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Wanna Feel Kinda Small — in a Good Way? Our Visit to the Elephant Nature Park Near Chiang Mai, Thailand

by Suzanne Fluhr on February 3, 2014 · 67 comments

elephant nature park

Steve right before saving me from an elephant sneaking up behind me.

Our visit to the Elephant Nature Park, 60 kilometers from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, was replete with wonderful photo opportunities. At one point, I carefully aligned my camera to take a photo of my husband Steve (a/k/a Mr. Excitement) and was somewhat annoyed when his fake smile disappeared and he became a little agitated, waving me to one side. My pique evaporated when I finally realized he was not trying to interfere with my photographic independence, but was trying to warn me that there was a large elephant fast approaching behind me. Considering that an Asian elephant can grow to ten feet in height and weigh up to 11,000 pounds, you would think you would hear one walking behind you, but in fact, they move very quietly on their wide, well padded feet.

elephant foot at the elephant nature park

No pitter patter from this foot.

We had already learned that they can travel at 25 miles per hour and this particular elephant was on a mission to get to her baby who had wandered off. One swat or “nudge” from an elephant trunk would definitely get me to move, but with my Baby Boomer osteopenic bones, a broken hip is always a possibility — not the way I wanted to start our month long sojourn in Southeast Asia — even though it would have made for an impressive “how I broke my hip” story.


I moved. Quickly.

Elephant Nature Park

An ENP herd member wondering if it could be snack time.

In researching our trip to Thailand, it became obvious that some type of elephant encounter had to be on our itinerary. There are many options for interacting with pachyderms in Southeast Asia, but many of them are not fun nor healthy for the elephants. After consulting some blogs, I arranged for a visit to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), a rescue sanctuary for exploited, injured and abused Asian elephants founded by Lek Chailert. 

Feeding an elephant at the Elephant Nature Park

Moi making friends with an elephant.

I arranged our visit to ENP in advance on line. On the appointed day, we were retrieved from our hotel by an ENP 10 person van where we met Ae, our guide for the day. On the ride out to the refuge we watched some videos about Asian elephants and about Lek’s work with this endangered species. During the day, we stayed in our small group (all nice people) and had the chance to feed elephants (they’ll eat watermelon, but they looove bananas), to help bathe them — so they could re-dirtify themselves asap, and to visit the elephant clinic and the new dog rescue facilities. BTW, most elephants eat bananas, peel and all, but for some of the older herd members who no longer have teeth, the bananas are peeled and we fed them steamed pumpkin.

Bathing an elephant at the Elephant Nature Park

Elephant bath time.

Lek adopted her first elephant in 1995 and the ENP herd now numbers 36, ranging in age from six months to about 76. There are no elephant rides nor elephant tricks. Indeed, the ENP’s elephants have been rescued from logging operations, street begging and elephant performances where the elephants’ compliance was achieved by training methods ranging from harsh to torture. Each rescued member of the ENP herd has his or her own tragic story.

Adults Comfort a baby elephant at the elephant nature park

A baby elephant’s cries brought its family running to comfort and protect him.

At the ENP, the elephants are allowed to be elephants to the greatest extent possible. We learned that depending on their prior life experiences, the elephants naturally bond with either one other elephant (a true BFF) or small herds (“families”). We witnessed one instance where a year old (very cute) elephant who had been born at ENP vocalized some distress and was instantly protectively surrounded by the four fully grown elephants in his family. This baby was a miraculous gift to the herd from an elephant who had been rescued some 20 months before she (surprise!) gave birth. (Elephant gestation is generally 20-22 months). If it seems difficult to believe that no one noticed the pregnancy given that Asian elephants weigh between 250 and 350 pounds at birth, consider that some humans also manage to pull off the same feat. “I just thought I was getting a little chubby”.

Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park

Three members of one family within the herd head for their feeding place.

Elephant eating bananas at the Elephant Nature Park

Bananas. Yum.














