary experiences we aren’t taught commands which tell the elephant to do a certain movement. Rather the animals do what they want, some refuse to eat the sugar cane, others like to sniff the food before deciding and some just grab it without a second thought.
The baby elephants ignore the fence and run around to get the food, soon the other elephants follow as well. None of the mahouts tell them off for this behavior. Instead they help us feed them while the staff members tell us the individual elephants stories.
We have to peel the bananas for the baby elephants as they don’t have teeth strong enough to break the skin. Another cheeky elephant grabs the bucket and starts dragging the cucumbers across the dirt area. This goes on for an hour, we take photos and enjoy being right next to these beautiful animals until the elephants are no longer interested in the food and decide to move on.
Walking with Elephants
We begin to walk down the road, with the elephants on the right and us on the left. This way they have plenty of room and we are not in danger. We head off the road to a large paddock area surrounded by fallen trees, dry grass from the heat and a rolling landscape. The elephants bathe in the sunlight and start pushing around the trees.
Soon enough the air becomes thick as the elephants start throwing dirt everywhere. All over each other, over themselves and in all directions. Most are loving the dirt bath. Though, one wanders back up the track with his mahout following behind, obviously not in the mood.
Further into the walk we end up in a valley with high hills up on either side. The plants are overgrown and grass is up to my knees off the narrow path. The elephants start spreading themselves out and exploring the area.
A teenage elephant starts walking up the steep hill on one side. With each two steps she makes she slides back down one. We all wonder what could she be doing and what could be at the very top. Though, once she reaches the top she turns around and to our surprise lays down and starts sliding down. I guess everyone enjoys a good slide. We all have a good laugh, because how often do you see an elephant doing that!
After about an hour and a half playing in the dirt with the elephants we decide to walk back towards the village. The mahouts and their elephants lead the way through the dry Chiang Mai landscape.
Bathing The Elephants
Once back in the village we pile into the tray of a pick up truck are driven down towards the river for elephant bathing. With the wind in my hair and hot sun beating down this is the true definition of a good day. One of the girls I meet is a director from Los Angeles. We chill out taking a few photos of each other, as each of us is pretty decent behind the camera. Young Thai boys enjoy the refreshing water as we watch on while they take turns jumping in.
After killing time for twenty minutes the elephants soon emerge from around the corner. The truck arrives with more food for the elephants and they get all excited. We are given brushes and each one jumps into the water to cool down. None of the elephants are forced in and once they are over swimming they walk on out and hang around on the river bank.
The water is about waist deep, though the elephants still manage to fully emerge themselves by lying on their side. I notice that the younger elephants definitely enjoy being in the water more, basically staying in the whole time.
The mahouts have a good time jumping in a covering us all in freezing water. It is a little bit too chilly for me though and I didn’t bring a change of clothes. Therefore I decide to wait with the older elephants on the sidelines.
The swimming is unfortunately cut short as another group of elephants arrive. Though, these ones have tourists riding on top. The staff tell us they are known for being quite aggressive towards our elephants. We quickly pack up and look on in disappointment at the riders. Our group of elephants start walking back towards the sanctuary, away from any possible danger.
Lunch and My Opinion
Back at the village we have a vegetarian lunch of noodles, a curry, vegetables and french fries. I chat with the girls I have met about what they are doing in Thailand and life back home. We bond equally over our love of animals, adventure and food.
Back in the van we all quickly fall asleep after a busy day under the Thai sun. Taking a tour with Elephant Nature Park is one of the best things I did in Chiang Mai. Throughout the time spent with the elephants I did not once see them getting pressured, abused by their mahouts or be overwhelmed by the people around them as groups were kept small. I think The Elephant Nature Park has done an excellent job with their Elephant Freedom Program. Especially by encouraging local Karen tribes to practice ecotourism and educate both the tourists and the local Thai people.
Next time I am in Chiang Mai I will definitely do another tour with Elephant Nature Park. Though, hopefully next time I get to visit their main park.
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