Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai was a Thailand Disappointment

As a forward, I’d like to say that going to Thailand and visiting Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai was something I was really excited to do!  Having read other blogs about the experience I guess I had a preconceived notion that I’d  be helping in the same way as one would volunteering to clean up a park or on a farm.  Being that I was only there for a day, I figured I wouldn’t have that much interaction with the animals.  I didn’t feel comfortable getting too close to the animals as we weren’t directed as to how to approach them (we were told not to touch the trunks – that’s about it).  I’m sure they weren’t altogether thrilled with the number of people coming through, but by the time I went they were used to it.  The tours seem to have changed to include more activities since I went.  I didn’t think I’d be stuck in the covered area for much of the day sitting and waiting to do anything, so I’m glad they seem to have recognized that.  I understand that the main priority of allowing tourists is because the facility needs the tourist dollars to continue their work.  I would have been more helpful and happy just donating to the organization and spending one of my few days in Chiang Mai with H in one of the many parks.

Image result for elephant nature park

Back in March I finished my first teaching contract in Korea and got an extra month’s pay.  I had always dreamed of traveling to Thailand, and a couple of days after moving to Seoul I booked my Seoul – Bangkok round trip flight.  On my second day in Seoul I broke up with my boyfriend, came home, cracked a bottle of merlot, and got on Skyscanner.  My serene summer vacation became 5 flights in 10 days.  I went from Seoul to Bangkok to Phuket to Chiang Mai, back to Bangkok and then back to Seoul.  Is it any wonder I felt burnt-out?  The first activity I booked was Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai.

I’ve had a few friends check out Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai.  They all came out of it with full, happy hearts (and all the instagram-worthy shots over which an animal-lover could gush).  I had wanted to stay overnight at Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai, but seeing as I had so many places to visit in such a short amount of time, I opted for the Single Day Visit.  This is actually longer than their “short park visit” which is just for half a day, I believe.  Both the short park visit and single day visit are THB 2,500 (about $95 CDN).  We departed at 7:40 AM and returned at 5:30 PM.  Feeding the elephants, elephant bathing, and lunch were included as well as pick up and drop-off from my hotel (ibis Styles Chiang Mai).

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai

  • Location

Chiang Mai is in the north of Thailand.  In August it was quite hot as it is year-round.  We got a lovely breeze and there were plenty of opportunities to find shade.  Sadly, I found there were almost too many!  Ibis Style Chiang Mai was the last pick up and first drop off point for our tour.  We took a tour van to the park which was just over an hour away from the city (the site says 60 km).  On the way we were shown a video about the importance of ethical treatment of elephants (and other animals).  We were shown the ways that elephants are beaten into submission for zoos and circuses.  Want to ride an elephant?  Please DON’T!  Their backs can’t handle the pressure and stress of the human body (or the harness/ saddle).  The mahouts for these sorts of tourist attractions often maintain their dominance over the animal by using a sharp nail or hook.

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai serves as a sanctuary for elephants who have been mistreated by humans or who have been injured or abandoned.  The whole design of the park is to educate tourists and preserve the environment while offering homes for these beautiful creatures.

  • Tour

I was picked up in the morning in a van packed with other tourists.  We headed to the park where we dumped our things at a long table and waited for our guide.  Don’t bring valuables – we didn’t have lockers.  The tour started out with us feeding the elephants pieces of watermelon.  There was a barrier between the elephants area and the building for tourists.  We were also required to remain behind a red line with about 5 feet between the barrier and the line.  We were permitted to cross that line only when it was our turn to feed the animal.

Next, we went on a walk to look at a family of females with a baby male elephant.  They weren’t aware the mother was pregnant when they accepted her to the park, and when the male is old enough he will have to be in a large cement-fenced-off area as the males can become quite aggressive.  How sad that even in a sanctuary they have to leave the 3 male elephants in solitary confinement.  We watched them for a while then wandered over to two different elephants we were allowed to approach and pet.  Briefly.  These were short, scheduled photo opps.  I felt bad taking my turn because, as elephants do, each was just happy grazing away.  I felt like they didn’t really want to be disturbed by me.

After that we had lunch.  The massive spread was entirely vegetarian and pretty delicious!   Once lunch (over an hour) was over we had some free time.

They offer massages upstairs, but H and I had discussed getting a couples massage in Chiang Mai so I just kind of sat around and chilled with a couple of the many stray dogs they had running around.  They have a sanctuary for dogs as well, but only let the calm ones into the park area.

In the afternoon we set off on what was supposed to be a “long walk”.  I was so excited!  Finally I would be getting my Thailand workout after a sad Muay Thai class in Phuket.  Nope!  This long walk ended up just being to the river so we could watch the elephants play in the water together.  We had 3 or 4 groups watching, so it was mostly people watching the animals frolic through their camera-phone lens.  Some idiots tourists tried to get into the water with them and one Italian almost got trampled.  I think that was the most exciting part of the day.