Given the traumatic pasts of many of the elephants, each is assigned his or her own mahout (elephant handler). The ENP re-educates mahouts who previously worked with elephants using less enlightened training techniques. Many elephants arriving at the ENP require veterinary care which is provided at the ENP’s elephant clinic staffed by volunteer veterinarians and veterinary students who are afforded a unique opportunity to do “hands on” large mammal care. The ENP also provides free care to outside elephants as a way to encourage local elephant owners to provide good care for their elephants.

rescued dog at the elephant nature park

A canine resident of the ENP enjoys an afternoon snooze.

Lek (and the ENP) is not only devoted to elephant rescue. The ENP also cares for over 400 dogs rescued from the streets in Chiang Mai and Bangkok and over 150 formerly feral cats. Some of the dogs wander the grounds, seeming utterly at home, finding sunny places to snooze. A number of the dogs wear red collars to warn visitors that they might not be pacifically receptive to being petted by strangers. The baby elephant seemed to enjoy chasing dogs, but never strayed too far from mama, so the dogs always got away. One Anglo-Italian travel blogging couple visited the ENP and ended up staying for a month caring for the dogs in what they describe as a life altering experience

Time constraints prevented us from signing up for what I think would be the best way to visit ENP – a week-long volunteer stay where you currently pay approximately $365 for the privilege of cleaning up elephant poop and preparing elephant food. You also get to interact with and learn from the elephants themselves and, of course, from Lek and her dedicated staff. A one night, two day volunteer opportunity is also available. If the vegetarian lunch buffet we enjoyed during our visit to ENP is representative, you will also eat really well. Funds raised from visitors and donations help to defray the costs of running the ENP. Elephants eat a lot — as much as 330 to 340 pounds per adult elephant per day.

Getting ready for an after bath dusting.

Getting ready for an after bath dusting because no self-respecting elephant wants to be too clean for too long — plus some nice mud helps protect from insects and the sun.

Our visit to the ENP was definitely a “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Philadelphia anymore” experience and one of the highlights of our trip.

Should you go?:  Absolutely, if you are fond of animals and are not terrified  afraid of interacting with ones that outweigh you by maybe 10,000 pounds. If you are visiting Chiang Mai, it is also a nice opportunity to get into the countryside, out of the bustle of Thailand’s second largest city.

How to arrange a visit: You can register and a pay a deposit for your ENP visit or volunteer experience on line. It is best to do this as far in advance as possible to maximize your chances of them having a slot available within your travel schedule. (Search for “Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai Thailand” to find the latest website where you can make a reservation).

Update: So, I thought Asian elephants were big and imposing—-until I ran into some African elephants on a game viewing safari in South Africa. You can read about that (and see a photo of a really.large.elephant. HERE.)

Would you consider visiting an elephant sanctuary? Have you had any eye opening experiences with animals on your travels?

{ 65 comments… read them below or add one }

Montecristo Travels (Sonja) February 3, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Want to go!!!!!


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 5:13 am

Oh dear. I’m afraid an elephant could step on Monte (a 3.5 pound long-haired chihuahua travel blogger) and not even know it. Check out this photo of Monte to understand my concern.
Actually, I know his people would make sure that didn’t happen.


Nancy Thompson February 3, 2014 at 1:43 pm

Oh my, Suzanne, what an amazing experience. Your photos really capture your up-close-and-personal adventure with these giants.


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 5:14 am

Yep. I certainly don’t get to bond with elephants (up close and personal) everyday. I hope others have the chance to experience it.


Nancie February 4, 2014 at 7:24 am

I stayed overnight at ENP a few years ago, and loved every moment. Actually, a Canadian friend was there last year when the baby was born! I really do need to plan on doing the one week volunteer opportunity.


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 10:32 am

I wish we could have done the week volunteer stint, but I think the dogs would have made me very sad.


Roz Warren February 4, 2014 at 11:15 am

Just $365 for cleaning up elephant poop? A bargain! Fun post. Great photos.


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Roz, don’t forget, for that amount, you get to clean up elephant poop for a whole week!


Neva Fels February 4, 2014 at 11:19 am

You’ve experienced the biggest and the smallest of the real world. This is why I don’t/won’t go to Disneyland, I hate cement and fake animation. Thanks for sharing this special time with me. Now back to exercising my osteopenic bones too.


