I’m not sure how elephants get away with being so damn cute. They’re hairy, wrinkled, fat, covered in mud, and have an alien appendage for a nose. But somehow they managed to work the gentle giant/big ears angle and fall pretty high on the lovable wild animals people want to cuddle with scale.
I also have no defense against this baffling adorability and set out to get some QT with an elephant before leaving Thailand. There are plenty of companies offering tourists close encounters with elephants – ranging from riding them at a show to volunteering at a conservation park. Unfortunately, there is quite a deal of controversy concerning animal abuse at some of these organizations.
We chose the Elephant Nature Park. The elephants don’t perform in any shows and you don’t get to ride on them – which we took as a sign of more humane treatment. A van picked me and my friend Jessica up one rainy morning and we made me our way through the downpour toward the park.
As we drove deeper into the mountains and rainforest, a line of elephants from another company passed our van. Shoulder after elephant shoulder moved just inches from the window. On top of each animal were two tourists holding umbrellas. I had a brief pang of jealousy knowing we wouldn’t get that close during our visit. But that quickly faded once we got to the park and heard stories about the rescued elephants.
There are almost 30 elephants living on the grounds, all rescued after being injured or becoming too old to be profitable. Some were blind from the constant flash of tourists cameras during performances or emotionally scarred from the “breaking” process required to make elephants accept human riders. Others were missing feet from stepping on landmines. These elephants will be cared for by the 300 local Thai employees for the rest of their lives.
As the talk concluded, we all took a few moments to feel like the best people ever for choosing this park over the others.
Our first activity was feeding the elephants. We stood on a platform and handed the elephants a banana or slice of melon. I’m sure the elephants found this exercise preposterous as they could easily eat twenty bananas or an entire melon at once, but good-humoredly accepted each small bite at a time.
Then we got the chance to walk around the park and get to know some of the elephants in the herd. There are five families made up of thirty elephants. While elephants aren’t monogamous, they do have same-gender BFFs. (I think there is some Sex and the City quote appropriate here.) Two elephants will remain friends for life and when one dies, it’s rare for the remaining one to choose a new friend. Our guide said, “it just takes too much effort to get to know someone else.”
After lunch we went down to the river to bathe the elephants. There was a bit of drama when one of the girls, for whatever reason, decided to throw a bucket of water intentionally on Jessica. At first she denied it, but then I realized I’d accidentally caught it on camera. Tour groups behaving badly.
Afterward, we wandered over to see one of the baby elephants – only 6 months old – and then did a final feeding in the afternoon.
If you are in Chiang Mai and want to hang out with elephants, I definitely recommend this experience. You’re able to interact with elephants in a natural way – no tricks or rides – and just appreciate all their bizarre alien-adorableness in a cruelty-free setting.
As a reward for getting to the end of post, enjoy some more pics of the baby elephants!