A Safe Haven for Elephants

Thursday, January 30, 2014

"Don't spend your money to entertain yourselves at the expense of animal suffering."

These words struck me as I listened to Lek Chailert, founder of Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She was one of the speakers for the Asian Women's Empowerment Conference in Kuala Lumpur that I attended in November of last year.

Lek Chailert - Elephant Nature Park
Image from Lek's facebook account
Her very words brought back a memory from 2 years ago. I had been traveling in a small, unknown town in the eastern part of Cambodia: Ban Lung. A friend and I had decided to go to an elephant camp one day and ride the elephants.

For only 25 USD, it seemed like an exciting, novel experience- something I would want to share on the blog.

When we got there, we saw a camp of about 8 elephants. They were herded together and I couldn't help but admire these majestic creatures. They were obviously huge, but they moved with such care and grace as though they were afraid to trample on anything or anyone.

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I got on top of one, a female and her name was Mae Fang. The mahout led us towards a forested area. It was clear that it took a lot of effort to ensure these huge animals went in the direction that the mahout wanted. They had a mind of their own and all they wanted to do was eat.

Sitting there in the afternoon sun, I was not very impressed. We didn't see much and the elephants stopped every 5 minutes. It was my first elephant ride and I was expecting to have them go faster, like horses or camels at least.

When the elephants were obviously taking their time and not following the usual tour route, the mahouts just brought them back to the entrance and ended our tour much sooner than we had hoped. We were definitely not the first visitors of the day and these animals seemed tired, distracted or just plain stubborn.

There was not much else to do but take pictures and move on to the next attraction. At that time, I didn't feel any guilt not even any curiosity to know about how these elephants were treated and what training they had to endure to become objects of tourists' entertainment.

I just thought: Wow! I rode an elephant! So cool!

But Lek showed us all a video that would give us a totally different perspective about that "harmless" experience and the plight of elephants in general.

When I first rode Mae Fang in Cambodia, all I saw were domesticated elephants. It was a fun tourist attraction that you could probably never experience back home. What I was not aware of were the conditions and inhumane treatment that these wild animals endured to allow people to control them.

The reality is that mahouts or elephant trainers use the 'torture training method' to make these wild creatures obedient and tourist friendly. As young elephants, they are torn from their mothers and entrapped in a small confine, then repeatedly abused with bull hooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails. Then they are left without food or water for days or even weeks.

This breaks the animal's spirit, which is the only way it will allow itself to be fully controlled. 

It often takes away its sanity too. This is the only viable training method for elephant handlers and is used in almost every elephant attraction in Thailand.

Lek spoke with such passion, authenticity and just sheer love for these creatures that everyone in the room were moved to tears. It made me realize that when you love something enough, you can allow others to open themselves up to that love too.

Elephant Nature Park 3
Photo Credit: Benoit Ribeiro

And that's exactly what happened after the talk. My partner Ben, a drone pilot, and I couldn't resist approaching Lek and ask her about visiting the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary and rescue center for elephant set in Chiang Mai province, Northern Thailand. It was established in the 1990's and has provided a sanctuary for dozens of distressed elephants from all over Thailand.

What we didn't expect was an invitation by Lek to be her guests. 

We had no definite plans on where to go after Malaysia. So we spontaneously accepted her offer. We finally made it there a month later and were simply blown by what we saw. For starters, this park is huge. It's set in a natural valley, bordered by a river and surrounded by forested mountains. This place is home to about 36 rescued elephants as well as dogs, cats, buffaloes, pigs and many other animals under their care. Volunteers and visitors contribute to the healing while learning more about these creature in their natural environment.

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We arrived quite early in the morning just in time for the first feeding. I stepped into the viewing platform overlooking the vast park and saw one elephant headed our way. And then came another, and a few more. They came in their own accord, with no one leading or forcing them. 

