From a young age I remember marveling at the massive creatures at the circus, in videos of them partaking in art, and even elephant riding at the local zoo and fairs. Somewhere along the line I started to stray away from zoos and circus finding them to be cramped, unnatural for so many of the animals, and overall depressing. But those videos of elephants painting and elephant riding and visits in foreign countries? Those didn’t feel so bad- because on the outside it appeared these are those creatures home lands and they looked happy! After all we ride horses in the states. There was a sliver of unease still and coming to SEA confirmed this for me as I saw first hand a glimpse into the reality of these creatures and had the opportunity to become more educated.
I did extensive research. Reading blog posts, talking with other travelers, and sifting through posts on backpacker pages because I knew I did not want to support organizations that did not have these animals best interest put first. I read about many different places- raving reviews- but most of them still had a handful of reviews telling the truth. Chains, sticks, abuse, neglect. One post even revealed a highly esteemed “sanctuary” to be forcing a baby elephant to drink vodka. The only place in Chiang Mai that I found to have consistent reviews of ethical treatment was the Elephant Nature Park.
As high season was just beginning I struggled to find an opening in my time frame having left it last minute. I moved my itinerary and paid extra for a more pricey program to have this experience. I don’t regret it.
The program I went with was Pamper a Pachyderm- Single Day costing 6,000 THB. Yes expensive but there are much cheaper options if you are proactive in booking.
The day began with pick up right from my hostel at 8:00 am. Costs included pick up and drop off, a delicious lunch, admission fees, and guides.
The Truth Unveiled:
On the way to the villages of the Ma Taeng Valley we watched a documentary produced by ENP which showed the reality of elephants in Asia and worldwide. Some of it was common knowledge such as the harms of street begging elephants, the circus, etc.
But what stuck out to me the most was the breaking of the elephants soul through extremely abusive behaviors. When you see that elephant tied up, a mahout holding his stick nearby, the elephant carrying tourists (yes even bare back is bad) what you don’t see is the process of soul breaking it took to force this elephant to partake in such unnatural behaviors. Elephants feel deeply, just like us, they experience trauma. These creatures even cry and sometimes go as far as stepping on their trunks trying to end their misery.
On a more positive note our day entailed heading to a local elephant camp which has recently decided to adopt ENP concept of care with guidance. Four of their lucky female elephants have ditched the trekking seats and their mahouts have put away the hooks.
In a small group of only 6 we had the privilege of observing two of these lovely elephant’s newfound freedom as they walked through the jungle, bathed in the river, ate endless amounts of fruit and vegetation on their own terms.
Next we headed down river- yes this was rafting!, towards the Elephant Nature Park. Here we had a clearer view of the enormity of this park and what they do. The park is home to hundreds of creatures needing refuge- from the elephants, horses, dogs, and cats. Here we had the opportunity to see three herds and even two babies 🙂 After a full packed day we were back at our accommodation by 6:00 PM.