We made it out of Bangkok (happy dance)! Seriously though, I’m never going back there.
Our next stop was Chiang Mai, a beautiful little mountainous province in northern Thailand.
We visited this particular region for the sole purpose of visiting Elephant Nature Park (ENP), although we ended up finding a dreamy little city and some temples that completely blew me away (I’ll share in another post!).
After a somewhat terrifying ride through the mountains, because that’s how they roll in Thailand (#driveitlikeyoustoleit), we arrived at this tiny slice of elephant paradise.
ENP is a rehabilitation center and sanctuary for elephants that have been rescued from bad situations: circuses, “ride the elephant” attractions, and the logging industry.
It’s also now my favorite place, ever. In the universe. I hope to go back one day to volunteer!
It’s also a place with a lot of sad stories. The elephants’ mistreatment was obvious — several were blind from eye infections, damage, or prolonged exposure to flashing lights. Many had giant abscesses from repetitive prods with bull hooks, and some had disfigured limbs from breaks or decades of hard labor.
See the abscesses?
This sweet girl worked for nearly 2 decades on this broken leg!
The blind “old lady”:
Our guides said that many of the elephants would never trust a human again — some tolerate only the presence of their mahout (caregiver) that have proven their kindness to them over time. Many of the elephants did let us interact with them though, which was completely freakin’ magical.
And fortunately, despite their difficult former lives, these elephants are now living the dream!
They have staff that care for them 24/7; some of the mahouts will even tend fires all night to keep them warm during the colder periods!
They’re fed watermelon and cucumbers, among other delicious things. They seem to prefer the watermelons.
Volunteers even make the “old ladies” soft rice balls when they’re no longer able to eat the tough fruits and veggies. We got to help make some which we found quite exciting (we could channel our inner 4-year-olds). In case you were wondering, an elephant rice ball consists of: rice, mashed bananas, oatmeal, corn, coconut, and salt (delicious!). Jared actually tried some before he washed his hands. I can’t make this stuff up. He said it was good.
We mashed like we’ve never mashed before.
The final product! Looks delicious, yes?
This elephant was the lucky recipient of our rice balls.
The mahouts bathe the elephants in the river daily to help keep their skin clean. We got to help, which pretty much made my life complete.
Naturally, after we bathed the elephant, Jared decided to jump into the river fully clothed. He was hot.
This hilarious girl was apparently not much of a fan of the greens she was eating, so she just threw them all over herself.
I love them, I love them, I love them…
They love to play:
And they will break your heart into a million pieces.
Our guide told us that there was a family of elephants across the river that were owned as part of an elephant riding business. Recently, they separated a calf from its mother to begin the training process, and it cried for days. (The training process is called “the crush” and begins when they’re just babies — they are taken from their mothers and essentially beaten into submission until they allow people onto their backs. Every elephant that lets you on its back or works in the circus has been through this.) The ENP elephants tried so hard to get to this baby that they had to be put into their stockades so they wouldn’t leave the property. Elephants will try to protect babies regardless of whether or not they’re family.
Elephant riding is still a huge tourist attraction in southeast Asia. It’s advertised everywhere because the government makes money from it; They don’t advertise ENP because it’s a non-profit.
I don’t think most people realize what the elephants have gone through to get to the point of being a “riding elephant” or a circus attraction. And not only do they have to go through hell to get to that point, they have to work really long hours without rest, socialization, proper nutrition, or veterinary care.
Even if you never visit southeast Asia, you can still help by educating others and not funding attractions like the circus. When the money stops coming in, this neglect will end.
Thankfully, there is so much more hope than heartbreak here.
What makes this place even more amazing is that they’re also a rescue for abandoned and neglected domestic pets! There are dogs and cats everywhere. They have comfy beds to lounge on all over the property, they’re spayed and neutered, and they all have proper food and veterinary care. (Some of them are up for adoption too!)
As you can imagine, I never wanted to leave this place.
Pooches aplenty, living the dream:
They showed us around.
And kept a watchful eye on the elephants:
The dogs even joined us for the welcome ceremony where we were all blessed by a shaman. It was completely hilarious because we were in the middle of this meaningful (and very quiet) blessing ceremony, and these two noisy dogs came rolling in:
The cabin we stayed in was insanely beautiful, and the elephants slept right outside our window. Paradise found.
This place was completely unforgettable. I highly recommend it to anyone who ever wants to visit or volunteer!
Please help me help the elephants by sharing their stories (you can follow Elephant Nature Park on Facebook) and educating others about elephant attractions. I will love you forever!
We’re headed to Vietnam today and I’ll post again as soon as I’m able!
Love from Thailand ความรัก