Experiencing Elephant Nature Park

After being in Chiang Mai for over a year, seeing Thai elephants was definitely a long overdue experience. We had been apprehensive about jumping on the elephant tour bandwagon for a number of reasons - the most important being that we are very sceptical about the role of animals in Thailand’s tourism industry. Also, I'm allergic to tour groups, tourists, and toury-touristy type things in general.

Another reason we were so late to go play with the big gentle giants is that personally, I was not all that desperate to see them. Having grown up in South Africa with a family who all had ants in their pants, I was often taken on camping trips out in the bush or on the beach, or rustic cabins out in the forests and mountains. There were times we’d wake up to a zebra casually nudging through all our supplies, or a warthog grunting at the entrance to our tents. My dad always pushed me and my sisters to be explorative and unafraid of the wild (and I suspect he also secretly hoped we’d roughen out all our soft little girly edges). That encouragement led me to numerous encounters with nature and wildlife that impacted me profoundly from a young age.

I remember a time I sat face to face with a hyena, perched on a step while the stinky dog was a few steps below me, curiously sniffing out our leftovers from our dinner hours before. There was another time my over-enthusiastic gran jumped out our car to snap some close-up pics of a rhino, which began pawing the ground, perhaps preparing to charge, while we yelled at her profusely, “Get back in the car! GRAN!” to which she replied, “Just one more snap! That rhino would never charge an old lady like me!”

I have always been proud of my country’s passionate wildlife conservation efforts, and was horrified the first time I actually met somebody who said they hunted for sport. He was a Midwestern American, unfortunately dumb as a piece of plastic, and I fantasized about stalking and executing him for days after our retch-worthy meeting. Many South Africans share this sweet sentiment about hunters and poachers, and those in the know will annoyingly bombard you with endless conservation facts and figures...

Like the one about African elephant populations hovering around 700,000, while Asia only has about 32,000. Or the one about the biggest threat to Asian elephants being a lack of space, not to mention the abuse and hardships that working elephants still suffer from even today. Without getting too deep in the elephant dung-pile, I always knew that by coming to Thailand I would be exposed to issues surrounding wildlife and nature that I’d struggle to understand. And I do, all the time.

This is why my stomach sank when my boyfriend said to me the other day, “That’s it. I've had enough of all these people on Facebook having a big elephant party! Let’s do it!” I had to give in, because it’s a rather reasonable desire to want to see elephants in Thailand, but I had two conditions: I did not want to ride an elephant, and I did not want to see them chained up.

After a search on elephants in tourism, and the state of elephant camps in Thailand (and much outrage and ranting from me) I found the Elephant Nature Park. I was immediately drawn to their statement our aim has always been to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants” because when you search for elephants in Chiang Mai, you will land upon more than a few elephant camps, whose messages don’t seem to be about rescuing or rehabilitating elephants, but more about how you as a tourist can have a good time. Another selling factor was that Elephant Nature Park’s lunch was already vegetarian, which might seem silly to some, but says a lot about their attitude towards all animals. Our day at their park was promptly booked, for 2500 a person (again, a lot cheaper than others).

A picture that sums up the entire park: elephants, dogs, nature, and caring people.

A friendly mahout and his elephant, which he kindly let us stroke.
An ellie and her boisterous baby.
This baby elephant jumped around so much he collapsed in exhaustion.
He then got nudged around with some big trunks, but didn't seem to care!
An elephant rushing off in a hurry to get somewhere important.
Another baby, being fed watermelon (elephants love watermelon).
A sandy baby elephant.

On the way to the park, in a minivan with 8 other excited people, we watched a video about the park made by some travelling filmmakers. Of course, hearing about the plight of some of the elephants made a tear fall out my eye, and once it was over we started spotting some of the very elephant camps we had just learnt about in the video. As we passed elephant after elephant with heavy, awkward saddles on their backs, or hooks fixed into the back of their ears, I started to feel very positive about our choice to visit the Elephant Nature Park instead of one of these camps.

I was not disappointed. As the van pulled into the park, we were greeted by about 300 barking dogs, all rescued and being cared for on the premises. When we walked into the main building for tourists – a large wooden house on stilts – we were greeted by naughty panting dogs having naps under our feet, and plenty of other people milling about all eager to get close to the ellies.

Orientation began, and we were given all the obvious rules, like: Don’t use flash cameras on the elephants (I mean, camera flashes are unpleasant enough for us humans), and don’t startle the animal by walking behind it or making rash movements (it’s never a good idea to go “BOO!” at a 3 ton giant, anyway). On top of that, many of these elephants had been rescued from abusive conditions, which was even more reason to be calm and gentle. On the other hand, some of them were mischievous and playful, which was also not terribly safe, because a swing of their trunk could kill you.

