Click this link to visit our Elephant Nature Park Photo Album on Flickr.
We love elephants. I can’t remember when we didn’t. There is just something about an animal that on the one hand is so large and powerful at the same time being so loving and kind to its family and community.
On our first visit to Lao, also known as the “Land of a Million Elephants” we enjoyed an overnight stay at the All Lao Travel Elephant Camp near Luang Prabang. We had had a few brief encounters with elephants before but that experience strengthened our love for the animals and for the first time; gave us the opportunity to spend enough time with them and their mahouts to begin to understand a little bit about their place in the world.
The mahouts seemed to have a genuine affection for “their” elephant but even with that affection; we realized the method of getting the elephant to do what the mahout wanted involved kicks, slaps, punches and hooks.
Since that trip we had other experiences with elephants at another camp near Luang Prabang, a camp near Chiang Mai, another on Koh Chang and as spectators at the Surin Elelphant Roundup. We were always careful to try and seek out camps that were described as “ethical” in their treatment of animals but our visit to the Elephant Nature Park forever changed the way we think about elephants.
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation camp founded by Lao native Lek Chailert near Chiang Mai in the 1990’s. Except for the few elephants that have been born there, all the elephants at the Park have suffered differing levels of injury during the course of their working life. Some were injured stepping on landmines; others have legs that were damaged by chains. Still others have suffered back injury from carrying too heavy or improperly bedded loads. And some have both mental and physical injury due to cruel treatment at the hands of their master.
But once they arrive at the Elephant Nature Park, their lives improved immensely. They are fed a regular varied menu of fruits, vegetables and grasses. Those too old to chew those enjoy a diet of soft rice, fruit and vegetable balls handmade by volunteers every day. The elephants are allowed to form their own family groups and to largely roam free across the 250 acre property. They still have mahouts spending their days with them aiding in their interaction with visitors and leading them to the river bank for daily baths and playtime.
And the visitors to the park get to enjoy all the fun.
Our trip began with a pickup from our Chiang Mai hotel and a drive with other visitors about 35 miles from the city to the Mae Taeng District.
There was 1-stop on the way for a bathroom break and to pick up some last minute essentials. Upon arrival at the park visitors get a brief orientation from their camp guide and then get to feed the elephants whole watermelons, pumpkins, bunches of bananas and lots of other fruits. It was interesting to see the different preferences of one animal to the next; some accepting only one fruit until that supply was exhausted while others robustly accepting everything.
I won’t go into all the details of all of our interactions with the elephants but the short version is: We got the chance to walk with our guide among the elephants and learn some personality traits.
There was a break for lunch where we learned the lesson that you get what you want on the first pass as between the hungry volunteers and the hungry visitors, the buffet is soon depleted.
After lunch we spent more time walking with the elephants and eventually followed one family group to the river where we first saw elephants playing and then getting the chance to bath them.
In the late afternoon the day visitors are organized for their ride back to the city while those who chose the 2-day option are led to their private cabins. Our cabin was really very comfortable with 2 mosquito net covered beds, ceiling fans and en suite bathroom.
In addition to elephants the Elephant Nature Park provides a nurturing environment for dogs, cats, buffaloes and many other animals. Visitors are given the chance to join volunteers feeding, walking and pampering the dogs and other animals.
Many of the dogs were abandoned in Bangkok and other cities during floods and the more socialized ones are allowed free range at the camp; often times claiming a bench or table on the clubhouse deck.
At night after dinner visitors can opt for a very reasonably priced massage given by ladies from local villages; many of whom are the wives of the mahouts. As a personal anecdote – I was on a floor mat on my back enjoying a massage with my eyes closed when I realized a light pressure on my chest while at the same time, the masseuse was working on my legs. Opening my eyes left me face to face with a kitty.
The 2nd day was more of the same but with the benefit of waking up to the sounds of elephants and getting out with the elephants before the day visitors arrived.
It was really a great, great 2-day excursion from the city and we wouldn’t hesitate to come back for another visit whenever we get the chance.