2 Germans, 2 Canadians and a Brit are playing a Vietnamese card game while listening to a German song as we are waiting to wash 4 elephants in the river after cooling them down in a big mud pool.
That’s not the start of a bad joke. That what happened when I spent a day with the elephants at Doi Inthanon Elephant Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I initially planned on going to Elephant Nature Park, a known elephant sanctuary. However, poor foresight on its popularity forced me to look for another place where I can help take care of the elephants. With several Elephant parks available for me to chose, it was difficult to see which ones are ethical. A great deal of research led me to book with Doi Inthanon Elephant Park and I don’t regret a single thing.
Unlike the name implies, it’s not a park but more a Sanctuary. The elephants here are not chained or abused. The mahouts (elephant caretakers) do not use hooks and elephant riding is not allowed. I was thrilled when I heard of this and went ahead and did the full day experience with the elephants.
Our tour guide who introduced himself as Spiderman, was fantastic. He’s a fourth generation mahout who grew up taking care of elephants. He knows the struggle that the elephants go through especially after his family pushed for saving elephants from the logging industry.
Here’s my elephant experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
After the Thai government banned all logging in protected areas in 1989, elephants who were primarily used in the logging industry were now out of work. However, with the effective rise of Thai tourism, they now have a new purpose – to perform tricks and to be ridden, an equally horrific fate. Elephants are only capable of being ridden by the mahouts in short bursts. They are not build to be ridden day in and out. I’ll spare you the details on how they train the elephants for human riding but it involves separating the baby elephants from their mothers in a process called Phajaan – to break spirit. Yikes.
So you see, it was extremely important for me to find an Elephant Sanctuary where the Elephants are treated ethically and with respect. It’s the least I could ask after hearing horrible stories on how they are often mishandled. I was lucky to have found Doi Inthanon Elephant Park, a sanctuary where the Elephants are well taken care of and are free to roam.
Feeding the Elephants
First on the agenda: Feeding the Elephants.
Wasn’t too thrilled that we weren’t given any instructions as I was deathly afraid of getting stepped on or getting bitten. These fears got swept away quickly though as you the elephants approached gracefully. The adult elephant
s were patient during feeding. They are not aggressive and tackle you or charge at you. They wait for the fruits to be placed in their mouths or visible for them to be scooped with their trunks. As much everyone enjoyed feeding the adult elephants, it was the baby elephant that stole the show.
The baby elephant was ADORABLE. Everyone kept showering it with fruits (we couldn’t help ourselves!). Even when we are giving our attention to the adult elephants, we would sneak up behind us and steal fruits from our bag using its trunk! A sight to behold.
While I had initially expected this to be a stroll up a hill, it was disappointing to find out that it was just a short 100m walk to the mud pond. That isn’t to say I was disappointed though. At this point, I was able to talk with the mahouts and learn more about the elephants – how they must eat around 10% of their body weight each day or how they spray dust behind their backs to keep the mosquitoes away. I noticed one elephants trying its hardest to scratch itself and wondered if its a natural occurrence. The mahouts saw me looking and told us that contrary to what we think, elephants have extremely sensitive skin! It’s fascinating to hear all these stories about their daily lives and the struggles that both the mahouts and the elephants experience each day.
After our short lunch break, we were invited to join the elephants in the mud to cool down! While I was a bit hesitant to join them at first, it was hard to not jump in when the elephants are clearly enjoying themselves! It was a struggle to remain upright the entire time but I managed to remain clean neck up. Considering we had ourselves a big mud fight with the elephants and their mahouts, I consider that a big victory. Probably my least favorite activity but was still an experience in itself! Besides, I heard mud makes your skin smooth right?
Bath in the River
Shortly after the mud bath, we were headed to the river to rinse off the mud with the elephants. At this point, it was in the middle of the afternoon that a cool bath is appreciated! It wasn’t just us that needed this shower, the elephants needed it too! The mahouts explained to us that Thai elephants need the mud bath and a dip in water to cool themselves down from the blistering heat. Good to know they aren’t forced to go in the river.
What happens after can be described as a big waterfight, Mahouts and the elephants vs us. Needless to say, we lost. Using the trunks of the elephants, the mahouts sprayed everyone (including themselves!) with water until we were all squeaky clean!
It was initially intimidating to stand beside the largest mammals in the world but moments after meeting them you’ll easily understand that they’re nothing but gentle giants. Spending some time with the elephants and their mahouts is an experience that I would recommend to any backpacker. You’ll get to see first hand just how smart, caring and loving these creatures are. With the dozens of elephants parks throughout Chiang Mai, it’s difficult to see online which parks are ethical. If you’re in the doubt which place you should go to, I’d highly recommend spending the day with Spiderman and the rest of the loving people over at Doi Inthanon Elephant Park.