After watching them bathe and cool off, we were taken to an area where we had 2 minutes to bathe the elephants.  Wahoo!  A whole 120 seconds of water fun.  Remind me why I had worn a bathing suit?  I think this trip may have been the beginning of my faked insta happiness.

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai

Review

The issue I took with the experience probably stems from the fact that I went alone.  I was in think gorgeous, lush, green, mountainous place in a country I had desired to visit my whole life.  There were couples and a family in my group and I felt like an outcast.  I was able to really observe the routine of the various tours that were operating, and it really seemed old hat.  Our mahout actually worked for the Chiang Mai government and dedicated his vacation days to the park.  He had plenty of interesting stories, but I felt like because there were so many visitors we were constantly standing around far away from the elephants and were rushed through any opportunities for interactions.  I don’t actually feel like I learned anything being at the park.  This was disappointing for various reasons.

The primary reason is because this was the activity for which I was most excited on my trip.  The second, is that H and his gaggle of irritating and obnoxious young, perma-hungover Brits went to a different park and had a blast.  I believe the place they visited was Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (based on the uniforms).  They had the experience of trekking through the the lush, green mountain land with the elephants.  They got to spend a lot more time up close and personal with the pachyderms.  Instead of just getting a 2-minute photo-opp bathing the elephants with a bucket, they were fully submerged playing in the water with ’em.  When I planned on visiting the Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai, I fully expected to be hiking, bathing, and feeding the elephants.  I told my parents I’d be shoveling elephant poop for most of the day.  I was cool with it!  I was paying to volunteer my time there.  I was prepared for a workout!  Unfortunately I felt like I really was just standing around most of the day.

I chose Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai based on their ethical treatment of elephants and the rave reviews of other travel bloggers.  What I got was really just a day of standing around watching elephants from afar.  I had to put my glasses on to see them.  I normally reserve my glasses-wearing time for the ball-park if we have seats in the back row of the bleachers.  You could tell the elephants had really gotten used to the tourists being there.  To them, we were just another hand placing watermelon pieces within trunk-reach.

There was an elephant with a pierced ear and flower ring at Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai.  I think meeting her will haunt me for quite some time.  I don’t think she had found her place with the other elephants on site.  She veered away from her mahout while my group was leaving the “bathing” part of the afternoon.  She walked straight up to me like she wanted to talk. I think this elephant knew that I was alone and was kind of over it.  I don’t think she was quite jaded enough to think of me as just another food source.  Her mahout yelled at me to get out of her way, but when I moved to the side to let her through she just stopped and hung out beside me.  Later on she came by and just stood by me.  I wasn’t anywhere near the food – just waiting for our group to congregate and head back to the van.  They say “an elephant never forgets”.  I think these gentle giants know more than they let on.

CONTACT

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai Office

1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing,

Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Office Hours: 07:00-17:00 Mon-Sun. (GMT+7)

Tel: +66 (0) 53 272855, +66 (0) 53 818932

GPS 18.7849572, 98.9927558

28 Comments Add yours

  1. Samantha says:

    Sorry to hear the experience was a bust. However your photos are really nice! I like the main one for this post! That’s cute about the elephant hanging beside you. She wants to be pals!

  2. JNM says:

    I enjoyed reading about your experience, even though it had some downsides. All part of travelling..live and learn.
    I’m curious. Did you book your tickets a year in advance?

    1. Kate says:

      I booked my ticket 5 months in advance. I think their tours have been developed and changed quite a bit since my visit!

  3. AHHHHH I’m going in 2 weeks (by myself) and this is so disappointing! Like you, I chose ENP for its excellent reputation and because I really want to interact with elephants in a place that protects their well-being, but just as importantly I really want to LEARN so that I can turn around and share the knowledge. Going to try to keep an open mind!

    1. Kate says:

      I think it’s actually changed quite a bit since I went in August. There seem to be many more opportunities for things to do away from the animals that keep the humans occupied!

  4. Hannah Green says:

    Ah what a shame you didn’t enjoy it, this was one of my favourite days in chaing Mai. I’m glad you met the elephants though and can say you’ve had he experience x

  5. Emma says:

    Sorry to hear you had a bad time. I’ve actually done three elephant experiences in Thailand now.
    The first was when a very uneducated and younger me chose to ride an elephant in Koh Phangan – an experience I will never forget mostly because of how sad I felt the whole time I was there. Fortunately, it widely opened my eyes as to how a lot of animals are treated all over the world and has made me a much more conscious traveller because of it.
    I went to this sanctuary on a second trip to Thailand and was much happier. I loved seeing the elephants having lots of freedom to roam and the mahouts and guides spent lots of time educating us on some of the elephants’ histories and how a lot of them are treated in Thailand. However, like you, was still a little saddened that a couple had to be kept sectioned off.
    The third was actually my best experience and if you ever end up in Chiang Mai again I’d highly recommend it. It had only recently opened when we went so we were very fortunate to be part of a tiny group of three people. It’s called Changthai Heritage and is actually just the other side of the river from the Elephant Nature Park.

