Lek, the founder of Elephant Nature Park stands among three of her rescued elephants
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

I grew up reading classic children’s books like the Jungle Book, which left me with a life long fascinated with elephants and animals in general. On my recent trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I’d heard about a place where elephants were allowed to be elephants and tourists could to get up close and personal with them, and I just had to go!

Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center located an hour outside of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. ENP was established in the early 1990s and since then has rescued dozens more elephants. The park provides a natural environment for not only elephants, but also numerous other animals which have been saved from similar risks, including dogs, cats and buffaloes. ENP not only provide animal care and support, but also education to all volunteers and visitors about the the place of these animals in Thailand society, and the many risks they face from labour intensive industries such as logging and farming, but also from the rise in the use of elephants in the tourism industry.

Elephants and buffalo roam the Elephant Narure Park

Driving to the park we passed a long line of elephants, walking slowly with their heads bowed, in a row, carrying tourists and mahouts on their backs and heads, and I wondered if this was what we were going to be doing. However, once we entered the gates to the ENP, it was like the valley suddenly opened up to this incredibly beautiful place where elephants and other animals roamed free and with completely different body language to the elephants I’d just passed. A baby Elephant with a big elephant that's eating.

The day visit follows a pretty packed itinerary: Each small group is first taken to the main feeding deck where they are versed in the etiquette of elephant feeding and patting, and then allowed to spend time feeding them. After this, your guide takes you out into the park to meet and hear the stories of many of the 34 elephants that live here. Some of these animals have horrific stories and still bear the mental scars from their abuse and are not allowed to interact with tourists, and some have permanent disfigurements from accidents like stepping on land minds. After your first walk around the park grounds, you’re returned to the feeding deck and treated to an amazing buffet lunch spread, which also caters to vegetarians. Then each group goes to the theatre room where two videos are shown explaining the history of the park, and the story of elephants in Thai culture.

I’m not going to lie, some parts of this video were highly upsetting, however, it did make me understand more about these animals and why they need to be protected, so it’s not to be missed! After the video you’re taken to the river to bathe an elephant and after that you get to walk around the park with your guide and meet and greet more elephants, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to have your photo taken with Lek, the founder. And lastly, you get one last chance to feed the elephants before you’re taken back to your accommodation.

A visitor feeds an elephant a watermelon, handing it to its trunk

After my day spent at ENP, I thought back to my first encounter with these animals which, unfortunately, wasn’t so animal friendly. Those tourists I had passed riding on top of these animals on the way to the park, was actually me five years ago. It was my first time to Thailand and I had come on a volunteer trip to help some remote hill tribe villages in northern Thailand, and one of the activities was an elephant ride. At the time, it had never once occurred to me that riding on top of an elephant was not a natural thing to do, and now that I had spent the day with these creatures learning about them and the ways they have suffered, I realized that I had once contributed to the misuse and abuse of these gentle giants and I could only blame my own ignorance for that. Having now spent a whole day with these animals at ENP, interacting with them and learning about them, I feel like I’ve redeemed myself, and now want to encourage anyone reading this to not encourage that cruel practice, and instead visit the Elephant Nature Park where you will contribute to the rescue and rehabilitation of these majestic animals.

I can tell you from experiencing both sides of this that you don’t have to ride an elephant for an hour to get a thrill, because the experience of spending a whole day being close up to them at Elephant Nature Park will give you an even bigger rush!

A close up view of an elephant's wrinkled skin

Looking for more ideas on what to do in Northern Thailand? Read about my experience trekking in the Thailand Highlands of Chiang Rai.

Photography by Jelena Stipanicev.