Elephant Nature Park is quite well known in the UK, due to being one of the only ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. ENP is located in Chiang Mai, so during our week there to enjoy Loy Krathong it was at the top of our to-do list.
Following my disappointment earlier in the week at the Yee Peng Festival, I was gutted to also discover that Elephant Nature Park was fully booked for the time we were in Thailand. I knew ENP was a truly ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, and only a handful are. Although many parks are catching on that tourists don’t want to see chains or hooks being used, often if you look closely enough, the elephants are still being mistreated.
I read a few Chiang Mai blog posts and Elephant Nature Park reviews, one of which advised to try the Elephant Nature Park office in town if all the tours were sold out online. I took this advice and when we arrived at the head office we were lucky that a few places were available on a few of the ‘Saddle Off’ programs. The staff explained that these projects weren’t at the actual park itself, but located in villages around Chiang Mai. We chose to do the Karen Habitat programme and got picked up the next day for our tour.
All of the elephants in the ‘Saddle Off’ and other external ENP programs used to be worked for various purposes; the park itself is an elephant retirement park in a way as it provides sanctuary and peace for previously worked elephants. In the case of the Karen Habitat, the Karen people have owned their elephants for years and used to allow them to be ridden by a facility nearby in order to make money. Our tour guide told us that the owners became sad by the way their elephants were being treated and wanted an alternative for them, but couldn’t afford for them not to ‘work’. By working in partnership with Elephant Nature Park, the Karen people have now learnt an alternate way of making money that allows their elephants freedom at the same time – showing tourists like ourselves the elephants and allowing us to interact with them by feeding and bathing rather than riding.
On the way to the village we were shown a video explaining the work Elephant Nature Park does. We were also shown some heartbreaking footage of the various ways elephants are broken and abused to get them ready for tourist work. Baby elephants are often taken from their mothers at a young age, causing great distress to them and their mother, and tied up to a wooden structure for around 10 days to break their spirit. Some elephants even attempt suicide during this process, so they must be tightly bound to avoid harming themselves.
Every single trick elephants are made to do, such as painting pictures or standing on their hind legs, conceals hours of pain the animal had to go through to perform it. Please never ride elephants, pay for photos with them whilst they do ‘poses’, or pay money for any shows that use elephants in them. Thankfully, word is now spreading that riding elephants is harmful to these beautiful creatures.
We arrived at the Karen Habitat which is in a remote setting – it took us a bumpy 10 minutes in a Jeep to complete the final part of our journey there. The village is in a valley with a river running through it and has one large hut for hosting and eating. In the hut we changed into traditional clothing that could get muddy or wet! You’re best off wearing a bikini/swimmers underneath your clothes in preparation for this.
Once we had changed, it was time to meet the elephants! There are three elephants at the Karen Habitat – two adult females and a five year old female, one of the older elephant’s daughters. We fed them all a huge amount of bananas and mangos and I got a lot of mango smeared all over my face!
After feeding, we followed the elephants up into the hill area for them to continue eating. This took around an hour in total but could take any length of time as your schedule depends entirely on the elephants, which we loved. We followed the elephants around as they ate and foraged whilst out tour guide explain more about the life of the Karen people and how they came to be involved with ENP.
The elephants were supervised by two young Karen boys who seemed to have a deep connection with the elephants. The boys didn’t tell the elephants where to go other than encouraging them upwards with words and gestures.
Finally at the top of the hill, the elephants were given some more vegetation to eat and we said a temporary goodbye to them whilst we went back down to the big hut to eat. I was delighted that there was a vegetarian buffet available and made the most of it! Whilst we ate, the elephants continued to eat on the hillside and eventually made their way back down to join us.
t was now time for a mud bath – you can get as stuck into the mud and hands-on with the elephants as you like! I chose to watch from the sidelines for this one (mainly to take photos) but most people got waist deep in mud and it did look really fun. The elephants seemed to enjoy themselves and got pretty much fully submerged in the swamp.
The elephants aren’t chained (quite rightfully) so they roam about where they please. This can be a little scary at times as they marched right up to us on occasion and we had to learn to quickly move out of the way!
The Karen boys (in green) also got stuck into the mud, giving their elephants plenty of attention. It was lovely to see their connection.
To clean off, we all walked five minutes away to the nearby river. We all got in to wash and brush the elephants, and ourselves!
Our time at the Saddle Off program had now drawn to an end and we said goodbye to the lovely elephants. Before we left, I bought a silver bracelet from the Karen tribe as a souvenir of our day, and to support the local people.
Although I had originally intended to visit the Elephant Nature Park itself, I’m so glad we chose the Saddle Off program. We were still able to get up close with elephants but in a more natural (and beautiful) environment that meant local people were supported.
I’d encourage anyone considering visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, please research whether the park is truly ethical, and consider the Saddle Off programs. You’ll have a wonderful day that will stay with you forever!
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