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 12:02 pm

They were definitely real elephants! Just being there for a day, we could start to recognize their different personalities (elephantalities?).


Cathy Sweeney February 4, 2014 at 11:58 am

What a great way to see and interact with the elephants. The photo of the baby elephant and his comforting family is precious. Nice to know there is a place like ENP that really cares for the elephants.


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Thanks for stopping by. I chose that photo because once there were 4 full grown elephants surrounding him, you could no longer see the baby elephant.


Andrea February 4, 2014 at 12:36 pm

I am so jealous of this experience! Although I’m not sure I’d be willing to shell out the $365 to be an elephant caregiver for a week. Maybe I will stick with visits to the Philadelphia Zoo… 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 1:11 pm

There are no elephants at the Philadelphia zoo. They moved them because they didn’t have enough room to provide them with a “humane” habitat. Maybe they have some in Honolulu. You can check when you’re there 😉


Patti February 4, 2014 at 1:23 pm

This looks to be a fabulous experience and very rewarding at the same time. I’ve read similar posts from other bloggers about the same experience and the posts were equally endearing. So glad you found it and enjoyed the day – and that the elephant didn’t swat you out of the way or step on your toes!


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 8:47 pm

There are starting to be a few places in Southeast Asia that are following ENP’s example. Thailand has outlawed the teak logging industry, so hopefully, things will improve for Asian elephants who were rapidly on their way to extinction as their habitat disappears. Elephants are big, but we humans have an awfully large footprint.


santafetraveler February 4, 2014 at 1:52 pm

What a wonderful experience to have. I love elephants- there’s something so doofy, yet powerful about them.


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 8:48 pm

You’re right. There is something very compelling about elephants.


Mike February 4, 2014 at 2:20 pm

This was so awesome, Suzanne. Elephants are such beautiful giants and normally so gentle. Then you see the videos where one goes completely mad. Regardless, I’m a huge (no pun intended) admirer of them. Very cool that you got feed them 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm

I guess elephants are sort of like us with the capacity for a range of emotions and behaviors.


Dale February 4, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Both Franca and I are SO happy that you enjoyed your time with the gang at ENP.

As you mentioned, our month with the dogs in the shelter at the park changed our lives and how we’ve travelled since.

Spending our time with such incredible animals and the people care for them is something I think everyone should experience and if anyone reading isn’t convinced by this great post about the park, then please take my word for it that there’s no place on Earth quite like it.


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Dale, I am a big time dog person, so I was so happy when I realized we were at the same place you and Franca had volunteered at. I found your post about the ENP to be very compelling.


exploramum February 4, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Wow – very insightful blog – was fabulous see all the pics too – thanks


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Elephants are certainly photogenic. You just have to be aware of the ones behind you!


Patti Morrow February 4, 2014 at 8:40 pm

What an amazing experience! Between the detailed description and excellent photo documentation, I feel like I was there.


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 11:02 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Patti.


Jerome Shaw February 4, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Suzanne – this looks like must see while traveling in Thailand. I love the photo of the elephant eating bananas. I am glad you didn’t get squished while photographing. Thanks for bring attention to this wonderful experience.


Suzanne Fluhr February 4, 2014 at 11:03 pm

While I was researching our trip to northern Thailand, it did become clear that this had to be on our itinerary.


Catarina February 5, 2014 at 8:36 am

Visited friends in Nepal about 20 years ago and we used to ride elephants. Great fun.

Worked in Thailand for Paris Match about 25 years ago and it was much less touristic then. Today it’s the main holiday destination for Swedes during winter. Went back to Thailand 20 years ago but haven’t been since. Not sure what I would think if I went back today considering that it was much more genuine 20 years ago:-)


Suzanne Fluhr February 5, 2014 at 9:16 am

Time marches on. I suspect most of the Swedes (like the Russians) are heading for the beaches on the Thai islands in the wintertime. I think those areas have changed the most.


Suzanne Fluhr February 5, 2014 at 9:20 am

No elephant riding at the ENP. They find that many of the elephants trained to be ridden are coerced with harsh training methods. Based on the Bangkok Airport, I think most of the winter vacationing Swedes, Russians and others from cold climates are heading to the Thai island beaches. I think you’d still find some “authenticity” elsewhere in Thailand.


