Everyone who's ever visited Elephant Nature Park (ENP) says that you just have to go there. After hearing this from four trustworthy individuals (two of which happen to be best friends of mine back home, Nathan and Sandy) I was convinced. I thought twice about the cost - $80 is steep for a day trip in Thailand - but it included transportation and an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet. Everyone was right. I just had to go.
ENP is a sanctuary for abused, retired, and elderly elephants. The lady in charge, Lek, has been saving elephants for years and owns a big piece of land where the beasts can roam freely. I deliberately chose to visit a sanctuary rather than your typical ride-the-elephants tour because of how the animals are treated.
Lek believes in educating her ecotourists, not just entertaining them. We watched a video on the van ride from Chiang Mai, and another later in the afternoon. Images of elephants in chains, posing with tourists on the streets of Bangkok, terrified. To make these wild animals tame they must be "broken", which is every bit as brutal as it sounds. I won't get into details here. If you're interested in learning more, one of my former coworkers wrote an excellent 2-part blog post on the matter: How to Break an Elephant (thanks Heather).
Because riding elephants improperly can injure them, rides are not offered at ENP. There are no chains or restraints. Just a big open chunk of land for some big, gentle beasties.
We began by meeting our guide, Cherry. She introduced us to some of the elephants we'd seen in the video and advised us on how to approach them. Mostly common sense stuff like watch your toes and don't touch sensitive areas. Cherry guided us to a feeding area with a big tub of fruit and turned us loose. I approached the gentle giant cautiously at first, holding a quarter of a watermelon in my right hand. I then placed the fruit on the inside of her trunk, gave the outer-trunk a good pet, and watched as she raised the melon to her mouth and devoured it. Awesome.
Elephants eat 300 - 600 pounds of “jungle fodder” every day. Some of the older animals at ENP have trouble consuming rinds, so the sanctuary employs watermelon peelers. It takes a huge staff to run the place, plus the work of volunteers. It didn't take long to see where my money was going. It probably costs at least $80 to feed a single elephant for the day, not to mention operating costs and the expense of acquiring elephants.
My tour group was a diverse bunch. We had some Canadians, another guy from Seattle, a woman and her niece from Chile, and more. At one point Cherry asked our group if anyone knew the Thai word for "elephant". I simultaneously answered "Chang!" with one of the Canadian girls. Our group laughed. Chang's not a good beer. But there are elephants on label, and I'd learned the meaning at a bar in Chiang Mai. You never know when a little beer trivia might come in handy!
Next up: bath time. Elephants like to roll around in the mud to cool off, and its equally important that they have water access to bathe. Cherry led us down to the river, where a few elephants were waiting for us to shower them with buckets of water. We set about our task gleefully, soaking each other in the process.
Next time you're in Thailand, visit Elephant Nature Park. You just have to.