Besides the night markets, beautiful temples, and flavorful Thai food of Chiang Mai, Thailand, don’t miss the opportunity to get up close and personal with the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park.
It was not too long ago that we thought it was acceptable to ride elephants, watch them perform tricks at the circus, steal their ivory for products and carry humans through jungles, often by poking and prodding elephants with sharp metal objects to get them to obey all so we could have a Jungle Book experience. If anyone has watched the documentary For the Love of Elephants on HBO, you will quickly understand that elephants are actually feeling creatures and can be harmed by the mistakes and abuse of humans.
After extensive research contacting travel writer friends and being put in touch with Chiang Mai animals experts who have lived in the northern Thai city, I knew Elephant Nature Park was the best way to spend a day with elephants that would make me feel good about the experience. The Elephant Nature Park is a rescue center, ecotourism park and wildlife sanctuary dedicated to the survival and development of Thai elephants. You can spend the day volunteering and learning about the animals lives, past and present. The park also provides a natural environment for dogs, cats, buffaloes and many other animals under their care.
For around $80 we enjoyed an intimate day with the elephants. In the morning we delighted in watching them come right up to our table to be fed, then we walked out to the elephants to learn about their history and conditions before having our own opportunity to feed, bathe, hug, walk, talk and sing to the rescued elephants while allowing them to enjoy each moment of their freedom. Most elephants we learned were rescued from logging, land mines, abuse, the circus and even traumatic street begging conditions. Observe the elephants feed, scratch, rub and throw dirt, and enjoy taking photos of these majestic creatures.
At one point we watched a whole migration of elephants and other animals pass by us, then crossed a river into the jungle. The dogs on site don’t even seem to be bothered when an elephant walked by. Our elephant expert friend recommended the Pamper a Pacyderm package for a unique elephant experience at Elephant Nature Park with more time involved.
While we were at the Elephant Nature Park on a high perch watching the elephants frolic in a massive makeshift pool, we observed another elephant park nearby that was actually bathing the elephants with soap bubbles and holding them down (not by choice) and pushing them to lie flat in the river water so that everyone could have the chance to throw water on them. It was startling to watch a place so close by practicing entirely different methods to excite or appease the visitors.
What most startled me about Chiang Mai is the highly frequented tourist route of animals being exploited for money. Please be wary. The Monkey Centre made me very upset as I watched so many horrified monkeys chained up on tiny tethers about a foot long. All the monkeys could do was run around in circles while attached to their chained pole. I dreamt of letting them free and cutting their chains, since they all showed so many signs of distress.
What most startled me about Chiang Mai is the highly frequented tourist route of animals being exploited for money. Please be wary.
When we arrived, a trained monkey was performing for a small audience by climbing a tree to bite off a coconut to make the crowd laugh. Since we were there around closing time, it was even more upsetting to witness a monkey in a cage no bigger than about 3 feet by 3 feet being put away for the night. The monkey was jumping nonstop in such chaotic distress and trying to slip his hands out of the heavily wired cage in hopes of escaping. The Monkey Centre signs stated that the monkeys are let off their chains at night. We were there at closing time and never saw this happen, nor was there any area for them to be let out to roam around.
The white tiger park peaked our interest, but we decided not to go after we saw people waiting in lines to take photos with the white tigers in countless cages. The tigers seemed to be lethargic or drugged, although the signs stated they were not drugged. The whole experience bothered me because I felt like they should be in the wild. It was horrific to watch people grab their tails and pose for a picture.
And if animals weren’t enough, it felt even worse to see how the Long Neck Hill Tribe was exhibited and profited from, like zoo animals. We were alarmed to see all of these different tribes put in one area just so people could walk by and take photos in hopes that the tourists would buy some of their wares. It felt too much like Disneyland as people shot photos of their long extended necks with coils and their posing kids in colorful garb nearby.
It was a good day and a bad day in Chiang Mai. Tourism doesn’t always have the best implications. My heart felt sad for all of the animals being used and abused for money, and then I felt good after leaving the Elephant Nature Park where so many creatures are rescued, rehabilitated, and given a chance to be free. Make the right choice. Let them BE.
Have you encountered the right kind of animal tourism while traveling? Where?
Images provided by Melissa Curtin