When planning my trip to Thailand there was only one thing I knew for sure; I had to spend a day with elephants. In my mind I was thinking, I would ride an elephant in the jungle on our way to a river where I would give him a nice wash.
While this is entirely possible to do in Chiang Mai, the first stop of my trip, it’s not what I ended up doing. As much fun as it would be to actually ride an elephant, the moment I found out this is actually not good for them and hurts them, I knew I had to find a place where the well-being of the elephants was a priority as opposed to putting on a show for the enjoyment of tourists.
Asking around in tourist information offices and the hostel I was staying in,I was only given 2 brochures of places with the qualities I was looking for. Only 2! out of tons of places that have elephants and claim to treat them well.
So I chose to go to the “Elephant retirement park”, a sanctuary that saves elephants from the tourism industry and those who have been used for labor which is now illegal in Thailand.
The day started at 8.30 am, when they picked me and my friend up at our hostel and made our way to the camp, about 40 minutes away from downtown Chiang Mai. Before getting to see the elephants we were explained a few things about each of the elephants and their stories. For example the female elephant “Linjy”, she is only 2 and half years old and her former owner used to put her in a tiny cage every night in which she had no space to move. They told us we would be able to recognize her as she would always be swaying, a result of how she was mistreated previously.
There is also a newly born baby, the little Nong Chang, she is only 10 months and like all babies all she really wants to do is play. She was the cutest not so little thing, but unfortunately play to her means charging at you and trying to sit on you. So we were advised to run the opposite way if she would come too close to us.
Then it was time to go see, feed and hang out with the elephants :). We got to feed them bananas, TONS of bananas. Some we would put directly in their mouths and some they would grab from us with their trunks. We could touch them and hug them and they just loved to kiss us !
We were explained how the law in Thailand prohibits the buying or selling of elephants, so the park has to actually RENT the elephants in order to save them. Also each elephant in the park has one “mahout” (elephant carer) that looks after it all day. It was really beautiful to see how they could communicate with their elephants without the use of abusive techniques and how much they really love them.
After hanging out with them, it’s time for lunch, which I unfortunately couldn’t enjoy since the previous night I had food poisoning. But everything looked delicious and it was a great time to get to know the rest of the travellers in our group.
Mud bath time came after lunch, which meant changing into the shorts and t-shirts provided by the park and getting into the mud pool (90% mud 10% poop as we were told). The initial feeling of disgust and stickiness in the mud fades quickly as the elephants get into the pool and you get to see them enjoy the mud. Not all of them though, the baby was not happy about it and wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. After all the elephants were muded up (which acts as a natural sunscreen and insect repellent.) the mahouts made it a point to get us all covered in mud from top to bottom. There’s nothing you can do but embrace the mud bath and just chill inside. We were in the mud for a good 45 minutes I would say, after that you jump into the lake to clean up the elephants and yourself.
My time with the elephants was honestly one of the best days ever. Watching them be themselves, no shows or tricks, was the best experience we could’ve had with them. And knowing that I was able to contribute to their well-being, even if in a small way is gratifying.
Why choose to go see an elephant show when you know they are forced to do things?, and instead you can spend a beautiful day taking care of them. I mean yes , those elephant painting sure are beautiful, but do you really think an elephant would willingly want to do that? and the process that goes on behind getting the elephant to paint, as intelligent as they are, can not be in any way natural.
The Elephant Retirement Park along with Elephant Nature park were the ones that were recommended to me, but I chose the first one as it’s a small park that’s in the process of settling into a new camp in order to have a better and bigger space to save more elephants.
Here is why you shouldn’t go see an elephant show or ride them:
- All elephants that are used by humans in some sort of show, trekking tour, circuses and sometimes even zoos undergo a process called “the crush” in order to teach them commands. This is done by confining the young elephant into a small cage, tying his legs so that they can’t move and beaten with bull hooks, and deprived of food and water for many days. Since the elephant is so young at the end of this process his bond with his family is gone.
- To get an elephant to perform the training involves a hook placed on its ear with a string attached to it which can be pulled by the “trainer” to cut the ear. The ears are the most sensitive part of the elephant. There is also the bull hook, which you can easily spot in the trainers hands if you watch a video of an elephant show.
- Riding them actually hurts their spines as they are not made to support the weight of humans. Even worse if a basket is placed on them, and have more than one person riding them. In the elephant trekking tours they are forced to do rides day after day for hours.
For more detailed information on why you shouldn’t be visiting these shows and taking part on elephant trekking you can read this article “No elephant rides: Expert shares responsible wildlife travel tips”. It features an interview with a volunteer at the “Save Elephant Foundation”.
As tourists we are most of the times unaware of what goes on behind the scenes of all the tourist attractions and activities we do. I’m sure that many people who have gone to one of these elephant shows or trekking, if they had the right information they would’ve chosen differently. Which is why as travellers we need to be responsible and seek the right information before taking part in any activities that involve animals.