Though Chiang Mai is Northern Thailand’s capital and a large city, it’s surrounded by lush jungle and countryside. We’ve been saving our elephant experience for this area because we’d heard such wonderful things about the environment and sanctuaries located here.
Elephants have been used in Thailand for hundreds of years, hauling logs from teak forests. When the nationwide ban on logging was enforced in 1989, thousands of elephants were made redundant and their mahouts looked for alternative ways to generate revenue from their animals. This led to the opening of many elephant attractions offering performances, tricks and rides.
Having read a little bit on elephant welfare in Thailand, we were keen to visit a sanctuary where the emphasis was on interaction with the elephants as opposed to exploitation with circus style side shows and rides with cumbersome carriages.
We were picked up by The Elephant Rescue Park and drove about an hour out of the city to the wonderful countryside. Having had a quick briefing session on how to approach the elephants we got changed into our very unflattering outfits ready to meet the big guys. I thought this looked terribly touristy and unauthentic but there was apparently a valid reason for the poor get up. This sanctuary rescued its elephants from performance shows and the animals still had trust issues with humans so they used red as a safe and friendly colour that the elephants can recognise and feel at ease with.
We headed over the road to a large field where we found two huge female adult elephants and three babies ranging in age from one to three. We had two huge baskets of bananas and were told that this was simply a snack and told not to stop until they were all gone. With the exception of one elephant who needed to be fed directly, all the elephants could take the bananas with their trunks. Considering their towering size and stature, they were agile and gentle in their approach and apart from the odd bit of elephant slobber, they barely made contact with us when taking the bananas.
Once they were full and content we took them for a walk in the jungle which was great. They didn’t seem to mind us one bit and walked by our side at ease. Even the babies were so much bigger than us and you could sense the huge power they possess but it wasn’t intimidating or unnerving. They enjoyed throwing loose dirt onto their backs and satisfying itches with a good rub against a tree.
We could see that within the group they had formed their own friendships and they nurtured each other and waited for one another to catch up before moving on which felt like we were seeing them relatively naturally.
Finally we followed them down to the creek to help them have a bath. We were armed with a stiff brush and bucket each and were instructed to be rough as we like when giving them a good rub. Some of the elephants lay down almost completely submerged in the water apart from a beady eye and trunk protruding out. They seemed to love the scrubbing and we were told that it’s good for them.
The water was a welcome retreat for us as well because it was incredibly hot and sun was fierce in the midday heat. We could have stayed in there for longer. Having never had an encounter with such a wild animal before, it was an incredible experience that hugely lived up to our high expectations.
We could tell that the guides were passionate about the animals. They sang to the elephants and were affectionate and had no need to use sticks or hooks to control them. The elephants were never shackled or chained up which resulted in a natural and laid back atmosphere.
When we tucked into our lovely lunch in a treehouse overlooking the fabulous grounds, the owner was keen to stress that all proceeds go straight back into food, medication and care for the elephants. It was nice to feel as though we may be contributing to elephant conservation without the uncomfortable feeling that we are contributing to the problem.