Life changing… Yep, life changing is the word I would use to describe the opportunity to be up close and personal with these massive beauties. Getting to feel each hair on their rough skin, learn about the meaning behind each wrinkle on their trunks, and the ability to look so deep into their big, dark eyes that you can see their entire life’s past is an experience I will never forget. Those eyes showed years of pain and sorrow that they are now free from living life in an elephant sanctuary.
I’m sure we’ve all heard it- the thing that you must do when traveling to Thailand is ride an elephant. As I began researching and creating my perfect Thailand itinerary, it was then that I realized how big elephants are to the tourism industry in Thailand. And big elephants mean big money.
Elephants are cruelly treated to prepare them for the tourism industry, specifically to be ridden. They are whipped, poked, prodded, starved, and literally caged into submission from infancy. This process is called phajaan-the literal breaking of their spirits. After learning about this terrible treatment simply to cater to tourists, there was no way I was going to be a pawn in this industry to further perpetuate this horrendous treatment of elephants.
Well how do I still get to interact with them? After some intense research, I learned about elephant sanctuaries-places that rescue elephants from industries like tourism and logging. The elephants are free to roam, free to play, and free to just be elephants. I quickly decided that going to a sanctuary was the perfect option for me. I selected the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. A true sanctuary whose mission is to rescue elephants and educate the public about them (a lot of “sanctuaries” still mistreat elephants so do your research!).
I started my full day experience at Elephant Nature Park with feeding whole watermelons to the elephants from a platform. This was the first time I had ever been able to get close to an elephant and I thought this would be the highlight of my day-getting close to an elephant from a platform. Boy was I wrong! After feeding the elephants for about 30 minutes and getting a short introduction to safety tips and the park. We began our journey. As we strolled about the complex we were able to see elephants free and enjoying time to roam. We saw babies, not separated from their parents like in the tourism industry, but attached to their moms at their proverbial hip. And the view was amazing. We were about an hour outside of the city and high up in the mountains.
As the day went by, we were able to learn about the harsh world these elephants came from. I had the pleasure of meeting two who made the biggest impact on me. First, a beautiful female elephant who had a hole prodded into her sensitive ear as a training tool to have her submit to humans riding her. The sanctuary put a flower in it to show her beauty and remove that permanent symbol from her body of a terrible past life. I met another elephant whose leg was so badly damaged during the explosion of a landmine while working in the logging industry that it was permanently bent. Permanent scars these elephants now have for the purpose of another’s economic benefit.
Following lunch, more elephants! We literally followed in their footsteps. We got to feed them and bathe them in the river and experience the joy and beauty of these magnificent creatures. This was an experience that I will never forget and a must for any trip to Thailand. I am so happy I chose to go to the Elephant Nature Park!
SAVE THE ELEPHANTS. CHOOSE NOT TO RIDE THEM.