Charlotte’s mum came to visit us for a week in Bangkok – it was brilliant to see her and gave us a real boost as we were starting to become a bit homesick by that point. Whilst Catherine really enjoyed the madness of Bangkok, elephants have always been a passion of hers and so we headed to Chiang Mai for a couple of nights…
It was such a treat to visit Charlotte and Sarah in Thailand, so when Charlotte suggested we spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai I was ecstatic. We boarded the overnight train from Bangkok’s busy station around 6.00 pm on Sunday evening and arrived in Chiang Mai refreshed and happy around 10.00 am the next day. Before heading for our hotel we paid a visit to the official office of the Elephant Nature Park in the centre of Chaing Mai and booked the last two places for the next day.
We were collected from our hotel at 8.00 am by the tour guide in a very smart mini bus and were introduced to the rest of our group (about 10 of us). The journey was just over an hour’s drive up into the hills and we were given an overview of the Park’s mission – to protect, nurture and rehabilitate rescued elephants in a natural, loving environment.
The Park was founded in 1996 by a local woman named Sanguden Chailert (or Lek to everyone who knows her) and is the only one of its kind in Thailand. ‘Lek’ means ‘small’ in Thai so it’s ironic that she is so akin to these magnificent giants! The elephants under Lek’s care come mainly from private owners and she has had to negotiate fees to enable them to join her herd. Some had outlived their usefulness to loggers, whilst others were no longer of any use to trekking camp owners.
From the moment we arrived at the camp we knew it was a special place. Everywhere, and I mean everywhere, there were elephants – large and small – roaming freely, with their personal mohats not far away. The park itself is really beautiful, set in 25 acres so there is lots of open space for the ellies to wander. It’s surrounded by forested mountains and bordered by a beautiful river where they can bathe and play freely.
Upon arrival we were shown around briefly, before being given refreshments and the itinerary for the day. Naturally, we were informed of the safety procedures and given tips on how to behave in the presence of the elephants. Then we were off to meet and feed them… What fun we had, stroking the ellies and getting up close, whilst feeding them their favourite foods of water melon, peanut butter pâtés, bananas and vegetables. They are amazing animals and anyone who has been up close will know what incredible, beautiful and gentle creatures they are. And we certainly got up close! The day just got better and better. We met each and every elephant at the park, (including the 31 day old baby) and learnt their own individual, unique stories that had brought them here. There are currently 35 elephants under Lek’s care and it’s heart-rending to see the loving bonds the ellies have formed with their carers….most of whom never leave their charge’s side…even sleeping with them.
After this it was our turn to be fed and we were treated to an amazing buffet of vegetarian Asian food, which was delicious. After lunch we were invited down to the river to wash and bathe the elephants – just when I thought it couldn’t get better…it really did. Washing and splashing with the ellies in the cooling river was fantastic. They and us were clearly having great fun!
We were then invited to watch a documentary on the work of the Nature Park and this was most enlightening (and at times distressing!). The work these people do here is utterly amazing and it’s not at all surprising they have won so many recognised awards, including Time Magazine’s “Asian Hero of the Year” in 2005 and the 2006 “Earth Day Award”.
Following afternoon tea and cakes we were allowed to just ‘hang-out’ with the ellies for a while, before a final feeding time and sad farewell. It was hard to pull ourselves away, but it had been an amazing day and we felt so privileged to share a day with these incredible animals at this wonderful natural habitat.
One not to be missed!