Elephant Nature Park: Where My Dreams of Combining Ecotourism, Feminism and Mudbaths Come True!


Lek Chailert at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The cities and the temples aren’t the magic of mainland Thailand – the rainforests are. I’m riding through the jungles to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. I’ve learned that 3/4 of Thailand’s rainforests were destroyed by logging. A huge number of Thailand’s elephants went with it. Seeing the beauty of what’s left highlights the travesty of the loss. This is breathtaking.

–I just saw an ox-drawn carriage. I am either in Oregon Trail or paradise.

–I just saw two elephants on their morning walk. We aren’t even at the reserve yet. Paradise, this is definitely paradise.

I haven’t been to other nature reserves in Thailand, but I know from my first sights of this one, that it’s unique. The founder and owner of the Elephant Nature Park is Lek – that’s all she goes by. I’m convinced she’s saving the world one elephant at a time. Her story and the plight of this Park and of the elephants left in Thailand is a story that deserves so much more coverage than it gets.

Lek fundraises for the elephants and land and petitions the government to be granted more land. She rescues abused and abandoned elephants. Tourists can come to the reserve and feed, bathe and observe elephants in their natural habitat. Here, we learn their stories, too.

Diva is a young elephant. She’s full of personality, like her name suggests. She’s fairly new here. In the past, she was employed as a street elephant – walking the streets of big, tourist-filled cities, earning her owner a living by just existing. She ate the spoils of city life and the street food tourists fed her. After stricter elephant laws forbade elephant-street walking, her owner abandoned her. Lek found and rescued her, bringing her here to the Reserve. Now she’s learning to eat natural foods like fruit and vegetables, but she doesn’t know how to interact with the other elephants. Elephants form natural family groups, but she has been denied in all but one. One of the older elephants has adopted her. As the guides tell the story, even when Diva wanders away on her own, the family pulls her in, determined to make her one of their own. Elephants persevere like that, love like that.

The stories are endless, as is Lek’s devotion. Most remarkably, Lek doesn’t market elephants for tourists – she uses tourists to save elephants. She’s done the most incredible thing of all – found a way to channel tourists’ natural curiosity and fascination with Thai elephants and rainforests to benefit the country. Her mission and vision are remarkable.

I’m sitting on a bench, looking out into the seemingly endless expanse of land that is Lek’s. I know it’s not as big as it seems, though. From here, the elephant hospital is directly in front of me, several hundred yards away, and I can see elephants queuing up for their check-ups and medicines. Volunteers are petting them, playing with them, as they throw their trunks bank and bellow into the wind. So many of their stories are sad, and they bear the scars of a previous life of abuse, but here they seem content.

We just finished the afternoon feeding. I reached into great baskets of fruit, pulled out banana clusters and fed it to them whole. You can’t be skiddish or nervous. You hold it out and let them wrap their trunks around it, sliming you up just a little and take it to their mouths. It tickles a little. They get greedy, too. The guides say that the elephants know exactly which basket is theirs, and if you feed another elephant from a bag that’s not theirs, the owner gets fussy and very upset. That said – they’re sneaky and will try to reach around you and grab out of the basket. They’re hilarious and personality-filled. It’s fascinating to watch. And for how huge they are, they’re remarkably gentle.

Before the afternoon feeding, we bathed them in the river. That was the highlight of the day. They came out in herds and mosied their way down into the water. Once there, they did nothing short of frolic. They splashed each other, rolled on their backs, shot water into the air and generally made a ruckus. We took buckets and scrub-brushes, jumped into the dung-filled, freezing water and joined them in the heat of the afternoon. We scrubbed their hinds and legs and backs and they sprayed water over us in approval. The baby elephants, they’re as cute as expected. They use their chubby legs to half-swim, half-leap under their mother’s legs. The effect is a mama elephant cannonball that soaks us volunteers even more, but we can’t stop laughing long enough to notice.

I would love to come back here to do a long-term volunteer stay. Some of the volunteers that are here now have been working here for a month or more. They’re building a new dormitory for the staff or preparing lunch for the daily volunteers or feeding the elephants night and day. I’d love to be a part of that.

It’s time to leave now. The bus drivers are calling us to the meeting spot, but I can’t bear the thought of  moving from this perfect place. Lek calls the area right beyond my line of sight, where the forests meet this wide open land, “Elephant Heaven.” When an elephant is rehabilitated back into it’s natural habitat here, in the safe, watchful eye of Lek and the volunteers, it’s taken to Elephant Heaven, where the area is more jungle and less protected. At first, the elephant just spends a few hours there. Then maybe a night. Then two nights. And on until the elephant is at home in its natural home, back in its heaven.

I can’t wait to make my way back here and see the sun start to set over the mud bath and hospital and river again, but mostly I can’t wait until Thailand’s elephants can call their country home again. With Lek at the helm, I believe that day will come sooner than later.

Note: if you visit Thailand and want to interact with their elephants, please consider an ecotourist option like the Elephant Nature Park. Whatever you choose, please do not ride the elephants. Many parks and tour groups utilize abusive training & reinforcement methods, and the elephants are often abandoned when they can no longer perform.


**thanks to Alex and Tiffany for the pictures!!

An elephant family, meandering down towards the river.

Alex and me during morning feeding with the elephants.

Tiffany and me bathing the elephants.

Our new best friend. (Random sitenote: I wore these clothes for the next almost 24 hours, without showering..... be jealous of my night bus seatmate that night!)

I don't have enough baby talk in me to express how frikkin adorable this was!! Baby elephant group hug!

"I'll have a pina colada and a bigger umbrella, thanks."

My view to the right, sitting on the bench. I can't wait to go back.

~ by C on April 15, 2010.

One Response to “Elephant Nature Park: Where My Dreams of Combining Ecotourism, Feminism and Mudbaths Come True!”

  1. Excellent post. Thanks for educating people on why they shouldn’t go to the tourist camps and should go to ENP.

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