Proud Jumbo that I am, elephants were a major reason for visiting northern Thailand. With this in mind, Andrew and I decided that a visit to the elephants would be top of our itinerary as soon as we landed in Chiang Mai, our first stop in Southeast Asia. To make things even more exciting, Andrew and I were thrilled to be joined that day by two of our very good friends, Kim and John, who were visiting from back in the US. John and Kim are the first people to visit us from the states on this trip and we had been looking forward to their visit for weeks. For our elephant adventure, we chose to visit the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center outside of Chiang Mai. Their "Pamper a Pachyderm" day trip was without a doubt the #1 experience I'd been looking forward to on our entire world trip. If you talked to me at all any time in the last six months or so, it's likely that you've heard me mention it a half dozen times. I even had a Google Calendar alert running for several months to regularly check date availability before we made our official booking.
In a small group of about ten people, visitors of this program spend the day feeding, hiking, and bathing a group of four to six elephants. The park calls it "volunteering" but in reality its a paid elephant visit and rafting trip. We had no problem with this as it was clear that the park's business model was based on offering visitors more humane opportunities to interact with and learn about elephants in exchange for financially fueling the park through high ticket fees. Elephants are used heavily in Thailand for both tourism and illegal logging. Both are controversial subjects because of the frequency of animal mistreatment, but the former was the most visible to us as every hostel, restaurant, and massage parlor had a large display table out front offering tourists a multitude of day trip options that included elephant riding and elephant shows. After a bit of research, we found the Elephant Nature Park to be a very reputable organization dedicated not only to rescuing abused elephants from tourist safaris and logging camps, but also rain forest restoration and local cultural preservation. For this reason, Pamper a Pachyderm was another big splurge and ranked our most expensive day-trip to date, but it was also one of our most enjoyable and memorable days on the trip so far.
Putting the Fun in EleFUNt
After our morning van pickup and introductory video about the history of the park, we pulled on tall rubber boots, grabbed a feeding satchel, and headed out to meet the elephants. It's worth noting that elephants are indeed dangerous, wild animals. Our intro video contained careful instructions about how to interact with them safely. Furthermore, the elephants at Pamper a Pachyderm who meet with visitors are all well adjusted to people and there were elephant handlers watching carefully nearby.
The first part of the day involved meeting the elephants and giving them their first feeding. Elephants at the park eat watermelon, pumpkin, and sugarcane but their favorite food is bananas, which they eat with the peel on. After the first feeding, we loaded up our satchels with more bananas and headed for a walk through the jungle.
Next came a lunch break, which was followed with more hiking and then elephant bath time in the river. I think we got as clean as the elephants did!
After bath time, we had a side trip to go river rafting. When we returned, we got to watch two herds taking a dip in the river and then covering themselves in mud, which they do in order to stay cool. It's very entertaining to watch a multi-ton elephant roll around in the mud like a gleeful puppy. We also learned that day that you can tell an elephants age by the depth of the indenture in the side of its skull above it's eyes.
We loved our visit to the Elephant Nature Park, and are proud to support their conservation efforts!
PS: What do you call a selfie with an elephant? An elphie. Thanks Kim.