My first thought when I booked my ticket to Thailand was, “I need to see the elephants!” Being up close and personal with these magnificent creatures is an experience that jumps straight to the top of my, and a majority of travelers’, ‘must-do’ list. I researched a few places with the ultimate importance placed on humane and cruelty-free business practices, which also meant no riding them!
Fortunately, there are park owners who work tirelessly to save these abused animals and provide safe training techniques so elephants and tourists can walk together side by side. The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a sanctuary dedicated to saving abused elephants and provides a safe and positive environment for its inhabitants. I visited the Elephant Nature Park and credit it as one of the most influential experiences of my life. Before even meeting any animals, the landscape alone is enough to stop you in your tracks with its brilliantly lush scenery. A jungle of deep green leaves opens onto dirt paths, a flowing river separates the sides of the park, and there are stretches of valleys enclosed by the tropical hill forests and various jungle plants.
I purchased the Pamper a Pachyderm package, but there are numerous packages to pick and choose from, including overnight and week long volunteer stays. The company picks you up at your hostel and transports you to the park located north of Chiang Mai city. Along the way, you’re presented with a short video of the history of the park, and general do’s and don’ts for the day. The shuttle stops at a gas station and you’re able to stock up on snacks for the elephants (they love bread) and snacks for yourself. Once you’ve arrived and gathered with your guides, everyone is given an elephant emblemed water bottle holder (yours to keep!), and a bag full of sugar cane and plantains for the elephants. The group only consists of about 10 people, which lends to more personal interaction with the elephants and guides, as well as comfort in making friends and getting to know the other travelers.
Then the elephants come! At first I had the fear that I was going to get stepped on, or be trampled, so I was keeping some distance between them. But not to worry, because of their gentle and amicable presence, my fear quickly dissipated. While they were eating out of buckets, we were given plenty of time to get our photos taken with them, take selfies, and even get photos kissing their trunks. Then it was time to walk with the six elephants along the dirt path, across the river, and towards the overlook where we’d be having lunch.
Elephants are extremely intelligent creatures and also remind me of little kids. Their trunks are exceptionally dexterous and they will get into everything. Countless times I’d be petting one elephant, only to have the other sneak its trunk under my arm and into my snack bag. Picture being surrounded by a bunch of happy dogs and you’re trying to just feed one of them treats, while the others all know you have treats and want some too. But instead of dogs, they’re elephants who tower over you and who’s trunk is stronger than you’re entire body. Basically, they got whatever treats they went looking for.
Lunch is provided with the package and is more food than you could ever hope to eat. An entirely vegetarian meal authentic to thai culture, the food is displayed across bamboo platters and is arranged for a self-service buffet style. The lunch spot the park chooses is nothing short of breathtaking. Taking place in a covered deck nestled against the hill top, the view spans out over the majority of the park where you can see its pachyderm inhabitants enjoying their leisure time off in the distance, and can trace the river reaching its way through the valley. During lunch, the guides leave the travelers to our own devices so we can eat, share stories, get to know each other, and even enjoy an afternoon siesta.
On our way back, we stop at the river to give the elephants a bath, and ourselves in the process. They love the water and succeed in drenching everyone in the vicinity, which is welcomed to combat the warm climate and the midday sun. Once returning to the park center, we are given some more time to say our goodbye’s to the elephants and explore the pens and other ares of the center. There is also a gift shop so be sure to budget for elephant souvenirs!
Just when we think it’s time to head back to the city, we’re thrown a curveball: do we want to go white water rafting? Um…. yes please! Our guides drive us a ways up the river where sure enough, there are rafts and equipment for us. Now, this isn’t the American River of white water rafting, but more of an enjoyably scenic ride down the river which beyond exceeded my already fulfilled expectations of the day.
I will always remember one defining moment of this trip where I was standing alongside one of the elephants with my hand resting on her cheek, my height barely reaching her shoulder. I felt humbled. This feeling came over me so swiftly, yet so profoundly, and all I could do was stand there and feel this animal’s skin beneath my own. The intense sensation of where I stood in the universe came over me, the kind that comes when you’ve opened your mind to a presence greater than yourself. For me, standing there at that moment was the most humbling experience I’ve ever had, and it brought me a sense of calm. I felt calm because the sheer magnificence of my present moment overpowered any doubts or struggles I was facing in my life. How could I be upset or worried about trivial and material things, when there were places like this that existed in the world?
The Elephant Nature Park is a life-changing experience, and I can’t say enough good things about this place. From their rescue practices to their tourism experiences, and everything in between, this is a place whose genuine dedication to their animals and clients shows in every aspect of their business.
Celeste is the author of The Traveler’s Route, where she shares her experiences, tips, travel tricks, and discount wayfaring around the world.