He’s asleep and, no matter how much we shake him, he won’t get up. It’s early in the morning and it’s a long way home, but like a grumpy teenager, he just wants five more minutes. You can’t blame him; he’s in a relaxing elephant haven. Elephants are one of Thailand’s big draws.In their time they have been employed as anything from beasts of burden to machines of war. Their images abound, from sarongs to handbags to the label on Beer Chang. But since the ban on logging in the mid 1980s, many of the country’s jobbing jumbos have found themselves downsized to the tourist trade.Trekker’s mecca Chiang Mai — Thailand’s second-largest city, located 500 miles (800 km) north of Bangkok, among high mountains — is now surrounded by elephant camps, offering activities, shows and rides. And though the profession of the mahout — the lifelong human trainer, driver and companion assigned to each animal — is still alive, in the cutthroat market of Thai tourism, many of its more noble traditions have been forgotten.
Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, a woman who grew up with an elephant that belonged to her grandfather, was appalled at the less-than-perfect conditions in which the majority of working elephants are kept. In 1996, she decided to offer an alternative, and opened Elephant Nature Park, nestled in a river basin 30 miles (50 km) north of Chiang Mai. It’s a sanctuary first, a tourist center second.
Set amid the wild terrain of the Mae Taman Valley, the Elephant Nature Park offers visitors the chance to get to know these noble beasts close up. No saddles, no chains, no confinement.
A benchmark for Thailand’s embryonic ecotourism industry, the mission of the 100-acre park is to prove to the rest of the tourism industry that it is possible to keep elephants in an ethical manner anduse them to earn money. Each individual at the Elephant Nature Park has been rescued from some kind of ill treatment, and is undergoing rehabilitation.
One was blinded; one lost a tusk to poachers; two were orphaned. Once the animals have healed, they are transferred to nearby Elephant Haven — a 2,000-acre (8 km2)
natural forest managed by the park after a generous donation from an American backer — where they live out their lives in peace. There are currently 25 resident animals in the Elephant Haven herd.
Guest volunteers can stay overnight. Accommodations at the park include comfortable bamboo chalets among the trees and three meals a day. The rooms have beds and mosquito nets, but no fans or air conditioning. Volunteers are required to participate in the running of the camp.
Those interested can apply via the website or with agents in Chiang Mai; there’s a quick vetting process. The best time to visit is during the “cool season,” from October through February, when daytime temperatures still exceed 30° C (86° F). March and April are hot and dry, and it’s tougher to find green leaves for the elephants. After April it’s monsoon season.
Life in the park depends on the season. During the dry period, from November through March, for example, there’s an urgent need to collect fresh fodder, using old machetes. On occasion, guests can join the “Jumbo Express,” helping provide veterinary attention to working elephants kept by remote hill tribes. Everyday routine is based on the animals themselves, so be ready to muck in.
After a help-yourself breakfast of toast with jam, volunteers grab buckets and brushes and walk down to the river that snakes through the camp, where they scrub the elephants. Despite their thick skins, elephants are prone to parasites and other irritating conditions. It’s great fun for the visitors, and from the amount of playful splashing, you can tell the elephants love it, too.
Should you choose, you can then take an elephant for a half-hour walk. But don’t expect to be perched on a seat on the elephant’s back, like at Chiang Mai’s more typical trekking centers. “An elephant’s neck muscles are much stronger — this is where the mahout traditionally sits,” explain camp staff.
“Seats are not good for an elephant’s spine, and they have been known to affect elephant pregnancies.” Though it feels odd for a while, with the animal’s wiry hair pricking against your legs, riding this way is an interface between man and beast. You connect.
At around noon a pickup truck laden with treats — bananas, pineapples and papaya — rolls up and a feeding frenzy begins. Guests are expected to get involved, and it’s another opportunity to bond with elephants up close. It’s a messy time (after a few minutes you’ll be covered in fruit pulp and elephant snot), but a magical one. There is nothing quite like the rubbery but dry touch of an elephant’s skin, or communing with the supple gentleness of the up to 100,000 muscles of an elephant’s trunk.
Perhaps the park’s biggest departure from trekking-industry conventions are these opportunities to get to know the elephants. Each animal has a character, a personality of its own. Sumbun squeaks to attract your hand. The youngsters Hope and Jungle Boy are boisterous and full of fun. Missing his tusk, Bhun Khum is stately and reserved. Simply being in the presence of elephants at large educates the visitor like no circus or even safari ever can.
Every few days the elephants and mahouts begin the leisurely trudge to Elephant Haven. After negotiating a river on foot — the elephants can bear you across if you don’t want to get wet — it’s a steep climb through the rainforest to the top of the hill. If jungle trekking isn’t your cup of tea, take a ride and save your legs.
At the end of the journey, the elephants are released to roam in the jungle. While visitors rest, the elephants crash around until nightfall, stuffing themselves with foliage. Meanwhile, the guide rustles up dinner over an open fire for mahouts and guests alike. This is real Thai cooking, with authentic flavors, spices and ingredients, traditionally prepared.
Visiting Elephant Haven means a night out in the jungle: The beds are hard, there are odd noises in the darkness and one or two creepy-crawlies, but it’s an experience never to be forgotten. When daybreak comes, visitors team up with a mahout and set off to track down the elephants for the journey back to the valley.
If you’ve never seen a sleeping elephant before, now’s your chance. It’s a sight to behold. Not many people have the opportunity to witness an animal’s natural behavior in its native environment at quite the proximity they can here.
The Elephant Nature Park keeps the number of guest volunteers down; there’s only limited accommodation, and crowding is not good for the animals. While at US$ 260 per week it’s hardly expensive, it’s not as cheap as its rivals, either.
But, explains founder Chailert, “When people come here they see that all of the money goes to the elephants themselves.” There are few places in the world where you can get to know animals this close and this personal, and know that you’re doing the right thing.
People come here without expectations, says Lek. When they leave they’ve fallen in love.
If You Go
Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai