Our visit to elephant heaven

Up close and personal

Up close and personal

The Asian elephant is the second largest land mammal on the planet, only surpassed by its African cousin. So what would you do if you were stood in the middle of a huge field with two of these 3 tonne giants walking straight at you? They are not shackled in any way and they are getting closer! Do you turn and run? No, you keep walking towards them, strangely calm and feeling unthreatened. Eventually you are stood next to these two beautiful creatures dwarfed in their majestic presence and all you can do is reach out and give them a stroke and a cuddle. Does this sound ridiculous? Probably, but that is what we did!

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Hugging it out

Hugging it out

We desperately wanted to have an “elephant experience” in Chiang Mai, Thailand and had spent hour upon hour researching the ones available to ensure we found the most ethical facility. What most people do not realise when they decide to spend time visiting an elephant attraction is that although revered in Thailand for many centuries and the symbol of the nation, the elephants are more often than not mistreated when in captivity. Elephants are not built to walk around with a heavy chair strapped on their back with two tourists on top! Pregnant female elephants often have miscarriages as a result of this practice, but you don’t get told this, it’s all just good touristy fun!

 

So here is the history bit – please bear with me, you will be glad you did

 

A century ago over 100,000 elephants called Thailand home. Today there are only 3,000-4,000 and only an estimated 30,000 in the world as a whole. Unlike the elephants in India and Africa, 95% of Thailand’s elephants are domesticated working elephants. These domesticated elephants have no legal protection leaving the vast majority vulnerable to neglect or worse still, abuse by their owners.

 

Elephant sunscreen

Elephant sunscreen

Domesticated elephants were often used for logging, this became illegal in 1989 when the Thai government banned all logging in protected areas due to the destruction of forests and worsening monsoons. This left hundreds of elephants out of work and many were simply abandoned by their owners. However, at this point in time there was also a rapid rise in tourism, which was able to utilise many of these elephants in a different way.

 

Just a small sample of what the elephants will eat every day

Just a small sample of what the elephants will eat every day

This unfortunately is not a story that currently has a happy ending. The horrible brutality that takes place in some of these elephant attractions is not widely known by tourists. To enable a tourist to ride on an elephant it must first be trained and go through the Phajaan or “torture training method” to make it obedient and tourist friendly. This method involves tying or chaining the elephant up in a confined pen that is too small for the animal to move. The elephant is then tortured constantly with beatings, often involving bull hooks, poles with a nail in the end and other sharp instruments. If this were not bad enough they are then left without food or water for days or even weeks.

 

You can see a video of the Phajaan here. It’s very graphic and difficult to watch but Maddie and I are glad we took the time to learn about this practice, if more tourists were aware of what was happening then maybe some widespread change could take place.

 

This process is designed to break the animal’s spirit which it certainly achieves. It has been used in Thailand for centuries to domesticate wild elephants and the torture training method is still accepted as the only viable training method for many elephant handlers. The sad fact is that most elephants you see in tourist centres will have gone through this practice at some point in their lives, even if they are extremely well treated today.

 

Elephant heaven

Elephant heaven

Whilst doing our research we came across the Elephant Nature Park and we are so grateful we did. This 2000 acre sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants is set in a natural valley surrounded by forest and mountains with a river flowing through it. It is known as “elephant heaven” for a reason! The elephants are free to roam within the sanctuary as they wish. There is no violence or force used towards the elephants, only positive reinforcement and copious amounts of fruit!

 

Feeding time - again!

Feeding time – again!

You won’t see people riding elephants here or elephants been forced to do tricks or paint stupid pictures, all you will see are 35 or so free roaming elephants that have all been rescued from a miserable existence. Some are blind in one or even both eyes due to brutal treatment and some have stepped on landmines and have damaged legs, all have their own unique story. But one thing they all have in common is that they are now having the best life possible and forming strong bonds and social groups within this very special place.

 

Mahout in training?

Mahout in training?

The elephants come first and the tourists second. That is the mantra. By doing this the Elephant Nature Park is offering a unique experience that far outweighs anything else available (in our opinion) if you care for the wellbeing of these awesome creatures. You can even volunteer to live on site for a week or longer to help out around the park and interact even more with the elephants. Unfortunately this option was fully booked by the time we came to booking so we made do with the still excellent day trip.

 

Bath time

Bath time

Getting up close and personal and standing toe to toe with an elephant, no barriers or shackles, hand feeding them, bathing them, giving them a scratch and a stroke and even cuddling them! You can’t tell me this isn’t a happier and more fulfilling experience for all parties concerned? It certainly beats a glorified donkey ride for me! In fact I could swear that when we were bathing our elephant it was actually smiling. As well as all of the interaction with the elephants there is also time to watch a couple of educational videos throughout the day making this a superb learning opportunity.

 

Time to get some of that ingrained mud out

Time to get some of that ingrained mud out

This place really is doing fantastic work and is funded purely on donations. If you are in Thailand and want an elephant experience please go to the Elephant Nature Park, it will be one of the best decisions you make and I promise you will have an unforgettable day.

 

That's one happy elephant

That’s one happy elephant

We did not receive any discounts of freebies from the Elephant Nature Park in exchange for this article and all the opinions as always are our own.

 

If you liked this post please click the heart to let us know or perhaps leave a comment

 

 

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Posted on by Paul Posted in Thailand, Thoughts

15 Responses to Our visit to elephant heaven

  1. Julie

    Great photos! I’m trying to go to ENP in December for an overnight trip. So excited!
    Julie recently posted..Places I Would Rather be on Monday Morning: Off to Hogwarts!My Profile

    • Paul

      Thanks Julie. An overnight trip to ENP would be awesome. I hope that you are able to go and am sure you will have an unforgettable time there.

