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Our Asia specialist, Thea, shares her experience of Chiang Mai's Elephant Nature Park and why a visit to see the gentle giants is a must.

by Thea Gillingham

When planning my trip to Thailand I knew that one of my must do activities was to spend time with the Asian elephants. I was conscious that I wanted to ensure my visit, and my entrance fee, was to a reputable sanctuary who truly care for the animals and support the saddle off initiative. Elephant Nature Park (ENP) was the perfect choice.

Situated in Northern Thailand's Chiang Mai region, roughly 60 km from Chiang Mai's vibrant city centre, ENP offers an option of a half day or full day small group tour as well as longer volunteer programs upon request. Its exceptional Trip Advisor reviews were an indication that it would be a special day but nothing could have prepared me for how magical the experience was.

Save Elephant Foundation and their Founder

Chiang Mai's Elephant Nature Park is the flagship ethical elephant sanctuary for Save Elephant Foundation, a Thai non-profit organisation dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of Thailand’s captive elephant population. The foundation not only aims to protect the Asian Elephants but also to educate and advise the local community about these gentle giants to avoid their continued mistreatment.

Save Elephant Foundation was established in 2010 by founder Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, a remarkable woman who has dedicated her life to the conservation of this species. Through her life she has been awarded numerous accolades including Ford Foundation’s ‘Hero Of The Planet’ (2001), National Geographic’s ‘Hero of Asia’ (2005) and The White House’s ‘Women Heroes of Global Conservation’ (2010) as well as many honorary degrees. Today she continues to be at the forefront of the conservation battle and can often be found at Elephant Nature Park walking alongside her new elephant family.

Read our guide on the ways in which you can make your holiday to Thailand a responsible one.

Day Overview

Elephants kissing in ENP

My day at Elephant Nature Park started with a prompt pick up from my hotel in the centre of Chiang Mai. The travel lasted approximately 1 hour and during the scenic journey we watched a background and safety video so once we arrived we could maximise our time. Once we arrived and after a brief orientation it was time to play with our new friends.

The first activity of the day was breakfast, a mixture of fruit fed to the elephants by holding out and letting them curl their trunk around the item before they throw it in their mouths. It was very entertaining and a fantastic photo opportunity. I was quite nervous at first, as seemed everyone else, but the animals are so gentle taking it from your hands there is nothing to worry about.

After breakfast, when the elephants finally decided they had had enough fruit for the day, we took a wander out into the sanctuary. A short walk and we found two elderly ladies having their mid-morning snack – some leaves. These adopted grandmothers were very gentle and happy for us to stroke whilst they eat. It was the perfect photo opportunity and we all smiled as when looking at their faces we realised they were smiling.

We then walked back to the main camp ready for lunch. We were treated to a buffet lunch of multiple dishes and all very delicious. Water is freely available and for coffees and soft drinks there were small shops available. We had just over 1 hour for lunch, plenty of time to eat, drink and have a small wander around the camp. Adjacent to the main camp is the platform – the perfect viewing point over the sanctuary and the river. I was lucky enough to watch a couple of elephants bathing and playing around. It was so lovely to see them relaxed and happy.

Elephant Nature Park viewing deck

This afternoon it was time to get stuck in and get wet. The elephants know the schedule and they know that afternoon means snack and shower time. After a quick wardrobe change we were all given little buckets and instructed to throw the water over the elephants whilst they ate the food on the bank.

It was a hot day so both elephant and guests were glad to get in the river. Once again, our elephant dictated how long we played in the river and once they were ready they started walking out. We followed at a distance behind and watched her scratch her back on the platform foundation poles.

Thea bathing the elephants in ENP

Elephant Bathing Update: As of 16 April 2018, ENP have decided to allow elephants to bathe themselves with no visitor interaction. This is to give the elephants as much freedom and time to bathe with other elephants in the most natural way. This decision reinforces the sanctuary's ethical values. However, the park's observation platform, overlooking the Taeng river, is a great vantage point to witness the elephants bathing in the river.

Our final couple of hours were spent meeting more of the elephant herds that call this place home. We wandered, watched and waited, taking in every single moment we were so close to these animals. From the baby’s playing around to the adults cooling their coats down with dusts, there were so many magical moments I witnessed.

Thea patting an elephant in ENP

All too soon it was time to say goodbye and start the journey back to Chiang Mai. I may have only been there for one day, but those memories will always stay with me.

Why Visit Chiang Mai's Elephant Nature Park

ENP volunteer sitting with an elephant

There are many elephant parks in the Chiang Mai region. Some, unfortunately still promote elephant riding. There are even some that call themselves sanctuaries but do not help the animals or protect them.

ENP is a genuine place of security for the elephants and where they are happy and free. The work the staff do is for little or no payment, and volunteer work is encouraged. Therefore, all money raised goes towards the running and maintenance costs of the sanctuary.

Not once did I see any member of staff forcing the animals to do anything, instead it felt they were more there for the guest’s security and to ensure that we didn’t get in the elephant’s way. There was a strong feeling that we are at their home and not the other way around.

What you get at ENP is a genuine conservation experience where your money goes to the right people and the right place. It is a magical day out, aided with the enthusiasm the guides have and certainly not a trip you will forget.

Our Thailand travel guide covers vital and useful insights to help you prepare for your holiday.

Alternative Locations

Whilst ENP is the flagship sanctuary, there are many others dotted around Southeast Asia if your trip doesn’t take you to Chiang Mai. Please see a list below.

Kanchanaburi – Elephant Haven

Ban Tha Klang – Surin Project

Siem Reap (Cambodia) – Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia

Myanmar – Save Elephant Foundation Myanmar

If you'd like to visit any of the mentioned elephant sanctuaries in Asia, please call one of our Luxury Travel Specialists on 0203 143 4293 or send an online enquiry.

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