  6. Natasha says:

    I visited Elephants World in Kanchanaburi, Thailand in May 2015. I have a much more interactive experience with the elephants, but then, some would argue that elephants should not be in close proximity to humans.. it’s just more exploitation, something that the sanctuary is supposed to be rescuing the elephants from. I dunno. Tourism is a large source of revenue for these rescue shelters. I don’t know where the fine line is. It sounds like you had a lovely experience with that empathetic elephant though!^^

    1. Kate says:

      It was a very mysterious afternoon with that one. She really just wandered off from the other elephants and mahout to be near me. One of those moments that pull at your heartstrings!

  7. Nomadic Foot says:

    No doubt people like these kind of animal parks so much and enjoy a lot. But in my opinion animals must be in forest only. let them live their life freely.

  8. Trisa Taro says:

    Hi Kate!

    I found your post through the We Are Travel Girls group. Thank you for sharing your experience and your honest thoughts about it! I’m headed to Thailand soon and have been going back and forth on whether or not to visit one of these elephant sanctuaries. Despite the fact that they are ethically-run havens for these beautiful creatures, I can’t shake the feeling that they’re still a bit touristy – and by default – unintentionally exploitative (in the sense that it’s more for OUR entertainment than their rehabilitation). But at the same time, I’m sure the fee you pay to visit goes back into supporting the sanctuary? In any case, your perspective has helped me think this through a bit more – so thanks again!

    – Trisa

  9. That’s a bummer you didn’t enjoy the Nature Park as much as you thought you would. I loved it when I went, but it sounds like we got to spend a little more time with the animals than you did. I was also with a friend who was absolutely over the moon about the whole thing, so her enthusiasm might’ve rubbed off a bit.

    That said, the Elephant Jungle Park sounds like it makes for a much more enjoyable experience! I would’ve loved to play in the water with them more, and I’m always up for a hike. Thanks for the honest review and the chance to reminisce!

  10. That’s a bummer you didn’t enjoy the Nature Park as much as you thought you would. I loved it when I went, but it sounds like we got to spend a little more time with the animals than you did. I was also with a friend who was absolutely over the moon about the whole thing, so her enthusiasm might’ve rubbed off a bit.

    That said, the Elephant Jungle Park sounds like it makes for a much more enjoyable experience! I would’ve loved to play in the water with them more, and I’m always up for a hike. Thanks for the honest review and the chance to reminisce

  11. Mark Scrooby says:

    Thanks for the honest review. Group tours/mass tourist attractions are so often a let down. We were so sad to see elephants next to the road when we were in Thailand, chained up just for photos. We ended up buying some food to feed the baby thinking that at least it is getting something to eat. Glad that there is something dedicated to helping out these animals who’ve been mistreated and abused.

  12. Rosie Benton says:

    It’s a shame the elephant park didn’t live up to your expectations – I think sometimes the best experiences turn out to be things you aren’t really looking forward to! Will keep your post in mind when we head to Thailand, I was hoping to do something similar but now not so sure.

  13. I’m still never sure about these places- it can be difficult to know which ones are ethical and which ones aren’t. Although, they’re doing a great job by taking the elephants away from the tourist shows, it seems like they are going back into a similar life. Like I said, I’m never sure how to feel and it’s difficult to know if you’re doing the right thing. I’m sorry you never enjoyed the experience like you thought you would!

  14. Honestly, I really enjoyed reading your post. Chiang Mai is quite popular and I can relate to your disappointment. Personally, I am also against taking elephant rides. Even in India, while people enjoy taking elephant safaris in the wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, these animals profusely go through stress and pressure and dominated by mahouts. I am also inspired by you how you completed your teaching contract in Korea and then headed off to Chiang Mai to travel and work as a volunteer. Kudos! 🙂

  15. We did not go to this place when we were in Thailand, a couple of years ago. It must have been a disappointment to see the elephants from far. But if they are being taken good care of and not being abused, it is indeed a consolation.

  16. Rocio Cadena says:

    What a shame you didn’t enjoy your visit to the Elephant Park, especially since it was something you were really looking forward to :/ I’ve always had in interest in visiting one too but I’ve heard such mixed reviews. I think i fI do end up deciding to go to one, I need to do a tone of research beforehand, but even then, it’s not a guarantee. Do you think you’d be willing to visit another park similar to this one?