  2. Ron Deaton

    An excellent – and very moving – post Mr Dayton. I know you can handle harvest mice, bats and badgers but I didn’t realize you were a dab hand with the big stuff! Another unforgettable experience.

    • Paul

      Cheers dad I appreciate it and glad you liked it. To be fair I think the only reason you didn’t have me around any of these beasties when I was little was due to the fact they are fairly difficult to come by in Yorkshire! You still managed to get me up close and personal with some pretty awesome other creatures though and not a lot of people can say that their first pet was a rescued baby badger cub!!!

  3. Philip Deaton

    Great post, great article and good links. I was very sad when I saw the youtube video, so thank you for posting it. One thing is for sure, if you see something like this, it HAS to make you think twice about what company you use. But it opens a much wider debate, which I believe is alomst impossible to truly answer. When are wild animals truly dependent to make their own decisions… anyway I will email you about this as it gets a bit deep and depressing 🙂

    Happy days huh!

    Hope Laos is still good and you are ready for ‘Nam

    • Paul

      Cheers Phil. Yes the video is tough to watch, but I think once you have watched it then it really puts things in perspective. The fact that the elephants at The Elephant Nature Park are rescued from an abusive existence and couldn’t survive in the wild due to their injuries such as having stepped on land mines, or being blind in one or both eyes also makes it a very worthwhile venture. Ideally all wild animals would be in the wild, but we both know there is this little problem called “humans” which means this is not possible.

  4. Phil

    Very true. The question I read from one animal rights campaigner, specifically centred on dolphins (after the Philippines trip I wanted to learn more about it), was how/why were the animals really there? An old report said they were captured and starved as a way of training. The park claims they were already in captivity, or injured in fishing nets etc etc. The place you see them will obviously deny this and say they are merely rehabilitating them. But why would rehabilitation mean human contact in unnatural surroundings? Whether it be dolphin shows, or elephant feeding. Human contact will take away any chance of living a ‘normal’ life. The problem is never knowing where the animals were injured or taken from. Also, if they have babies, are they going to be in captivity? It’s surely better in open areas than a zoo though! I guess with the elephants, you would think they couldn’t have made them walk on landmines at least! Having said that, people do pretty messed up things 🙁 It really disappointed me reading the dolphin stuff (although a lot of it was 6 or 7 years ago, so you hope it has improved, but who knows). Also, what we saw at Tiger Temples was an utter disgrace. It has just made me really skeptical about anything like this anymore (especially in Asia) – and what is worse, is that it still doesn’t stop me from wanting to have these experiences, as they are memorable and once in a lifetime!

    Anyway, enough doom and gloom mongering from me! Like I said, great blog, and looks like the best elephant experience I have seen!

    • Paul

      Yes it is certainly a difficult subject but I feel confident that everything is above board at the ENP and they are very transparent about the elephants and their individual history. The fact that the founder has been internationally recognized for her conservation work also adds credence to what they do. The other big issue with the elephants is the destruction of their habitat in Thailand and there is not enough space for them to exist in the wild due to human encroachment and logging. Certainly what we saw at the Tiger Temples with you when we last visited Thailand was an utter disgrace and this only seems to have deteriorated further from what we have heard. I would never set foot in one of those places again as that is exploitation of the worse possible kind. I am in full agreement with you though that nothing beats viewing an animal truly in the wild and in its natural environment, but like you we still are always on the lookout for any animal related experience as the chances of ever coming across many of these creatures in the wild is so remote. We just now research these things more than anything else we do and can thankfully say we have had some really positive experiences on the trip so far. Hopefully if this post stops one person going to a dodgy elephant experience then it has been worthwhile writing 🙂 Thanks for your comments little brother, as always much appreciated.

  5. Kim

    I’m so glad you wrote this post. I love elephants and my heart just cries every time I see them walking down the street (or through the jungle here in Peru) with a human on their back. I have NEVER ridden and elephant and I never will because I refuse to support that kind of brutality. We will definitely visit this wonderful place when we are in Thailand. Thanks for the heads up guys.
    Kim recently posted..About the lightMy Profile

    • Paul

      Thanks Kim. It is a subject that we do feel strongly about and I think one of the big problems is that people are just not aware of what goes on. Hopefully if people read this post it will help to get the word out there and help people make more informed decisions. One thing I am certain of is that Brian and yourself will have a wonderful time when you go to check it out. Also we owe you one for all the recommendations we have taken from you!!! 🙂

  6. Brian

    Thank you for this post. I definitely want to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary, and by the looks of it, you and Maddie took out all the research I would have had to do! I can’t bring myself to watch the video, but knowing that these elephants are humanely treated (after what sounds like often abuse at the hands of humans) truly warms my heart.

    Oh, and I am pretty sure Kim meant Nepal, not Peru. If there are elephants in the Peruvian jungle (Amazonian elephants!), we did not see them.
    Brian recently posted..My Honest to God FearMy Profile

    • Paul

      Cheers Brian. Yes hopefully we may have made your life a little bit easier on this occasion. A word of advice though, if you want to do anything longer than a day visit make sure you book it well in advance as it gets booked up quite a long way into the future as we found out to our cost. Also you can use the time we have saved you in research to do some additional exploration for the Thai Sasquatch, good luck and get me some good photos 🙂

  7. Sarah Somewhere

    Yay! I loved the Elephant nature Park and felt great to support that wonderful organisation. Bathing an Elephant was my dream, rather than riding one, and it was amazing! 🙂
    Sarah Somewhere recently posted..Livin’ the High Life at El TajMy Profile

    • Paul

      It is an awesome experience and scrubbing a semi submerged elephant is something you don’t forget in a hurry as I am sure you will agree! Glad you enjoyed it just as much as we did.

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