For years now, I’ve loved elephants. I don’t know what it is about them that gets to me. Their size, their intelligence, their stories? These giant beasts have been used by people for hundreds of years for logging, building temples, and, now, tourism. It’s harder and harder to find them in the wild due to the destruction of their environment and poaching. It seems that they are the underdog of the animal kingdom even though they are so big!
So when we were looking at spending our tourist dollars in Thailand to see elephants I felt very strongly that we needed to do it the right way. You may have heard about Elephant Nature Park without realizing it. Maybe you’ve seen the documentary on Animal Planet where the park and it’s founder Lek Chailert were featured. Maybe you’ve seen one of the many viral videos from the park such as this one of Lek singing a baby elephant to sleep. Elephant Nature Park rescues elephants who have had hard times. Maybe they worked as logging elephants or gave people rides for decades. Maybe they are orphaned babies. Maybe they had injuries from land mines or abuse. No matter the story they get to be elephants again at the park.
As visitors to the park, we got to meet the elephants, touch some of them, feed them and give them a bath. We also ate lunch and watched a documentary about elephants. What we didn’t do is ride them. During my research about where to go I learned that for an elephant to accept a rider, they must go through “phajaan” which is a process of breaking the elephant’s spirit for work or tourism. They take elephants at about three years old, and beat and poke them for days or weeks until they submit. It’s horrible. The little elephant, separated from it’s mother for the first time, is confused, terrified and injured in the process.
Now, onto the happy stuff.
Lek has rescued orphaned baby elephants and pioneered a process of showing them love and positive reinforcement to “tame” them and make them safe to be around at the park. Seeing the work she does is truly inspirational and heart-warming. Not only does she have around 30 elephants at the sanctuary but there are also 400 dogs and 150 cats–all sterilized. And oh yeah, she has adopted 14 children too. We couldn’t believe our luck that we actually got to meet her the day we were there! She had just brought in a litter of kittens who were orphaned when their mother was killed by a car.
Spending the day with elephants and seeing them look so happy, doing what elephants do, was a dream come true for me. I had a permanent smile on my face. If you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai you have to visit Elephant Nature Park. In the mean time go to their website and check out all the fun videos about the work they are doing.