Before we headed to Vietnam to settle down for a bit, we flew back to one of our favorite cities -- Chiang Mai, Thailand. Our friends from Colorado, Annie (my roommate when I lived in Italy) and Marshall, had planned a trip to Thailand for their honeymoon. We call ourselves the honeymoon crashers now, since this was our second one since leaving home. Who is next?!
Anyways, our last day in Chiang Mai was spent at Elephant Nature Park. Lek, the founder of ENP, opened the reserve in the 1990's. She has a huge heart and aims to rescue all captive elephants in Thailand. We had some knowledge about the cruel, dark truth of elephant tourism, but what we didn't fully understand prior to our visit. In order for the elephants to interact with tourists in a domesticated setting, they have to go through a cruel breaking process called phajaan. A young elephant is taken from their mother during the phajaan and put in a small cage, tied up, poked with sharp objects, and starved until their spirit breaks. This process can go on for weeks, with no rest, until the animal surrenders and the trainer gains full control. It is only then, that the elephant has no will to live, that they've been domesticated enough for riding or other tourism activities.
During our tour of the park, we learned that elephants surprisingly have very small bones. They're massive creatures, but composed mostly of muscle. Therefore, their bones aren't strong enough for riding, and many elephants have broken hips or legs as a result of being ridden. Asian elephants used in the circus, for logging, trekking, or riding camps will often have shredded ears from the hooks used by their trainers. These elephants are also commonly blind from camera flashes or circus lights. Many creatures will be seen rocking back and forth -- a common sign of distress.
We had a chance to feed the gentle giants bananas, watermelon, and squash in the morning. Elephants eat 600 pounds of food a day! We were laughing the whole time as we were placing whole bunches of bananas into their trunks and watching them devour the food in seconds. The rest of the morning we had the opportunity to walk around the park and personally meet each of the elephants. We learned their names, each of their stories (often a dark past), any quirky personality traits, and even got some snuggles in. We headed down to the river in the afternoon for their daily baths. Standing in the water with the elephant, we dumped bucket after bucket of water on them. Immediately after, they walked to the dirt piles nearby and covered themselves completely in dirt. The dirt acts as a sunscreen, insect repellent, and cooling method. We ended the day by meeting the remainder of the elephants.
Many tourists have "ride an elephant in Thailand" on their bucket list. We beg you -- please do NOT partake in this cruelty! If you want to make a difference and get close to the creatures, we recommend visiting Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai. Lek and the whole team of staff and volunteers create a personal, enriching experience for each of their visitors. We could not recommend this park more! Check out this video at the bottom of this post for more information.
For the love & adventure,
Bre & Daniel