Well friends, it’s time for another recap of our amazing honeymoon in Thailand, and this time we’re talking about my favorite part of the whole trip: visiting Elephant Nature Park! If you missed my first two honeymoon recaps you can read about our day in Bangkok here and our Chiang Mai hike and wat tours here.
When Fabio and I first started researching where we wanted to go for our honeymoon, we knew we wanted to go somewhere where we could see animals (we are huge animal lovers, if you couldn’t tell that by now). We thought about the Galapagos because of its amazing marine life (I’ve heard the sea lions are incredibly friendly!) and we thought about an African safari (how cool would it be to see lions and giraffes in the wild?). But after reading this review about Elephant Nature Park and hearing lots of other great things about Thailand, our decision was made and we booked our trip!
I did a lot of research before booking any activities for our vacation, and I learned that while riding elephants is an extremely common tourist attraction in Thailand, it’s actually really bad for the elephants. And the crazy thing is that everyone does it! In fact, there are so many tour companies offering elephant rides that most tourists have no idea that it’s not good for the animals. In the U.S. something like this would absolutely be regulated, but every country is not like the U.S., and Thailand relies heavily on its tourism industry so they let this practice continue. Tourists ride the elephants all the time (so don’t feel bad if you’re reading this and you’ve done it!), but more and more elephant sanctuaries are starting to pop up in Thailand to educate people about the right way to interact with elephants.
Elephant Nature Park is one of these places, and they rescue and rehabilitate elephants that have been abused through the tourism industry, kept as pets, or hurt during the nearby Burmese civil war. The park is housed on 250 lush, hilly acres (it looks a lot like Jurassic Park!) and serves as a home to elephants, dogs, cats, water buffalo, and other animals. It’s enormous!
On the morning we were scheduled to visit the park, we were picked up from our Chiang Mai hotel and then rode in a comfortable van for the 60-kilometer (37-mile) drive north to the park. (Warning: If you’re ever getting picked up from a Thailand hotel for an excursion, make sure it’s for the right excursion. We had a language mix-up that could have ended with us driving ATVs around instead of seeing the elephants, which I would not have been happy about. Luckily it worked out fine in the end.)
On the way to the park, we watched a horrifying video showing what trainers do to elephants who are used for things like trekking with tourists and performing in the circus. It was really terrible, and I had to look away at certain times. I understand why they make us watch this video though; it reaffirms our commitment to supporting elephant sanctuaries instead!
When we arrived, we entered a large, open-air building. And we instantly saw elephants!
Our first activity of the day was feeding the elephants some watermelon. Apparently this is just their appetizer, as they eat 10% of their body weight each day. That’s a lot of food! We stood behind some protective bars to feed the elephants since some of them can be unpredictable around food.
I watched a couple of other people from our group feed the elephant, and then it was my turn! The elephant gripped the watermelon in its trunk and then easily transferred it to its mouth.
Then it was Fabio’s turn!
We were both a little hesitant the first time around, but got more comfortable once we got to the second and third pieces of watermelon.
Here you go, big guy!
After the watermelon was gone, the elephant hung around for about 30 seconds to make sure he got all the food, and then he walked away. Clearly he wasn’t hanging around for our company! Ha!
Then we walked over to a hospital area where our guide explained the elephant rehabilitation process. When the owner of Elephant Nature Park hears about an elephant that’s injured, old, or just needs help, he will buy it off of other tour companies or owners.
The elephant then goes into the park’s vet center for all kinds of testing, and if needed they have a hospital where elephants can stay. Our guide told us about two elephants who stepped on land mines after their owners made them climb over the mountains from Burma to escape the civil war there. Those elephants had to be in the hospital for two years because they kept stepping on their injured legs and breaking their plaster casts. Poor things! It’s so nice to know there’s a place like Elephant Nature Park to take care of them.
Once the elephants are deemed healthy, they are matched with a trainer who will take care of them and help them find their herd. Some elephants match up with a herd right away, and others take years to find their new “family.” It has to be a mutual acceptance all around, and it was nice to realize that all of the elephant families we saw throughout our stay were really adoptive ones.
