I had very few definites when I decided to book my spontaneous trip to Thailand. Although I knew the various cities/islands that I was going to, I didn’t have a tangible itinerary for any of these places.Chiang Mai was the exception. I knew that I wanted to visit this city, and I knew that I wanted to spend a day with elephants.
Not only that, but I was very particular about how I wanted to spend that day, as the tour seller found out when I first visited their Chiang Mai office.
A few years ago, I’d been made aware of elephant cruelty in Asia, especially to those elephants used in the forestry industry, as well as in tourism. Certainly, not all Thai elephant work/tour operators are guilty of this, but it was with this reason in mind that I was opposed to going on any tour that involved actually riding an elephant.
I had heard good things about the Elephant Nature Park, but, alas, at the time of my visit, this was fully booked up. Instead, I decided to support a smaller park that I had found out about during my research.
This park’s name is the Elephant Retirement Park. As the name suggests, the park is home to retired-from-work, older elephants.
With the experience booked through the tour seller, I was full of anticipation the next morning as I waited to be picked up at my hostel.
The van soon arrived, and we started the journey to Elephant Retirement Park, which is about a 40 minutes’ drive from Chiang Mai’s Old Town.
As the roads gave way to gravel and dirt tracks, I started to feel nervous. After all, I had never spent a day in such close proximity to wild animals – and such large ones at that.
We turned the last corner and arrived at the park. With a small scattering of buildings, it was evident that the park is a new venture (it started in December 2013). I was greeted warmly by the small team of employees working there, and I took a look around.
It was while I was doing this that I heard a rustling noise down the hill. My eyes following the audio cue, I spotted my first elephant for the day.
Encouraged by the park’s founder, Noi, I made my way down the hill to meet the elephants.
Being up close to an elephant was, initially, alarming due to their size. I say initially because a basket of bananas was handed to me, and the elephants immediately approached me for their favourite snack. I had no time to dwell on that fear. Despite their stature, Bipo and Boontsee were surprisingly gentle, and I couldn’t help but adore them instantly.
The bananas quickly disappeared and I was given an introduction to elephant care. With many of the country’s elephants being put to work in the forests of Northern Thailand from a young age, the animals are considered a burden once past their prime adult years. Bipo and Boontsee are two such elephants, and, since arriving at the park, they now each have their own mahout looking after them.
Traditionally, a mahout is the person that rides the elephant. At the Elephant Retirement Park, this term has come to mean an elephant carer, and the mahouts ensure that the elephants are healthy and happy.
A lot of work – and food, SO much food – goes into the daily care of older elephants, as the goal is to lengthen their lives as much as possible. Bipo especially had to be cared for, because she was heavily pregnant at the time of my visit.
I learned a lot in that initial session, such as the typical gestation cycles, life expectancy, and even found out how elephants sweat (the clue is in the image below!).
|Bipo and Boontsee at the feast.|
|The rather tough exterior of the Asian elephant [this is not the clue!]|
I was also informed about the extent of elephant cruelty in Thailand, where young elephants are separated from their mums and trained through the use of sharp instruments and hooks. Looking at gentle Bipo and Boontsee before me, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly protective over these animals.
Much of the day involved collecting food and feeding the elephants, with a quick stop for some of our own lunch.
The next goal, I discovered, was to give the elephants a mudbath. Yes, it is just as messy as it sounds. But since this is extremely good for the elephants’ skin, it was worth getting dirty for.
Plus, I knew that we would walk to a nearby waterfall soon after to wash it all off.
The day sped by so quickly, and I loved getting to know not only the two elephants of Elephant Retirement Park, but also the amazing team behind the venture.
With one last goodbye to Bipo and Boontsee – and a group photo – it was time to get back into the van and return to Chiang Mai.
Weeks after my visit, I found out that Bipo gave birth to a healthy girl on 13 March. You can take a look at Nong Chang Thai on the park’s Facebook page. She is ridiculously cute.
I have many reasons for wanting to return to Chiang Mai and to this park, but meeting Nong Chang Thai has just shot to the top of that list.
For those interested in visiting Elephant Retirement Park, you can select from a one-day tour to a longer volunteering experience. For my part, I’m sending a thank you to Noi and Nicha for making me feel so welcome at Elephant Retirement Park on my day there.