Doreen Pendgracs February 5, 2014 at 8:36 am

Very cool, Suzanne! Looks like an amazing visit. I love the pic of the elephant eating bananas. You can feel the bliss …


Suzanne Fluhr February 5, 2014 at 9:21 am

They certainly love the bananas. They just kind of tolerate the watermelon to get to the good stuff — i.e. the bananas. (P.S.: I hate bananas—too slimy).


Susan Cooper February 5, 2014 at 11:59 am

This story touched me. Elephants are so magnificent and intelligent, how could we, as human being, be so cruel. I get that about not noticing the elephant was pregnant. What a miracle to have that baby elephant arrive and how it’s so loved and protected by the “family”. I know I would love to visit this sanctuary/rescue some time if I’m lucky enough to visit Thailand. 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr February 5, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Susan, that’s the interesting (distressing) thing about humans. We can be so incredibly cruel AND so incredibly kind.


A.K.Andrew February 5, 2014 at 6:13 pm

This sounds truly amazing – and the photos are fantastic. Thanks so much for the post. Really interesting – love that it was a ‘”toto” moment for you:-)


Suzanne Fluhr February 5, 2014 at 9:29 pm

I actually had quite a few “Toto” moments on this trip. Many Americans think we “know” Asia because we eat Sushi and go to the Chinatown in our city, but there is so much more.


Debra Yearwood February 6, 2014 at 6:20 am

What an excellent experience. Elephants are such amazing animals, so smart. Sad that the best we seem able to offer them as a race is abuse, but at least there are places like ENP.


Suzanne Fluhr February 7, 2014 at 3:58 am

Humans have a complicated relationship with elephants. In Asia, on one hand they are revered, but they are also treated as live heavy equipment.


Bindhurani February 6, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Wow!! What a visit. Loved the post very much. Asian elephants are working hard. They are usually not treated nicely. It is nice to know about the ENP.


Suzanne Fluhr February 7, 2014 at 4:00 am

I’m glad you found the post interesting. Some people roll their eyes when they find a blog post about animals.


Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) February 6, 2014 at 12:47 pm

I LOVED this post Suzanne! I have long been fascinated with elephants and I so loved hearing and seeing about this wonderful sanctuary. It’s on my list….thanks to you!


Suzanne Fluhr February 7, 2014 at 4:05 am

I hope you get to go there, Jacquie, and to visit SE Asia in general. There are other fascinating places to visit there and there is an interesting mix of cultures, lifestyles and beliefs—not to mention foods.


Christine February 6, 2014 at 4:50 pm

I really enjoyed this, especially the photos.

It is so strange, I have my next post scheduled and it is about the elephants in Chiang Mai as well! I went a few years ago, but found it quite uncomfortable as the elephants didn’t really seem to be happy, or treated that well. It was only after I came back that I found out about the Elephant National Park, and I really regretted not researching properly before I went, so that I could have supported a place that really cares for the elephants.
Your experience seems perfect! 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr February 7, 2014 at 12:59 pm

I hope you go back someday and have a chance to visor the Elephant Nature Park.


Krystyna Lagowski February 6, 2014 at 10:04 pm

What a fantastic visit! Elephants are such mysterious creatures, so large and yet so gentle. Up close, they must be fascinating. Love the story of the little one yelling and his (her?) family coming to the rescue. I’ve heard they have quite the sense of humour, too. Thrilled to know that this place exists – thanks for telling us about it!


Suzanne Fluhr February 7, 2014 at 1:01 pm

The little one was quite charming. I think he really wanted to play with the dogs—closer to his size than the adults of his own species.


Meredith Wouters February 8, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Wow, I have a new appreciation for Elephants. Not sure if I’ll ever make it to Thailand, so thanks for bringing a little taste of it to me! Beautiful pictures!


Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) February 8, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Yes. Elephants are pretty awesome—-and dogs are too.


Krystle Cook February 8, 2014 at 6:04 pm

Love the pics! It would be so neat to get up close and personal with an elephant. You can’t even get near them in most zoos.


