Though it’s often mentioned by locals that Thailand was âbuilt on the backs’ of elephants, the country’s Asian elephant population has plummeted since the start of the 20th century – from over 100,000 to under 4,000 today. Despite all the religious statues and souvenirs one sees carved in their likeness, many are mistreated and abused physically. Some are exported to other countries, and any animals left free risk stumbling onto uncleared landmines in the northern jungles bordering Myanmar.
If these giants are expected to survive another 100 years, it’s clear that they need help. Luckily, Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park is doing just that.
Upon entrance, I could only imagine Jurassic Park evoking a greater feeling of awe: one group of elephants grazing lazily in the fields, another relaxing near a giant pit. The first thing that really makes an impression is the sheer size of the reserve. Situated near a river in the Mae Taeng Valley, the park spans more than 2,000 acres and houses 35 elephants. Both a conservation center and activist organization, it was established in 1996 to take in and rehabilitate abused and wounded elephants. Since a project of this size is always in need of help, the park is open to volunteers interested in feeding, bathing, and learning about the treatment of captive elephants in Thailand. Day trips and overnight stays up to two weeks are available. They even pick you up from your hotel.
No matter how long you stay, your trip is likely to begin and end with the same event: feeding. Elephants are constantly eating, and nothing quite compares to handing them a bushel of bananas and watching them eat the entirety of it in one chomp, rind and all. Then half a watermelon. And a pineapple. Even after 15 minutes or more of steady feasting, don’t be surprised to see them reach over and try to steal another elephant’s stash once theirs runs dry. Lunch for volunteers followed soon after; while we ate, park supervisors prepared some elephants for the next part of their day: bath time.
Like children, elephants can be fickle creatures. As we learned from experience, all it takes is one poorly timed splash of water to the face to convince them that they don’t really want a bath after all. Once in the river, we were handed buckets and instructed to dump water all over the surprisingly docile animals. Scrub their ears; splash the dirt off their backs. Offshore, a clean elephant offered volunteers wet kisses in exchange for bananas. As for our freshly bathed, fully nourished pachyderm? He thanked us by leaving the river, throwing dirt on his back, and trudging off to roll around in the nearest mud pit. Figures.
While a visit to Elephant Nature Park is certainly exciting, it’s also a time to learn. The process of taming elephants in Thailand has traditionally involved âbreaking their spirits’. Animals are tied up for days at a time, deprived of food, and hit with sharp tools until they follow any and all commands. One of the reserve’s elephants had been stabbed in her eyes and blinded for refusing an order. Another had half her foot blown off by a landmine and needed to soak it in medication for multiple hours every day. And though that is not the fault of any one person, it speaks to the dangerous conditions that free elephants find themselves living in due to deforestation pinning them in areas that still house underground explosives.
Ultimately, the goal of Elephant Nature Park isn’t to remove elephants from tourism or to make us feel guilty about riding one on a tour. It’s to advocate for more humane and ethical treatment. Seeing how happy these elephants looked here, fighting in the mud and bathing in the river, it didn’t seem like too much to ask for. Perhaps it’s true that they may not be able to forget what they’ve been through, but with a little help, they may eventually be able to lumber on.
For more info on the Elephant Nature Park, check out their website at www.elephantnaturepark.org
Photos by Jordan Mammo
Something Extra: Wat’s Happening in Chiang Mai
While you’re in Chiang Mai here are a few famous Wats to check out along with the area’s many historical sites and rich cultural heritage.
Wat Jet Yod
Thai King Tilokarat, currently entombed in Wat Jet Yod, built this temple complex in 1477 to host the Eighth World Buddhist Council. The complex, which is based on an Indian design, is unlike any other in Chiang Mai. The grounds of the temple are tranquil and spacious, shaded by many old trees in case you need to get out from under the hot Thai sun overhead. The most intriguing feature of the temple is the series of 70 beautiful stucco celestial beings that decorate the walls. Though they have been damaged over the centuries, their intricate clothes and jewelry, as well as their smiling faces are an excellent example of Lanna art. The temple is conveniently located close to the city center.
Wat Chedi Luang
An enormous temple built at the end of the 14th century by King Saeng Muang Ma as a final resting place for the ashes of his father, Wat Chedi Luang was enlarged the following century when the height of the main chedi reached 90 meters. It was severely damaged in the great earthquake of 1545, and has only recently been restored. Located in the city center, the pleasant and peaceful grounds are home to several other buildings including the City Pillar (Inthakhin), a Buddhist university and a variety of other Buddha statues. An enormous yang tree has also taken root there. Wat Chedi Luang is also home to many of the city’s most important religious ceremonies. Feel free to wander the grounds and explore the temple on your own, but for those interested in learning more about the history and cultural significance, it is recommended to join a temple tour.
Wat Phra Singh
Famous for its excellent examples of Lanna art, this temple is situated in the heart of the city. It was founded in the 14th century, but most of the structures date from the 19th century, as well as several that were restored over the past 10 years. There are some beautiful murals depicting scenes from everyday life in Lanna from a century ago. There are also several exquisite wood carvings on other buildings and the scripture repository, where you can see holy texts made of bai lan or sa paper, which have been carefully preserved. The senior abbot of the Buddhist order in Chiang Mai resides at Wat Phra Singh. Wat Phra Singh is conveniently located in close walking distance to several guesthouses and hotels.
For more on travel in Chiang Mai go here.