Interacting with the elephants of Thailand has become one of the country’s top tourist attractions. While hundreds of tour companies rotate their elephants through short treks with bench seating, today many visitors in Thailand opt for more authentic interactions with these gentle giants. Baan Chang Elephant Park and Elephant Nature Park, both situated about an hour outside of Chiang Mai city, are among the organizations offering experiences more rewarding for tourists and better for the animals.
Our family had the opportunity to visit both of these parks and see the way they approach their humane elephant tours. While some similarities exist between the two, Baan Chang and ENP have very different philosophies and styles when it comes to caring for elephants and educating tourists.
Baan Chang Elephant Park
Baan Chang guarantees an incredible amount of interaction with the animals. We fed them, rode them, and bathed them numerous times throughout our two days there. A guide taught us the commands for mounting and riding these massive animals on our first morning, and I was surprised at how quickly we got the hang of it. Perching eight feet off the ground and feeling massive shoulders blades shift underneath my legs went from feeling scary to relaxing almost instantaneously. Elephants move with a slow, steady pace that would put a person to sleep, were it not for the fear of falling off.
It’s a little surprising how quickly one gets used to having elephants around. Feeling a nimble trunk perusing through the pockets of my mahout outfit, searching for a forgotten piece of sugar cane from feeding time, became normal. Watching our children weave around a pack of animals weighing an easy four tons a piece felt like a bizarre maternal moment as well. “Why isn’t this situation completely freaking me out,” I’d casually wonder to myself.
The reason for this strangely nonchalant attitude is the gentle grace of these massive creatures. Domesticated, trained elephants seem remarkably docile and careful with humans. Obviously you still have to be very calm and cautious in their presence, but they somehow create a feeling of security rather than fear.
Unfortunately, this docile nature is the result of a very traumatic and cruel process. Between four and six years of age, every domesticated elephant goes through a training process known as phajaan, or “The Crush”, named for the way it crushes the elephant’s spirit. For days the young animal is trapped inside a tiny box and beaten with sticks and bullhooks around the clock until it becomes totally submissive to its keepers. Tragically, some elephants don’t survive this nightmarish training process.
Despite Baan Chang’s relatively humane philosophy toward its elephants, the remnants of this punitive relationship between humans and pachyderms is evident in the park. While our family admittedly enjoyed our extensive amount of interaction with the elephants, our up close encounters came at a price to the animals. The mahouts carry bullhooks, and we saw some use them regularly. Elephants are regularly chained so tourists can walk freely among them. These social creatures, who instinctively live in herds, remain physically separated from the other elephants since the development of families or rivalries could disrupt the activities planned for visitors. During the bareback riding sessions, an elephant’s mahout walks behind it prepared to give a quick jab of the bullhook should the animal snatch some leaves from a tree or venture a step off the trail. Even the bathing sessions are geared toward the tourists’ enjoyment when the elephants are forced to sit still and allow us to “clean” them instead of rolling and spraying as they please.
The animals Baan Chang Elephant Park purchases from logging companies, trekking tours and circuses certainly have much easier lives than they did during their stressful working years. However, the facility clearly focuses on giving the tourists, not the elephants, the best possible experience.
Elephant Nature Park
Our family’s second elephant adventure in Thailand took us to a true refuge. Everything happening at Elephant Nature Park is focused on the welfare of the animals. Lek Chailert, a small yet spirited Thai woman, founded the park almost 20 years ago with the goal of creating a financially self-sustaining elephant sanctuary.
Some elephants come to the park with serious injuries in need of treatment. Others are malnourished or suffering from gastrointestinal problems as a result of consuming contaminated food and water. Some elderly elephants are rescued simply so they can live out their last years in peace, being fed specially prepared steamed pumpkins and peeled watermelons which can be easily chewed with their few remaining teeth.
The park also rescues other animals in need of saving. When a 2011 flood in Bangkok left thousands of dogs stranded on roof tops, ENP volunteers scoured the city in boats to help these frightened and often starving animals. Over 150 of these dogs were brought back to the park. Dog runs and kennel facilities were constructed to give them a permanent home, and the ENP Dog Rescue Project, which now supports the health and adoption of several hundred dogs, was born. Similarly, a herd of water buffalo saved from the slaughterhouse roams the sanctuary with the elephants, and a “Kat Kingdom” on the ENP grounds, complete with cat toys and comfy chairs for cat naps, offers safe haven for local felines.
While tourist dollars help support the care of the elephants, dogs, cats and buffalo at ENP, the activities of the park focus solely on what’s best for the animals. You won’t ride an elephant, see one performing a trick, or climb on top of one to scrub it as it sits in a pond. The elephants roam freely in the adoptive family groups they’ve created among themselves. Their mahouts, the tour guides and the visitors all follow at a distance, observing the animals and occasionally getting the chance to pet one. We fed them from behind a protective barrier so the elephants wouldn’t have to be chained for the humans’ safety, and we helped rinse off only those elephants unable to easily maneuver in the water on their own due to health problems. We watched young elephants playing together, listened to the adults communicate and saw the affection these animals clearly have for one another.
ENP offers a less hands-on tour to its guests, but it’s actually a much more rewarding and educational experience. Getting the chance to feed an elephant whose leg is shackled to a chain while a bullhook-wielding mahout sits nearby is still pretty thrilling. Yet, it doesn’t even begin to compare with the awe experienced when standing just yards from a family of elephants bathing in a river. Or listening to their symphony of piercing trumpets and thunderous rumbles as they communicate with one another. Or watching them take turns shading the baby elephant of their family while it takes a nap at their feet. As it turns out, less is more when it comes to having an amazing experience with the pachyderms of our planet.
The things we learned about elephants during our time in Thailand echo some of the lessons we’ve learned on this journey. We were so excited to get to ride elephants, but the enjoyment was tainted when it became obvious what the elephants were having to sacrifice in order for us to do it. The same rings true for the luxurious comforts of our lives when we see what so many others have to live without in this world. Whether we’re talking about helping animals or helping people, selfishness ultimately inhibits happiness. By giving up a little for the sake of others, we actually create a better experience for ourselves.