After learning about this process, we walked over to a female elephant with an injured foot. Sadly, her foot will never be able to heal fully and she will have to live in the enclosed vet area for the rest of her life so she doesn’t injure it more. She didn’t seem to mind though, as she was super friendly and got lots of food to herself.
This was the first elephant we got to interact with up close, and I think we were all a little nervous at first. These creatures are just so big!
Our guide reassured us that she was a gentle and friendly elephant, and encouraged us to get really close to her and pet her. Ok then!
Her skin had course prickly hairs all over it, which was surprising to me. She was really sweet and didn’t mind having us there at all!
FYI – those cement cylinders are there so the elephants can scratch up against them, like cats!
After we were done visiting the sweet injured lady, we walked over to another area of the park where an elephant family (remember, they’re not actually related) was enjoying another snack. This time we got to see an adorable baby!!
The family was really cute, and I loved hearing that there was a grandmother, mom, and big sister elephant that all stayed close to the baby. (Meanwhile the dad was way off in the distance…apparently they’re more like dogs and don’t stick around to take care of their offspring.) You can tell which ones are the older ones based on how deep their temples are – cool!
These elephants were also friendly, and we got to get up close to them.
We even got to pet the baby, which might have been the highlight of my whole trip.
Here’s a screenshot of the video Fabio took of the interaction. It was so amazing! The baby was small compared to the other elephants, but was still really big and strong next to me.
At one point when I was walking away from him, he decided he wasn’t quite done with me and reached out his trunk for me. He almost grabbed my leg and I would have gone flying! These creatures are pretty funny and I don’t think this little guy even knew his own strength.
As I mentioned, there were also tons of dogs at Elephant Nature Park–more than 400!–most of which were rescued after the 2004 Thailand tsunami. They get along with the elephants pretty well, and it was cool to see them hanging around together.
There were also lots of water buffalo, which was both cool and scary. I was happy keeping my distance from these guys. 🙂
After we were done petting the elephant family, we walked them down to the river to watch them swim and spray each other with water sucked up through their trunks.
And after they were clean from the river, they rolled around in the mud!
We learned that elephants have sensitive skin, and they use mud as both their sunscreen and insect repellent. Interesting!
After the mud bath it was time for us to eat lunch, and we headed back up to the building to enjoy a delicious vegetarian Thai buffet-style lunch. We got to know the rest of the people in our group much better during this time, and we had a nice time talking to them!
After lunch we spent some time with another elephant family, which had another baby.
Right when Fabio and I squatted down for a photo, the little guy turned around so we got more than just his butt in the picture. What a little ham!
At this point we could see another elephant tour group (a riding kind by the looks of it) making their way down to the nearby public river. As soon as the elephants near us smelled them, they got really nervous and protective. The mom elephant made the baby go with her into their enclosure where they knew they would be safe if anything were to happen. The elephants from the other group were still pretty far away, but it was amazing to see how protective this group got as soon as they smelled them.
Once everything settled down, we said goodbye to this group of elephants and then headed down to another section of the river. It was elephant bathing time!
Each elephant got another basket of fruit (watermelon and bananas this time) and they contentedly ate their snack while we splashed them with buckets of water from the river.
They seemed to really enjoy this, and used their ears as fans to blow cool air on their damp skin.
This was a perfect way for us to wrap up our amazing day with the elephants!
Soon it was time for us to say goodbye to the park, and we climbed back in the van for the drive back to our hotel in Chiang Mai. It was such an incredible experience that I will never forget, and I’m so glad we were able to support such an amazing organization. If you ever go to Chiang Mai, you absolutely have to visit Elephant Nature Park, and please don’t ride any elephants!
Question of the day: Would you enjoy this or be scared?
One guy in our group discovered that he was afraid of elephants (something he didn’t know until he got close to one!) and decided to skip out on most of the activities for the day. Poor guy!