Chaing Mai has a number of different places you can go and visit elephants. Thailand and Burma both have a chequered history of mistreating elephants in the past. Thailand has recently banned both the use of elephants for logging and for begging on the street. This has had a positive effect on how elephants are treated but it's also meant a lot of them are left without a home and lots are badly injured. It was quite hard working out which park would be best, many parks were simply there for tourists to ride and train them. The Elephant Nature Park was set-up by a incredible Thai woman called Lek. It's a sanctuary for mistreated elephants whereby Lek buys the animals from their captivity and lets them run wild in huge open land.
This raises some very interesting ideas. Each animal has it's own trainer or Mamut, but unlike the traditional method using a wooden cage to break the animals spirit and constant hitting using a hooked stick the Mamut's here can only use their hands, speak to them or lure them using food. This means that any animals raised solely at the park can be quite uncontrollable, especially the male bulls. On numerous occasions we witnessed them causing trouble, trying to pull down the roof of the feeding area, or charging each other as they played in the river. Seeing so many elephants in this semi wild environment was simply incredible.
The park's main source of funding is from visiting tourists who come to see the elephants and eat some amazing food. We'd opted to stay overnight as it meant we got to spend more time at the park and see it after the majority of the tourists had left. The first thing that we noticed was the sheer amount of food the elephants eat. There are 47 there in total ranging from a 10 day old baby to 70 year old grandparents. There are a numbers of different herds and partners in the group, babies are constantly guarded by multiple adults. Some of the elephants go around in pairs never leaving each others side. It was fascinating watching them as they interacted with each other.
Each animal eats roughly 250kg of fruit each day and we got to help out unloading the huge amount of watermelons from the truck. The elephants have a fixed routine of feeding, so they come in groups each morning and afternoon and we then got to feed them. Handing over massive chunks of fruit as the elephants deposit them via their trunks into their soft fleshy mouths was a thrilling experience. They are actually quite fussy when it comes to food. They prefer yellow ripe bananas over green ones, sweet watermelon over dry pumpkin. You had to be careful not to leave the basket of food too close or the elephants trunk would pick up the basket and they'd try to eat the lot at once!
In the afternoon we could to bath the elephants. There's a large river that runs alongside the park and the animals would take turn to play in the water. Our two elephants didn't seem too fussed about the water though. We got to wash Jokia who was blind and her best friend Mae Perm who acts as her eyes as they walk around the park. We got to cover them in water and got ourselves soaked in the process. Being so close to the elephants was thrilling, such large and sometimes dangerous beasts within touching distance. They all had a certain aura as you got close, they didn't mind you being there but you definitely knew who was the boss!
As we drifted off to sleep in our small wooden bungalow we could hear the elephants trumpeting out in the field. Lek and her team do an incredible job but it's really the elephants who are the stars of the show.