They probably knew the meal schedules by heart. And so they waited patiently for the fruit baskets to arrive while they observed us. And when the food came, it came in large quantities. Baskets filled to the brim with watermelons, squash, bananas, mixed grains.

I was amazed to find out that an adult elephant can eat an astounding 600 lbs of food per day!

After their breakfast, we were given some time to relax and just soak in the serenity of this place. We were welcome to free flowing coffee and tea. Lunch was a sumptuous and buffet of Thai and International dishes. Everything was strictly vegetarian of course.

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Then it was time to join the ellies for a bath on the river. Visitors are allowed to help scrub the gentle giants as they splashed around. I opted for the dry version and stayed on land. To our surprise and delight, right after their bath, the elephants walked into a clearing and started rolling in the mud! At first I thought, they were doing it for fun. They can't seem to resist frolicking in the mud especially the mischievous baby elephant, Nawann. Apparently, mud baths help cool them down and protects their skin from insects.

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We spent the rest of the day walking around just observing and being with the herd. There's no strict schedule here. Everyone is encouraged to make the most of their visit by watching and learning from the elephants.
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Ben was even able to take aerial photos and videos of the property with a drone:

If I were to visit the park a few years ago without knowing the full story of how elephants are treated and trained, I may have left disappointed. What happened to the elephants doing circus tricks, painting or playing football? What about elephant riding into the forest and river? 

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Didn't people come here to be entertained by these playful pachyderms? 

If you came to this place with these expectations, you would surely feel shortchanged. But the Elephant Nature Park was created for a higher purpose: to create a sanctuary where elephants can simply be elephants.

It's a common ground for humans and animals to come and greet each other without fear. 

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It's amazing to know that most of the elephants here have gone through torture, abuse and detention for years, fearing humans who are their masters. But once they are rescued and have undergone medical care and rehabilitation, they act very differently. Their mahouts don't hit them with bull hooks or tie them up in chains. There is no need for violence or control here. 

It's the perfect place to realize how love heals all things.

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How to make this Trip Happen:

- The Elephant Nature Park is located in Chiang Mai Province, Northern Thailand. The nearest Airport is Chiang Mai (CNX).

- A visit to the park takes a whole day starting from 8:00am. You can arrange a pick up from your hotel or guesthouse. The ride to the park takes about an hour one way. You will return to Chiang Mai city around 5:30PM.

- Don't forget to bring: hat, sunscreen, flip flops, change of clothing for river bathing, towel, comfy shoes, camera and insect repellent.

- The park is operational all year round and can accommodate families with infants and even senior citizens.

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- Admission costs 2,500 THB for adults and 1,250 THB for children.

-The park can facilitate small numbers only. This is for safety reasons and to protect their herd. They are not open to walk in guests and all visits to the park must be booked in advance either online or by visiting their office at: 1 Ratmakka Road, Muang district Chiang Mai, Thailand

-Your visit helps support regional projects and offers an invaluable opportunity of helping elephant conservation. Read more on how you can can help.

-Our gratitude goes to Lek Chailert, her husband Darrick, and Ter Udom for arranging our stay at the park. 

Elephant Nature Park 1

Have you ever had an elephant encounter? What was it like? Share your experiences by commenting below!

Enlightened by ellies,
Sole Sister Lois

Lois is the Editor-in-Chief of the female travel blog wearesolesisters.com. When she's not having adventures around the globe, she can be found surfing, surfing someone's couch or giving motivational workshops and retreats.

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3 sole trails

  1. Such a beautiful piece, Lois :)
    Lek's story is such an inspiration for me too and visiting this park is on top of my bucket list now. Hopefully soon....

  2. Thanks so much for that thoughtful comment DebbZie! Yes Lek is such an inspiration and I feel so privileged to have met her in person. I hope you pay her and the elephants a visit too!

  3. Im so glad to have read this post. Im planning on travelling next year and I love elephants so obviously plan on going to one of these camps. Now I know that I can visit here and make my dreams come true without harming the animals.


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