Feeding and Learning:

Erick's first time interacting with an elephant - a magical moment!
Feeding an elephant by putting big hunks of watermelon near the trunk.
A greedy, grinning elephant searching for more food.
Our guide, Ae, was a cheeky Thai woman with a kind heart, who watched over our interactions with the elephants, and made sure no one was acting a fool. She led us around the park for the entire morning, and answered all our insufferable questions (particularly mine). We learnt about the individual elephants’ daily habits, their adopted families and friends, which ones were bullies and which ones were sweethearts, and the back story of each elephant we met. At one point, I even came across the resident cow, who happened to think she was another elephant. I gave her a pat and a stroke, she gave me a nudge and a sniff, and we moved on.

The resident cow who thinks she's an elephant.

*Sniff sniff. Not interested.*
Elephant teeth!
Pretty toenails!


For lunch, we were presented with the mother of all buffets. My boyfriend immediately switched into hyperactive mode, and yelled at me excitedly, “Look! Wing bean salad! And what’s this? AVOCADO.” – gurgling noises followed. We all ate a delicious lunch together, chatted, and then moved onto our second half of the day – bathing the elephants.

Thai food Chiang Mai
This was the salad table, which included naughty nacho chips! 
Wing bean salad Thai food
From left to right: wing bean salad (my favourite!), job's tears salad, pomelo salad, and papaya salad.
Pomelo salad Thai food
Pomelo salad - always an unusual tangy flavour.
Thai buffet Chiang Mai
Fresh, creamy avocado drizzled in sesame seeds, almond slivers and pecans.
Som tam papaya salad Thai
Papaya salad without the fish sauce - yes!
Vegetarian buffet Chiang Mai
These are some of the dishes from the hot food table - here we have some pad pak ruam (stir-fried veggies).
Thai curry vegetarian
A fiery but sweet aubergine curry.
Vegetarian Thai food curry
This delicious curry scared me at first - I had to ask Ae whether the meat-like chunks were really vegetarian.

Green beans - yum - and a sprout, tofu, pumpkin mix which had already been devoured when I got there.
My boyfriend's plate. Don't tell anyone, but he went back for seconds.

Bathing the Ellies:

After spending some more time milling about, feeding and making friends with the big beautiful creatures, we finally got into the river with some of them, and were told to splash them with buckets of water. At first, I questioned whether the elephant would turn around and give me a glare, because being splashed by some pesky little humans didn't seem like the best past time for me. For elephants, it is. They happily carried on munching big hunks of watermelon, while we all took turns getting in the water and drenching them. I swear I heard a purr.

Elephant Thailand
Ae, with the lovely Medo.
Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai
Part of the river that runs through the park.
Elephant Thailand
Flinging mud - classy!
Elephant rehabilitation Thailand
Medo worked in the logging industry until a log fell on her rear leg and injured her. She was then seen as useless by her owners and her injury was never properly treated. Fortunately, she now lives a peaceful life at the park and feels no pain from her old injury. She does have a bit of a funny walk though.

Some elephants trotting towards the river for their daily bath.
Erick and his friend, who munched watermelon while getting splashed.

All in all, I wouldn't recommend the Elephant Nature Park, because I found it very hard to leave the elephants, and naturally I wanted to stay there forever (I actually ended up being that person when the van wanted to leave and I was still daydreaming inside the park). If you want to meet some amazing creatures, learn all about them, feed them, bathe them, but NOT ride them or watch them perform in any way, then you should put Elephant Nature Park at the top of your list.

Personally, I walked away from this experience having gained knowledge and compassion: elephants are sensitive and gentle souls, who are regularly taken advantage of in Thailand and around the globe. I salute those whose lives are devoted to bringing less harm to them, and by doing so, bringing more peace to the world.


  1. Wow...this is my favorite post of yours. I feel like I just relived the entire experience! You have such a warm heart and it shines through in every piece of your writing. Keep doing what you do...you are meant for this.

  2. OMG the baby collapsing is SO CUTE!!!

  3. I loved your story in the beginning. Great post and the elephants are super cool!

  4. We will definitely be going here!! Thanks for the info!

  5. It gives me hope that a place like this exists given such cruelty to animals in the world. I really like the way they look after these elephants, not letting people even ride them. I really like this post, meeting the elephants through your eyes. Thankyou

  6. that elephant tooth was a bit of a shocker

  7. Wow, not only do they take such good care of their elephants: they even provide guests with a stunning lunch. This is a must see place.

  8. Thank you everyone. Yeah, learning about the teeth was fascinating, I had no idea they could look like that! And the lunch was too yummy!

  9. Great photos... and foods look yummy - although I'm never really hungry in the mornings...

  10. I love your captions, sandy baby elephants :) ag so cute. took me away from my office at work and put me there, watermelons bucket baths and all. <3

  11. Thanks Tal, and Claire. You have to go and experience it for yourself though =)

  12. Beautiful interesting post, you have had a unique life Adrian! Your world view is very special. Lovely photographs