  17. Wendy says:

    I went to a different elephant park just outside of Bangkok but watched from a distance only. i was too afraid, i guess. i had a photo with 2 but that was the most that i had. we had the chance to pet them but i didn’t go nearer (i know, not adventurous soul here). i’m glad though that i didn’t do the back ride thing. now that i got to read about these elephants, i feel bad whenever i see tourists happily sitting on the back of the elephants.

  18. Bonita says:

    I would share the same sentiments exactly. Sorry about your experience. In my honest opinion, zoo-ing elephants and or wild animals breaks my heart. (Well unless it is an orphanage and they will later be intergrated into the wild) Nice eye opening post.

  19. Izzy says:

    Sooooo when I was in Thailand back in August of 2015, the pamphlet of Elephant Nature Park really spoke to me so I was excited to book the opportunity for nine friends traveling who had never been but they ended up being fully booked and I had to resort to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Judging from this post and from their photos, it seems like it was a serendipitous turn of events. Sorry to hear you didn’t have a great time, hopefully the experience can be redeemed one day!

  20. Nina says:

    I’m sorry your Elephant park experience wasn’t all you had thought it would be. It sucks when that happens. Still, it’s neat that you got to try it out.

  21. Hallie says:

    It’s too bad it wasn’t the experience you expected. At least you know your money is going to a good group that is caring for the elephants, right? If you’d ridden on them, I’d have other comments to leave. But I know you know better than that. Maybe it’s just a good reason to go back and try another reserve and compare them.

  22. Wow you have so many incredible pictures! The Chiang May Elephant Nature Park looks unreal. I visited one in Sri Lanka but I don’t think it was as good as this Northern Thailand Nature Park. Great that it’s a refuge for elephants! And couldn’t agree more about not riding these gorgeous creatures!
    Kristie – you.theworld.wandering

  23. Fox says:

    Hey 🙂
    Im sorry to hear you had a bad experience at the ENP. I just finished a week volunteering there and it was such a memorable experience, even shovelling the poop. I think you may of chosen the wrong activity for what you were after. I saw the day tours and thought they seemed kind of touristy myself but it is ALOT better then supporting the animal cruelty of elephant trekking (like what your friends took part in). ENP also offer a lot of programmes where you can volunteer with the elephants out in the jungle and away from the park.
    Lek, the founder of ENP does such an amazing job of making a change for the elephants. I just think people need to research the right programme for them to participate in.

    1. Kate says:

      Hey thanks for the comment. Perhaps we had different experiences because of the times at which we visited. I had wanted to volunteer away from the park, but the timing just didn’t line up. With the full day I expected to do less with the elephants and more with maintenance of the property and small prep for big jobs. To my knowledge there are 2 cruelty-free elephant rescue centres in Chiang Mai. I went to one, my friends went to the other. Let’s pump the breaks before the accusations come out!

    2. RB says:

      I’m just finishing a week volunteering at ENP as I write. All weekly volunteers are split into groups and each group has a different morning and afternoon job every day – clearing poo, prepping food, feeding, planting grass etc. I think you’d enjoy the week volunteering a lot more – and if you ever get the chance you really should come back to do it.

      One of the activities for week volunteers, that all groups do at some point in their week is called the ‘Elephant Walk’ – which rather than a job as such is a version of the day trip – a walk around the park, a talk about each elephant you meet and a chance to take photos etc.

      I guess with day trips, although not what you wanted personally, most people would want to see the elephants rather than actually work if they only have one day, so they focus on that for it. Whilst from the most cynical perspective this could be seen as exploitation, all the money goes towards funding this Park and all its outgoings.

      There’s truck loads of food for the elephants which comes in every single day for example, which weekly volunteers help unload and sort out each day. The mahouts/guides/other staff/ need payment – there’s nearly one mahout for each of the now 74 elephants – (all they do is follow the elephants, and just try to ensure they don’t wander too close to tourists – no hooks, just voice commands and slight tugs on the ear).

      The elephant you mention with the flower used to be in, I think, the circus trade or street begging. The flower was put in by its mahout at ENP they rescued it, to hide a hole which its former owners put in with some kind of tool as, they presume was a cruel punishment for disobeying commands. She is very old (her her digestive system can’t handle unpeeled bananas like the younger ones can, so for her all bananas are individually peeled every day before being taken over to her) and she will live out her last days at the park – hence ENP don’t see harm in more human interaction with her than others, – as she’ll never be released. Also, she’s on her own because she chooses to be – she is naturally unsociable with the other elephants and stays in that part of the park all day on her own on her free will. The mahouts simply follow the elephants throughout the day, not the other way around.

      It’s an amazing place, which is best experienced by doing at least a week here.

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