Travelling the world provides numerous wonderful opportunities discover cultures and amazing scenery, but one of the aspects we have enjoyed more than most has been the opportunity to see the amazingly diverse wildlife our planet has to offer.
Spending time in Asia provides the opportunity so see one of the most recognisable and loved animals on the planet – the elephant. Prior to setting off on the trip I was determined to ride an elephant, and knew enough to know I wanted to do this bareback, as the the seats can cause the animal damage and pain.
That said we like to think our ourselves as responsible and ecologically minded travellers and therefore we did a great deal of reading about these animals and how best to see them before deciding when and where.
A visit to the Elephant Nature Park north of Chang Mai was the result of that research, and had me questioning whether riding them was a good idea at all. By the end of the video you are shown in the bus on the way to the centre I was convinced that I would not ride them.
For any elephants to be ridden, they have to be domesticated first. The process that the animal goes through to achieve this is called ‘the crush’ and is 72 hours sleep deprivation, hunger and at times, quite savage beatings. It is animal torture and one of the most barbaric and upsetting things I have seen.
The park is the work of an amazing individual called Lek (Time Magazines Asian Hero of the Year 2005) who has made it her life’s work to help protect these magnificent animals and educate people about their treatment. The park opened in 1996 and now covers 300 acres and provides sanctuary for 37 elephants that have been rescued (which for Lek means buying them for around 1 million Thai Bhat) from domestic owners that no longer wanted them.
Paul, our guide for the day, speaks wonderful north-eastern English (he went to school in County Durham), and it never stopped being amusing to hear a Thai person speak like Ant and Dec. The only thing stronger than his accent was his passion for the animals and their treatment in Thailand.
We spend the day with another 4 honeymooners “Pampering a Pacyderm”. A day trip whereby you get to spend the day with 3 elephants as they trek up for food (including crossing a river), enjoy a mud bath and dust shower, before returning to the river on the way home for a bath. Paul introduces us to our elephants for the day: Mai Batong (35 years old), Mai Bang (45 years old) and the one that me and Niki are given, Mai Ban Yen (30 years old) who is sadly still recovering from the abuse she was subjected to and under strict instructions from the vet to not have a mud bath.
This is a truly wonderful experience to be close to the elephants (feeding them resulted in me being covered in mud and elephant slobber by the end of the day) and see them in their natural environment behaving as they would in the wild.
And that behaviour is mostly eating. Being the largest mammal on the earth, weighing 10,000lb, and needing to eat 10% of your body weight a day is time-consuming work when you are a vegetarian. In fact they will spend 18 hours a day eating food. Generally we could keep pace with the elephants except for the sections that didn’t offer them any opportunity to eat, at which point they dashed off into the distance and we caught them up at the next area they could graze!
Being able to have this opportunity to spend time with elephants at such close proximity, and witness their individual personalities and gentleness (despite their size) makes the sometimes lifelong bond that develops between an animal and its mahout seem natural. It also makes the fact that people can abuse these animals so badly even more hard to understand.
Lek is known as the ‘elephant whisperer’ and has described the park she has created as “elephant heaven”. Having spent one of the most memorable days of the trip here, we cannot think of a better description and hope that she continues to help more elephants find a place their way here.