At the Elephant Nature Park, near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, you get to scrub an elephant's back, feed it dinner and help out a good cause
We visited an elephant camp while we were staying on the island of Koh Samui, during the second leg of a three-week trip. The elephants were ridden continuously by tourists, such as my husband and I, and we were ushered to a bamboo hut, where we watched them ‘perform’ for us. “Oh look!” an excited 10-year-old shouted, “The baby elephant can play football!” Later that same day, we watched their ‘acrobatic’ moves and admired the paintings they made with their trunks. We left that afternoon feeling not quite as exhilarated as we expected…
After a few days spent soaking up the sun, bathing in crystal-clear waters and tucking into the most delicious Thai food while water lapped at our feet, we headed north to Chiang Mai. We explored the city, let tuk-tuks take us to the gem and silk-making factories and visited breathtaking temples, which glittered ferociously in the sun.
Later that week, I came by a ticket tout selling excursions to a National Elephant Park. “I saw this on The Discovery Channel,” I told my husband as I scoured the leaflet. “Can we go?” I had heard great things about this park, set up in 1990 to protect the endangered elephants of the region. “Apparently the park is into rainforest restoration, too," I piped up. "Best of all, if we purchase a ticket, our money goes towards their work.” My husband was reluctant to pay the £50 per head, since we had already done the ‘elephant thing’, but two days later we were heading north to Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park.
Surrounded by forests, rivers and mountains shrouded in mist, it looked like a scene out of The Jungle Book, but with lots of elephants. As we excitedly unloaded ourselves from the jeep, we saw some calves splashing about in the river, rolling onto their backs while their trunks snaked up and spurted water.
After a short briefing, we were ushered into a room where we made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the stone floor to watch a DVD on the history of the place. It documented some of the battles the founder, Lek, had fought with the Thai government, as a result of exposing some of the country’s cruel practices against their most sacred animal. She received death threats after publicising the park and appearing on international television, and her most prized rescued elephant was poisoned as a result. The whole story was unexpectedly moving and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end of the DVD. Solemnly, we left the room to have lunch before being led to the river, encountering a rather sinister-looking snake along the way. It was at that point that we all lived out our childhood fantasies - bathing elephants in the river…
First, we were each assigned an elephant to wash, then given buckets and brushes with bristles tough enough to get the filthiest of floors clean. With buckets in hand, my husband and I scooped up water, throwing it over our elephant Molly’s back, which she clearly luxuriated in. We scrubbed her tough hide but were gravely warned of the consequences if we got under her feet if she started to get up. Need I say more?
When you’re involved in something that amazing, you don’t even care about the boulder-like elephant faeces floating down the river, which occasionally bounced off my legs. Once the bathing was finished, we watched the calves play a little longer and chase each other through the tall grass. Several times we had to make a run for it. To ‘play’ with a calf would involve being tossed high into the air several times, and maybe trampled on a little, all in the name of good fun, of course!
No one was allowed to ride the elephants. We had already encountered the female elephant with the broken back and the mother who had had several of her babies stillborn as a result of being ridden by tourists. The elephants were all assigned mahouts (the driver and keeper of an elephant). Our encounter with these magnificent creatures was so personal that we felt we knew each one well by the end of the day.
Our final task was to feed the elephants. Watermelon, banana and cucumber. In that order. Elephants are picky eaters you know. If we were to give them the cucumbers first, you could be certain that they’d toss it aside with their trunks. After a delicious dinner served by the on-site volunteers, we left feeling we had come away with more than just value for money. What an educative and eye-opening visit this was for us. One we will never forget.