I’d always planned to go to the famous Elephant Nature Park, which was recommended to be by my friend and fellow blogger Callie, and it has by far the best reputation for animal welfare. Unfortunately we failed to book in advance and were really disappointed to find all of the days we were in town were fully booked. I was really devastated as it was one of the main reasons I’d come to Chiang Mai in the first place, but since we had Wifi in the hotel we spent some time researching alternatives in the area.
Fortunately for us there are plenty of other elephant parks in the area, many of which with conservation efforts and self-proclaimed good treatment of their elephants. We wanted to find one which had great reviews for animal treatment and that didn’t use bull hooks, but we found Baan Chang Elephant Park who were proud to rescue elephants from horrific conditions such as the illegal logging trade, popular in Burma, street begging and performance.
I booked the tickets online, directly on the Baan Chang website, after reading some bad things about scams and fake tickets being sold by touts. The tickets were 2900 Baht each (that’s about £60), and were well worth it. The funds go towards the rescue, care, food and treatment of the animals. Apparently elephants spend between 12-18 hours per day feeding; I can imagine that can be an expensive business!
The elephant trainers (or Mahouts) still carry a bull hook, and at times the elephants are chained in the yard, but insist on their website that “We still chained and still used a bull hook to keep elephant safety also a safety for visitors. We still have 2 things for a safety reason but not for cruel.”
Our guide really took the time to explain to us and to make clear why there practices are in place which I really appreciated. Any fears I had when researching were put to rest by the end of the day when I heard some of the elephants’ rescue stories an saw how close the elephants were with their Mahouts and how well cared-for the animals were. Did you know, these Mahouts are like family to their elephants, are assigned to a single elephant only and work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week? These people really love, eat, sleep and breathe elephants. There’s no way you could do that job if you didn’t.
The day consisted of three main sections: feeding, riding and washing. We were ‘introduced’ to the elephants and fed them a snack of sugar cane and bananas. The elephants went buck wild for the bananas – these were clearly a favorite.
Although we didn’t initially plan on riding an elephant, we really enjoyed ourselves and were glad to have done it under the circumstances we did. The Mahouts of Baan Chang know way more about elephants than I do, and their expertise really made me feel at ease that we were behaving in a humane and gentle way towards the elephants at all times. We were told exactly where to sit so that the elephants were most comfortable, and were assured that, like horses, elephants can quite easily carry the weight of one or two human beings without much trouble.
I never saw the bull hook being used during the day, and we were assured that they are only used when absolutely necessary. They are also blunted objects, whereas from some online coverage from other parks and elephant labour I was expecting something much more like a pickaxe. This was not the case.
Riding the elephant wasn’t the most comfortable experience; it was nothing like riding a horse. You feel really far forward and as if you’re going to fall off. Since you’re only really relying on calls and commands to control the elephant, you also feel way more out of control than when with a saddle and bridle on a horse. You really have to trust the Mahouts and guides, and of course, the elephant, since that’s a pretty long way to fall!
Finally we gave the elephants a bath – something that apparently happens at least three times a day to keen them clean and cool. We had to get into the bathing pool, which was a natural pool created at the mouth of a small stream, which I at first was freaked out about as the water was a bit of a grim muddy brown, but nonetheless we got in and gave the elephants and little scrub with a brush and bucket. It was actually a really enjoyable experience and the animals seemed to love it, too.
After being so disappointed about the Elephant Nature Park, I was so glad to have found Baan Chang as an alternative. I really believed, and saw, the great work they do to rescue and look after elephants. One new recruit in particular was a very large bull elephant who was resuced from an illegal logging camp in Burma, who had apparently been speared in the eye after being disobedient to its former master. Stories like this made me so glad I had found them and could contribute to this great work in some small way.
Have you ever ridden an elephant or been to an elephant park? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!