Suzanne Fluhr February 9, 2014 at 7:34 pm

I have to admit that it felt like a great privilege to be able to closely interact with the elephants. We were told how to approach them and the elephant’s “personal” (elephantal?) mahout was always nearby keeping an eye on his and on his elephant.


Becc February 9, 2014 at 11:07 pm

What amazing creatures. I have ridden elephants and seen them in zoo’s but never quite in this way. I’m not sure I would be able to keep my anxiety at bay, but I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to find out.


Suzanne Fluhr February 11, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Becc, they give you an orientation and there is always staff around to make sure neither the people nor the elephants get spooked.


noel February 10, 2014 at 5:46 pm

What a wonderful tour and cause, thanks for sharing this with us Suzanne


Suzanne Fluhr February 11, 2014 at 7:19 pm

If anyone is interested in contributing, Barbara Weibel is helping to fund raise for the Elephant Nature Park. You can contribute and participate in a raffle to win a trip to Thailand and a visit to the ENP.


Elizabeth February 14, 2014 at 1:01 pm

These are amazing animals. I am glad that there are those who value them and try to save them. And what a joy to spend time with them!


Catherine February 20, 2014 at 9:26 am

Aw, the elephants are soo cute! It’s great to hear that they are looking after them well too 🙂


Maddy Fluhr February 27, 2014 at 11:41 am

You’ve come a long way from the Babar stories we read as children! Those stories always seemed kind of exotic to me – placed in a world very different than East Mt. Airy, Philadelphia! I don’t know which country it was. Nonetheless, who knew some day you would be up close and personal with many Babars – probably a different country than Babar’s. I know with your geopolitical acumen you will remember the “setting” of the Babar stories and can enlighten me. Great, great photos – I felt like I could touch their beautiful wrinkly skin. I’m glad they feed the old elephants mushy food. When I helped Emma with a 3rd grade diorama project on the African elephant, the saddest fact we learned was that when they’d lost like their 6 set of teeth or so, the old elephants would starve to death. On the bright side, I was very happy nature/god gave them the more than 1 set of baby teeth reprieve! (If I am remembering this fact accurately – enlighten me!)


Suzanne Fluhr February 27, 2014 at 6:58 pm

The only thing I remember about Babar was that I think he was French—or the people were French—or something. As you may recall, I only had one set of teeth in some places. It’s a good thing I’m not an elephant.


Leslie in Portland, Oregon February 27, 2014 at 6:48 pm

I’ve loved elephants ever since I spent a month 40 years ago encountering them free and wild in Kenya and Tanzania. They were magnificent, often playful and very much attuned to what and who was around them. I’ll never forget spending an evening watching elephants that were rosy-pink because they had been rolling in the red mud and dirt (and because of the light at sunset). I haven’t been to a zoo or circus since then. Thank you for your story about ENP…I look forward to learning more about it.


Suzanne Fluhr February 27, 2014 at 6:53 pm

Thanks for stopping by. We will be in South Africa in October. We are planning/hoping to see some wild African elephants which are larger than Asian elephants — and Asian elephants are quite large.


Tim March 19, 2014 at 12:34 pm

One of the things I have always wanted to do was work or visit a true elephant sanctuary. I almost had the opportunity once in South Africa but it fell through. This sounds awesome (in the words true meaning) and I look forward to visiting it myself one day. Thanks, Tim


Debbie April 23, 2014 at 11:28 am

What a fascinating experience that must have been! Glad these elephants have been rescued and are living such peaceful and contented lives now.


Sara August 5, 2014 at 4:27 am

Oh man, I love elephants, it kills me knowing that people in the world harm such gentle creatures.

I actually went to sanctuaries in Penang and Khao Sok and you could tell how well loved they were, and this one seems the same. The same can’t be said all over Asia, but it definitely makes me happy knowing that there are tourist friendly places like this that don’t exploit the animals!

Sara | This Girl Loves


Michelle February 27, 2016 at 9:57 pm

I can’t wait to visit this elephant nature park after seeing your photos! I like looking at nice architecture, but animals in nature are the best in my opinion.


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