Even though elephants are revered and glorified in the art and folklore of Thailand, in real life they are often abused, mistreated, or made to perform tricks, such as letting tourists ride around on their backs. Thankfully, none of these fates befall the gentle giants that roam the grounds of the Elephant Nature Park, a bona fide pachyderm paradise located about 50 km north of Chiang Mai.
This renowned animal attraction is the brainchild of a Thai woman named Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert. In Thai “lek” means small, but this small woman shoulders some big responsibility. Originally founded in the 1996, Lek’s park has become a loving home to several dozen elephants, almost all of whom have been rescued from either abuse, neglect or, worst of all, downsizing. Traditionally elephants were used in Thailand’s logging industry, but after a logging ban was enacted in 1989, these working elephants became liabilities and were often sold into the tourist trade or just let loose. And while an elephant in the tourist trade may only have to contend with a certain loss of dignity, a fully grown hungry elephant roaming an inhabited countryside quickly becomes a pest to farmers, and is dealt with as such. Of the many elephants taken into the park over the years, one was blinded, one lost a tusk to poachers, one lost a foot to a land mine, and two were orphaned.
The ever-growing reputation of Elephant Nature Park stems from the fact that it offers something unique to visitors—a chance to engage with these noble beasts free from chains, or saddles, or bars on a cage. Visitors are encouraged to hand feed the elephants, to bathe them in the nearby creek, to pat their leathery prickly hides, and to watch them cavort in the mud as they take their afternoon “dirt bath”. It is an unforgettable day trip (priced at B2,500) and the number of repeat guests this park receives testifies to the quality of the experience. It’s also often booked solid weeks in advance so visitors should plan ahead.
Another incentive, that generates much needed revenue, is the park’s volunteer program. This program offers those who want to more fully immerse themselves in this elephant kingdom a chance to stay for two days and one night in the park’s guest quarters (B5,800). Each individual elephant is cared for by a dedicated mahout (Thai elephant handler), who tends feeding, bathing and any ailments, but overnight visitors can get a bit of hands on mahout experience as well.
Of course, this isn’t the only wildlife park in the area offering an elephant experience day trip. There are many competitors, all clamouring for a piece of the valuable tourist dollar. But what you won’t find at Lek’s sanctuary are gimmicks, such as the dubious “elephant rides”. The focus here is on respect, not servitude. After all, most of these animals have been through enough. And despite all their prior rough treatment, these noble beasts are gracious and gentle with the passing parade of trekkers that file through the park gates day after day.
OTHER ELEPHANT ATTRACTIONS:
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Chiang Mai
Baan Chang Elephant Park