My day started out in a blur. I’d mixed up my schedule, didn’t set my alarm, and was barely moving around the room when the tour bus came to pick me up. I sprinted out the door, hair undone, teeth unbrushed, and shoes slipped on my feet in a rush. I did manage to grab a croissant on my way out the lobby, but there wasn’t enough time for the fresh jam next to it. This was not how I’d planned for this day to go. I’d been dreaming of swimming with elephants in Thailand for months. This was no ideal.
I hopped in the van and as it pulled away, I realized I hadn’t even gotten cash out of the ATM to pay the remaining balance for the tour. This day was really not working out for me. Luckily, my ride stopped at a 7 Eleven on the way up the mountain which allowed me to use the bathroom, buy mint gum, and go to the ATM. 7 Elevens are like little one stop shop miracles amidst a sea of ever confusing foreign labels in Asia.
Visiting Elephant Nature Park
As we rode over the mountain, views of the park came into sight. A beautiful valley set in the hillside. And yes, elephants roaming freely. My thirty under thirty list (a bucket list of sorts) had included riding an elephant until I did some research and discovered how terrible it is to support these tour groups. Let me give you a little insight…
Elephants are wild animals. They do not do tricks and let people ride on their backs because it’s fun for them. In fact, it’s rather painful. To ride an elephant, it must be trained, and the training process is brutal. I’ll save you the emotionally draining in depth description and give you the short version. That elephant you want to ride has been taken to an isolated area, tied up in ropes and chains, and tortured for seven days straight until it can’t remember what happiness is. Once its spirit is broken, it begins its training. Training is no picnic either and involves constant stabbing (and other barbaric negative reinforcement) from the trainer. And yes, that’s the short, not so depressing description. Imagine how sad the in depth one is.
Once I educated myself, my bucket list item went from “ride an elephant” to “meet an elephant” which is where Elephant Nature Park came in. In the beautiful mountains of Chiang Mai, Thailand there is an oasis for elephants. Those lucky enough to be rescued come here to retire from their hard jobs and live a peaceful life. And so, we pulled up over the mountain, the door to the car was opened, and we started our journey.
We walked onto a deck where we were greeted with tea, coffee, and biscuits. The group got acquainted with one another while we prepped for our trek. Bug spray was spritzed and sunscreen lathered on. We washed our hands and descended a set of stairs to a table covered in watermelon and pumpkin. Giant chunks of fruit ready to be devoured. But this feast wasn’t for us. It was for our soon to be best friends because there’s no faster way to an elephants heart than feeding it fresh fruit. Off in the distance a few elephants lined up. Not because they were forced to but because the promise of food and happiness wafted through the air.
Feeding elephants in Thailand
Feeding an elephant is a little like feeding a vacuum cleaner. This long sort of wet nose comes at you and as it smells for food, it sucks the air right into it creating a light breeze. However, you don’t put the fruit in their nose, because that’d be weird. So you place it under their trunk so that they can grab it and put it in their mouth. And so, many a trunk came my way, and many pieces of watermelon were dispersed. My favorite was the old lady of the pack who would grab some fruit, shove it in her mouth, and have her trunk back in your face faster than you could reach to grab a new piece. We would have to team up to distract her just to sneak a bunch to the elephant next to her because she was hogging all the good stuff. It was amazing how quickly you got to see their personalities.
Hiking with Elephants at the Sanctuary
Shortly after, it was time for a hike. With a pack of happy, well fed elephants, we walked up the path baiting them behind us with bananas. I quickly realized that these elephants get to think for themselves, and if they don’t want to do something, no one makes them. One took a detour through the forest and decided the voice commands her mahout (trainer) were giving her were not as important as the tree she wanted to scratch her butt on. The elephant I’d claimed as my new best friend (Daa Moon) was loyal as long as I kept the bananas coming at a quick pace. As soon as the bananas were gone, a trunk went into my bag, sniffed around, realized there was nothing left and decided I was no longer worth following. I was left feeling slightly used.
We reached a stopping point and eventually the elephants who went off on their own joined us. We had a buffet for lunch, and one of the newer rescues wanted to join. She headed straight for the buffet and the lure of bananas was not good enough. It took three mahouts and a huge bag of bananas plus a lot of voice commands to lure her away from the lunch table. It created a bit of a ruckus but was also pretty humorous to watch.
On the way back to camp we got to walk with baby elephants. One was, as you would imagine, small. The other two who were teenagers were still very large. I made friends with one elephant who walked with me despite my lack of bananas. I stopped to take a photo and she stopped and waited with me. Ever the patient one. She even posed and smiled when she saw me admiring her. Every once in a while I’d see her trunk coming at my face for a good smell. I apologized for not having time to shower that morning but she didn’t seem to mind. I’m not sure that says much since elephants often bathe in mud.
Swimming with elephants in Thailand
We were on to our last activity, which was the one I looked forward to the most. Swimming with the elephants. We got on our swimsuits and walked into the river. We were handed a bucket and encouraged to throw the water at the elephants. It was like the biggest water fight I could ever imagine. It was kind of incredible being in the water, not just with the gentle giants but also their mahouts and the entire tour group. People from all over the world (some not able to speak the same language) having a water fight in the jungle with four incredible elephants. It was a once in a life time experience. Something way beyond riding an elephant. We got to bond with them.
Learning the elephants stories
We dried off and headed to the main nature park where 71 elephants currently reside. One had been rescued that morning from a logging company. Logging with elephants is now illegal in Thailand and so a lot of the rescues have come from that industry. We watched as doctors and trainers assessed the new elephant and my eyes began to tear up. His head was shredded apart and bleeding. It was clear he’d been abused many times. He was blind in one eye and the bottom of his feet were covered in blood. He looked scared after spending over a day in the back of a truck, and I wanted more than anything to tell him he was going to be ok. Our guide told us it takes about seven days for an elephant to begin to feel safe and about a month after that he is able to join a herd in their community.
We walked around and saw baby elephants who had been born in the park. We observed herds which had similarities among the elephants. There was a pack of young elephants with a baby. A “teen mom” we were told as she was only eighteen. We saw packs that were mostly older elephants. Some herds were a complete mix while another contained injured elephants. Several of the elephants had stepped on land mines while working in logging. A few of those had lost entire hoofs. Some had broken a leg while logging and their owners made them continue to work despite the injury resulting in it never healing properly.
The story that hit me the hardest was one of the first generation elephants to enter Elephant Nature Park. She was a logging elephant who was pregnant and gave birth while working, but the owner forced her to continue without checking on the baby. When she was done logging, she went back to make sure her child was ok, but the baby had passed away. She was so upset that she refused to work and the owner stabbed her in the eye with his hook to make sure she never disobeyed him again. When the guide told us her story I had to walk away from the group to compose myself. It broke my heart.
Visiting Elephant Nature Park was filled with ups and downs, but I’m so glad I went there. It’s a place I’ll hold close to my heart forever. If you want to go swimming with elephants in Thailand, I highly recommend visiting. It’s a little on the expensive side, but I know my money is well spent at the park and that it’s going to a really good cause. If you’d like to get involved from near or far you can volunteer, donate, or sponsor an animal through Save the Elephants which is the nature parks foundation.
Have any questions about swimming with elephants in Thailand? Ask in the comments!
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.