Our second stop in Thailand was the northern city of Chiang Mai, the second largest city in the country. One of the main reasons for coming was to visit the Elephant Nature Park. We knew that we wanted to see elephants while in Thailand, but our initial research raised concerns about how they are cared for and used in some of the more traditional settings. It is common for tourists to get elephant rides and to see them perform tricks. But this type of elephant entertainment is due to abusive training and treatment. Elephant Nature Park was created to rescue and rehabilitate elephants from these situations as well as logging camps, circuses, and forced breeding.
To get to the park, the four of us were taken with eight other travelers about 90 minutes north of the city, up into the forested mountains. All driving in Thailand is somewhat... eventful, but careening around hairpin mountain turns at top speed in a 12 passenger van was quite an experience. After a brief pit stop on the outskirts of the park, we then rode the rest of the way standing in the back of pickups. This was quite fun, and probably only slightly more dangerous than the van ride.
I didn't know exactly what to expect; I've seen elephants before, but the last time I got close enough to touch one I was about three. I was apparently so unimpressed at that time that my main takeaway was that "elephants stink." Now three decades later I think I have a better sense of appreciation and context to consider the scale, both in size and in intelligence, of these animals. Put simply, we were pretty pumped, and the truck ride only helped to build the excitement.
Time to "Cook"
The first order of business is preparing meal for the elephants. Our guide T set us to work chopping squash, watermelon, and breaking down bunches of bananas. After filling three big tubs of food, we moved to the serving area and the hungry "ladies" showed up for lunch. Mae Pon, Nong Pop, and Kham Pang went through the hundred or so pounds of food in about 15 minutes. We started out by holding a single banana, which the animal would swipe from your hand and toss into its enormous mouth. By the end of feeding time, we were handing over piles all at once; a small banana is like a single jelly bean to these creatures.
The buckets of food we prepared only lasted about 15 minutes, then it was time to move. We walked a couple kilometers with the elephants. It's remarkable how something that weighs 6000 pounds moves so quietly. The animals were very calm, taking their time, being picky about what snacks they wanted (banana > sugar cane), stopping periodically just to rest. The weather was perfect, and the surroundings were stunning.
After reaching the Highland Camp, the elephants took a nap in their enclosure. We humans were presented with a vegetarian buffet and given time to enjoy the lush jungle surroundings. The camp had various vegetable, herb, and fruit trees. We saw several small coffee trees and tasted the ripened berries.
After all the elephants and humans were rested, we walked up to the mud bath. Only one elephant wanted to bathe in the mud. Amy, Katie and Bill all climbed into the mud with her while she enjoyed being fed bananas by the handlers (I took photos and gave moral support). Amazingly, no one slipped and fell, as the mud was pretty treacherous.
After we all rinsed the mud off, we walked with the elephants on a hill overlooking the camp. It was a great opportunity to interact closely with each elephant and to learn about each elephant's personal history from our guide. Most of the stories were heartbreaking, but at least now they are in a place where they are cared for and can enjoy the rest of their lives just being elephants.
After returning to the elephant enclosure, we all went to the swimming pool. It was time to wash off the mud and dirt from the elephants. While swimming provides an opportunity to cool off, it also allows any thick mud to be washed off the animals. Thick mud can dry and irritate the elephants skin, which is actually quite sensitive. Buckets in hand, we all entered the pool with the elephants and had fun splashing them.
The water was pretty cold, but it was easy to get past that obstacle once the handlers started splashing us as well. Those guys are snipers with water buckets.
The last meal we prepared was rice balls. These rice balls were made of rice, corn, tamarind, banana, rice flour, and salt. This mixture contains a lot of vitamins and digestive aids for elephants. It is also used to feed older elephants who may not have all their teeth. All ingredients were mushed in large containers, and then we formed balls with our hands. The elephants were really excited to eat the rice balls, as it is special treat for them. We fed the ladies until all the rice mixture was gone.
After feeding the rice balls, it was time to say goodbye to the elephants as they went off to nap. We all cleaned up and changed to prepare for our return to Chiang Mai. We left the hillside camp as we came, standing in a pickup truck, followed by a van ride back down the hills to take us to Chiang Mai.
We recommend Elephant Nature Park to anyone who comes to Thailand. Meeting these elephants was an outstanding experience, one that brings a lot of context to the things we all know and hear about our impact on the environment, yet somehow manage to mostly forget about in our daily lives. You could say that these lovely ladies gives the whole issue much more weight.