Visiting The Elephant Nature Park was such a highlight for us while in Chiang Mai! Having grown up in India, Prem is far more used to seeing elephants than I am, who had never seen one in person before this year. Even so, until recently neither of us were aware of the abuse and mistreatment so many elephants experience. We had no idea these gentle giants were not meant to be rode, that they’re put through strenuous physical labor, they’re beaten, they’re exhausted and worn down from being used for entertainment and that their bodies are misused in so many ways resulting in severe injuries. To top it all off, elephants have excellent memories, so many suffer from poor mental health as a result of mistreatment by their own mahout (elephant trainer or keeper).
The first time I saw an elephant in person was earlier this year in Koh Lanta, Thailand as we were riding along a main road. Once I saw that its legs were chained up, my reaction turned sour; not quite how I expected to feel upon seeing my first elephant. This led to detailed research on our end, which is how we ended up at Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants as well as water buffaloes and dogs.
We highly recommend including a visit here in your Chiang Mai itinerary; it’s well worth it. To prepare, here is how you can expect your day to go.
We booked our Elephant Nature Park visit weeks in advance, for fear that any of our limited days in Chiang Mai would already be filled by other visitors. The website’s calendar is kept up to date to inform you if a day is available, almost booked or booked. A deposit is due upon registering.
We booked the full day trip — as opposed to the short day — which includes bathing the elephants, an experience I didn’t want to miss out on.
What to Wear
Ideal attire is loose, comfortable clothing for walking around in hot weather, with sneakers on your feet to maneuver through any mud and high grass. Then, a change of waterproof clothes and flip flops for bathing the elephants, since you get in the water up to your knees and can easily get splashed.
We did none of this. I wore flip-flops, running shorts and a t-shirt all day, even into the water. Since I was wearing shorts I didn’t get so wet that it was an issue. Prem wore sneakers, shorts and a t-shirt but didn’t get into the water to bathe the elephants. Those who didn’t have flip-flops for bathing just took their shoes off and got in barefoot or did what they could from dry land.
What to Carry
- Cash (for payment balance, gifts, etc.; there’s no ATM)
- Water bottle
- Phone charger or external battery pack (if your phone doubles as your camera)
- Towel (we didn't bring one; see "what to wear")
Pick up at Accommodations
Our tour guide picked us up in a park van at our Airbnb at 8:30AM and we hit the road along with the 10 or so others in our group. In the van we watched a video that shared more information on the Elephant Nature Park, safety precautions and a sad look into the lives of the elephants before they’re rescued. We stopped for 10 minutes around 9AM at a rest area to use the bathroom, hit the ATM (see “arrival” below for why) and get a snack. We continued on and reached the park at 9:45AM.
We arrived to find dozens of other small tour groups with their own guides, which means each group has a very intimate and personal experience. Our guide led us to our table for the day where we could leave anything not of value behind. From the table we had views of the spacious property, where elephants roam around.
While we settled in we were told to visit the gift shop, which only accepted cash with no ATM in sight, to pay the balance of our payment. Like others, we had missed that on the email confirmation and didn’t have enough cash. The earlier ATM stop was now making a lot of sense! We talked to the staff who said they accept Visa and MasterCard but with a 3% fee. We had no choice but to go this route; next time, we’ll bring enough cash.
Aside from the gift shop, water bottles (20/40 baht for small/big), beer (60/80 baht for small/big) and snacks are for sale. Coffee, tea and big tanks of filtered water were available for free self-service throughout the day.
After settling in, we immediately went to the feeding area where elephants were lined up below a platform waiting to eat one of their many meals of the day. Each group has their own elephant to feed from a bucket full of peeled watermelons. We took turns holding watermelons out to our elephant, which she picked up with her trunk so she could swing the fruit into her mouth.
After feeding time, our tour guide gave us a brief lesson on elephants and their diet, lifespan, sleeping habits and the difference between Asian and African elephants. He then walked us around the grounds for about an hour, introducing us to a few of the 70 elephants that live here, each with a mahout who takes care of them.
Our guide was so knowledgeable about the elephants, sharing each one's name, history, and a bit about their personality. With our guide supervising, we were able to get up close to the animals and pet them, which made for great photo opportunities, and watch them living in their habitats.
Lunch and Relax
Starting at 11:30AM we had a little over an hour to eat lunch and relax. The vegetarian buffet seemed endless, with dozens of different dishes available to try. After lunch some people napped, others sat and read and others enjoyed a beer, for purchase. There’s plenty of space, so it’s easy to find a peaceful seat to watch the elephants from. Since the mahouts are taking a lunch break as well, walking on the grounds with the elephants is forbidden at this time.
After lunch we sat near the water and waited as the elephants slowly made their way into the water for bath time. Just like at feeding time, each group has their own elephant to bathe.
Our tour guide handed us each an empty bucket, we got in the water up to our knees, and repeatedly filled and splashed the elephants. It was so fun and even left me a little emotional as we got out of the water; such a surreal experience.
After we dried off and some people changed we all made our way up to the skywalk before the baby elephant and family came out. Being separated from them was necessary, since if we were to go near the baby the mother would become defensive. The baby was adorable and we spent a good amount of time “ooing” and “ahing” as the baby ran around below us.
After the elephant family went back to their habitat it was about 1:45PM and we again walked around with our guide, visiting elephants we hadn’t seen in the morning, taking more photos and simply watching them do their thing.
After about 45 minutes of walking around we stopped by the elephant "kitchen", stocked with piles and piles of watermelons, bananas, cucumbers and pumpkins. Staff were preparing the food by peeling the watermelons and making balls of mashed rice, pumpkin and corn. It was incredible to see the quantity of food these animals eat.
At this point we had about 20 minutes or so to hang out, visit the gift shop and enjoy tea, juice and cookies that had been put out.
After a long but memorable day, our van left the park around 3PM. We spent the next few days dreaming of elephants. Even now, thinking of these elephants brings a smile to our faces.