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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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