The Karen Experiance - Elephant Nature Park - Thailand
The decision to go trekking with elephants was not one we took lightly.
It had always been a dream of ours to ride an elephant through the jungle. Unfortunately childish dreams soon give way to harsh realities, and it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no way to do this without contributing to the suffering of these magnificent creatures.
For a long time we had dismissed the idea of any kind of elephant adventure, naïvely believing that any sort of experience would be supportive of the cruelty, and abstinence would lead to the elephants being allowed back into the wild to live happy carefree lives.
Then we heard about Elephant Nature Park.
The elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre in Northern Thailand has won numerous awards for animal conservation. There is no riding of the elephants, no Mahouts with sharpened hooks, and no chains.
The park offers a number of experiences that allow you to get up close and personal with the gentle giants.
We chose the Karen Experience.
The minibus collected us from our hotel in the centre of Chiang Mai at 8:30 am, and after a brief stop at the office on the outskirts of the old town, we were on our way.
We were told that the journey to the village normally takes about 80 minutes, but we were in for a slightly longer haul, as once we reached the mountains we would have to swap to a 4×4. Understandable as this was rainy season, and it had been banging it down for 2 days solid.
The first leg of the journey was comfortable, and we were shown video presentations highlighting the great work the Elephant Nature Park was involved in, as well as a distressing film about how elephants are forced to obey commands and perform in shows. The third film was a light-hearted safety video that painted the picture that you were almost certainly going to get kicked into oblivion if you got within 50 feet of an elephant.
We soon arrived at the base of the mountain and swapped over to the 4×4, and we were off again.
The second part of the journey was not so comfortable. Our second vehicle was a Songteow. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s basically a pick-up truck with benches in the back. The tarmac periodically gave way to heavily rutted tracks, as we were jostled and shaken towards our destination. Our driver had taken the extra precaution of fitting chains to the tyres before we set off. This soon proved to be a wise decision as before long we were picking up passengers from other tour groups stranded along the way.
30 minutes later we arrived at a number of bamboo buildings high in the mountains.
No sooner had we changed into our traditional “Karen” outfits we saw the first of our new friends emerge from the forest.
It’s feeding time.
They say Elephants never forget. Well they certainly don’t appear to forget where they go to get fed!
We were ushered into a pen, and baby, mummy, and auntie came over to see what goodies we had for them.
Mmmmmm. Baskets of cucumber, pumpkin, and corn.
Baby was greedy, and couldn’t get enough reaching out with his trunk to grab handfuls meant for mummy. Mummy, and auntie were a little more discerning, often turning their noses up at the cucumber in favour of the pumpkin and corn.
They were so gentle, even the little one who was a bit eager.
After feeding time we followed the herd into the jungle, and walked with them stopping on occasion to share more treats. I was once again amazed how gentle they were, and was also surprised how close we were allowed to get. Despite the terrifying safety video we were often within inches of them, sometimes closer.
After a short hike we made another stop and had another feeding time (these guys can eat!).
This stopping point provided some shelter, so we’re able to break out the cameras and get a couple of pictures, before heading back the way we came, shoulder to knee with our new best buddies.
Time for a spot of lunch for the humans, a traditional Thai vegetarian banquet, and all very tasty.
Then on to part 2.
We were led down a steep incline just behind the village to a field with a large muddy pool, and almost immediately our new friends emerged from the jungle.
They needed little encouragement and headed straight for the mud. Baby wasn’t waiting around for us guys, and started rubbing his face in the embankment before laying down and pushing the mud around with his feet. Once the troop were settled we were led into the bog, and passed handfuls of mud by the mahouts to apply to the elephants. You could tell they loved this, moving around to show you where you had missed, to ensure they got a thorough treatment. Having almost as much fun as the elephants, the mahouts delighted in getting as much mud on us tourists as possible. Subtly at first, almost accidental, but this soon descended into dumping handfuls of mud down our backs.
Mummy and auntie seamed to relish the attention, but baby was off doing his own thing, and we wisely gave him space to flail around to his heart’s content.
Once we were all thoroughly caked in mud, it was time to wash off at the waterfall.
Another short trek, though this one was quite steep (remember those walking sticks), and were at the waterfall.
The water was cold, especially when the mahouts tipped it down you back (thanks lads), but this didn’t slow down the big guys. Armed with plastic bowls and scrubbing brushes we soon followed.
As at the Spa you could tell the elephants were seeking your interaction. They clearly enjoyed the feel of the brushes against their skin, and again they were coming to us rather than us approaching them.
And I think this is one of the things that made the whole day so enjoyable. You never felt like the behaviours were forced. It always felt like the elephants were doing their thing and we just got to hang out with them.
Oh, did I mention it was still chucking it down?
I’d almost forgot myself.
And it’s surprising how quickly you do.
In the morning when we set off I was a little apprehensive. And I’ve got to say when we changed into the “traditional Karen clothing”, only to put a huge rain Jacket over it, I did think “what’s the point”.
But the fact is as soon as you start interacting with these magnificent animals you really do forget everything else.
We had a fantastic day, and were really glad we opted for one of the experiences rather than visiting the park. We would definitely recommend the Karen experience, but there are a number of other options available which also sound great.
You can check these out and learn more about the great work that The Elephant Nature Park does at their website. Click here.