I did so much reading & research regarding elephants and the elephant tourism industry, before coming to Thailand. And after gaining a much deeper understanding of some of the horrors surrounding the elephant industry, it was even more important to me, to spend time at a sanctuary or centre that helped and rescued elephants, rather than exploiting them to please tourists.
Riding elephants and performing in shows are totally unnatural behaviours for wild elephants, and in order to train them to do this, many elephants in the tourism industry have experienced a process known as ‘breaking their spirit’. It’s an insanely cruel and horrible ordeal, and extremely upsetting to watch – please, please do not entertain it!
Ridding Thailand of elephant cruelty is a work in progress, and one of the most famous sanctuaries in Thailand is the Elephant Nature Park – a rescue centre for abused, worked and ‘broken spirited’ elephants, to begin new lives doing only what elephants should do – eating, sleeping, playing in mud and living cruelty free lives.
It is still on my bucket list to visit the Nature Park, as unfortunately it was fully booked for the time we were in Chiang Mai. My tour guide in Vietnam (Can, love you long time) and one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life, used to work at the Nature Park, and recommended that we took a trip to the Ran-Tong Rescue Centre, who also save elephants from the cruelty, but on a smaller scale to the Nature Park. So we immediately booked our all day care tickets – 2,500 THB for a full day – and were over the moon.
The park was about an hour’s drive out of central Chiang Mai, and into the mountains. We were picked up from our hostel bright and early, and were spending the day with about 10 others – obviously smaller groups allow for a more personal experience with the elephants!
We picked up a gigantic bunch of bananas, and after changing into the compulsory clothing, we went on to meet the elephants for the first time. There were 5 adults that had all been rescued from performing in shows and had been living at the centre for 5 years. There were also two young babies – 3 months old and 10 months old, who had been born there and never had to endure the life of cruelty.
We then spent the morning feeding bananas to all of the elephants, being wary of the enormous 25 year old, mother elephant, and gentle with the 3 month old baby, making sure to peel bananas and feed her in small chunks. Unbelievably, Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants still and are not a fan of the sun. In comparison, African elephants have smaller heads than Asian elephants and love the sun, and tend to be a lighter shade of grey.
Sugarcane was a real treat for elephants, and after learning how to slice it with a machete, we then fed this to the elephants too! On average, Asian elephants eat around 270kg of food a day… Pretty uncomprehendable.
Lunch consisted of Khao Soi for the second time, the chicken and fried noodle curry, the northern speciality, followed by fresh fruit. One of my favourite things about Thailand, and one of the biggest things I will miss is the fruit. So readily available, super cheap and a million times better than anything you would ever find in the U.K! Breakfast for me usually consists of bananas, pineapple, watermelon and my absolute favourite – mango.
After everyone, people and elephants alike, had a long rest in the afternoon heat, we then made more snacks – consisting of mashed bananas, sticky rice and water, which we moulded into balls and placed straight into the elephant’s mouths. It’s a pretty incredible feeling to have an elephant so close to you and so peaceful, as well as very excited by the snacks.
The most amazing part of the day, was undoubtedly watching the elephants bathe in the river, splashing and interacting with them and watching these 2 tonne giants in a state of total relaxation. The three of them played together joyously, as if they were blissfully unaware of their audience and our eager watching.
The whole day was an unforgettable experience and we left feeling very content that our time and money had been invested into a place where elephants were respected, well cared for and managed by a group of people and volunteers dedicated to ending the abuse of elephants in Thailand.
It was another reason I fell in love with Chiang Mai, and there are still many more to come..