Thailand is synonymous with Asian elephants. They were fearsome battle tanks, logging machines and – more lately – a tourist attraction. From religious temple carvings to Chang beer (“chang” means elephant in Thai) to elephant treks, it is hard to escape them. Despite their prominence in Thai history and culture, life isn’t rosy for the 2,000 wild and 1,500 domesticated elephants that remain in Thailand. Logging is now illegal – great news for the wild elephants but less so for their domestic counterparts who are now out of work and struggling to survive. This is one of several reasons why the Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park came to be.
Many redundant logging elephants have been turned to tourism. Elephant trekking isn’t hard to come by or particularly expensive in South East Asia, and both of us had been tempted to join a tour. The thought of riding out into the jungle atop one of these magnificent animals was an appealing one until we heard about the ominous sounding “crush” process, which all working elephants (whether for logging or tourism) are subjected to in order to make them sufficiently docile and submissive to be safe. Known as the “phajan”, I had heard it was a torturous process and that was enough to put me off. Instead, we opted to spend our money visiting the Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park, which provides a home for elephants in need.
The elephant park was started by a wonderful Thai lady called Lek, who was given her first elephant as a child. Her natural affinity with these wonderful animals grew and she gradually built a sanctuary to provide refuge for elephants being rehomed from working in the tourist and logging trades. Home to some 38 female pachyderms and a few bulls, the elephants now roam free in the park in the mini herds they form upon arrival. Some were rescued, some were orphaned and some have been retired due to old age. What they do have in common is that the heartbreaking back stories are always because of human mistreatment. Several have injuries from stepping on land mines around the Thai/Burmese borders, and one was entirely blinded by her “mahout” (keeper) for refusing to work.
Our trip started early with an 8:30am pick up and an hour drive to the sanctuary, where we got to watch a video introduced by Tom Oliver, aka Lou who we had met (ok ok, waved to) on our Neighbours tour! Craig was very excited. On the way, I was surprised to pass a number of “Elephant Parks”, and to see tourists riding along the road on an elephant. We passed these by and eventually came to a large grassy plain where we saw our first free elephant, walking without chains or a saddle. There was no mahout wielding a pointed stick, no cumbersome seating platform on its back. It looked… peaceful.
After a safety briefing, we headed out to the feeding platform where a few elephants hung around, looking optimistic. It was time for breakfast! The elephants each have their own basket of fruit, tailored to their likes and health requirements.
We stood on the platform, only a metal bar separating us from the elephants. They lumbered over and poked their trunk hopefully towards us. Gingerly at first, and then squealing with delight, we handed them pieces of melon and pumpkin. Elephant trunks, as well as being very strong, are surprisingly dextrous and they were able to take our offerings as if using fingers!
After we’d emptied each basket (some of the elephants like to look inside the basket, in case we have tried to diddle them out of a final slice of melon) it was time to meet them properly. We met a lovely old lady called Jan Peng sporting a jaunty flower in her ear; the hole was apparently created by her mahout back in her working life. She now spends her days walking in the field, accompanied by her new, kind, mahout. Each elephant is assigned a carer on arrival, and their job is to spend all day every day with that elephant getting to know their temperament, quirks and moods. Part big brother, part bodyguard, part zookeeper. It meant we could go right up to some of the elephants – the mahouts could tell in an instant if we needed to back off.
Next was a herd – three ladies and a baby! Elephants are matriachal and very maternal – the orphaned babies who arrive are quickly adopted by adoring “aunties” who live together in a mini herd, sharing the child care.
After lunch we watched a film about the creation of the sanctuary and learned more about the life of Thailand’s elephants. Many are kept as begging tools – there are hundreds living in Bangkok. I thought of the chaotic, humid city I love and its high rises, traffic noise and little side roads. That city was no place for a sensitive elephant. We also learned more about the phajan process, which actually made me cry. My instincts had been right – it amounts to several days of torture and sleep deprivation until the elephant’s spirit is crushed (i.e. the elephant now associates humans with pain and is terrorised into submission). Nice.
Sombrely, we filed out of the screening room reflecting on how people can be so cruel to any animal, but especially one as magnificent as these. No time to dwell though – it was bath time! Happily, nothing lifts the spirits like chucking water over a delighted elephant.
Thoroughly scrubbed up, we all made our way out of the stream. In elephant logic, now is the perfect time for a mud bath (I did try and explain, but no dice…) and within a few minutes all our hard work had been ruined. This was actually one of my favourite parts of the day – most of the elephants were wandering amongst us, and we got to see how full of personality they are. I didn’t realise it was possible for an elephant to sneak up on someone, but Craig nearly jumped out of his skin when one appeared silently at his shoulder!
The elephants are very particular about their mud, and the mahouts have to make them a “fresh” batch every day by pouring water on to the dirt pile before the elephants deign to have a roll in it. Once covered in dirt and mud, they then trotted round after people, who yelped and dived out of the way like you would dodge a particularly mucky dog. Very amusing!
There were even a couple of baby elephants in the mix, who were the naughtiest and cheekiest of all. They would trot after people, and climb up onto logs for extra slices of melon.
After bath time was over, we took a last walk across the plain to meet another two herds. We sat a safe distance away, watching as they grazed, rested and petted each other affectionately.
Unfortunately, the elephants didn’t get the memo about the safe distance, and the crowd scattered as the baby elephant (who I swear was smiling!) trotted towards us and barrelled through where we had been sitting until his frustrated mahout sent him strutting back to the herd.
Our final task for the day was afternoon snacks. Again, we headed back to the platform where eager elephants were waiting and patting their trunks eagerly on the ground, sniffing for their favourite treats.
We left the Chiang Mai elephant refuge exhausted, but really really happy. The day had been busy, well organised and we’d got to get up close and personal with these wonderful animals. From watching them use their giant toes to delicately crush pumpkins to seeing the close friendship that had formed between a blind elephant and her fully-sighted buddy, I had a new appreciation for their sensitivity, intelligence and personality. I was so glad we had spent our money supporting this wonderful place rather than indirectly supporting an industry which starts with such horrific maltreatment. No elephant will undergo the Phajaan in my name.
I’m not sure what the future holds for Thailand’s elephants. The Asian elephant is endangered and numbers less than 30,000; the ending of Thailand’s logging industry is promising for their natural habitat but I don’t see them getting back to the 100,000 or so who roamed the country a century or so ago. I hope there is a culture shift away from elephants as a commodity for entertainment to being creatures to be admired from a respectful distance. Until that day, there will always be a need for the Chiang Mai elephant refuge.
If you want to visit the Chiang Mai elephant nature park
- The park does a number of packages, from day visits to overnight stays. You can choose your package here
- We opted for the single day visit, which was the cheapest option and costs ฿2,500 (£50) per person; a deposit is paid upon booking and the balance in cash on the day
- Visitor numbers are restricted each day, so book ahead. We needed to book about two weeks ahead in February
- You can volunteer at the Elephant Park for longer placements via their weekly volunteer placement. There are also opportunities to work at their associated Dog Rescue Sanctuary, if you are more of a dog person.