One of the things I really wanted to do in Thailand, besides attend the Yi Peng lantern festival, was go to Elephant Nature Park. The sanctuary, which is about an hour out of Chiang Mai offers visits and volunteering to spend the day working with rescued and rehabilitated elephants.
Of course, I didn’t take into account that thousands of other people would also be in Chiang Mai for the festival and activities like that would be booked weeks in advance. So when we arrived in Thailand, all available visits were reserved and though I checked every day for cancellations, I had no luck.
In an attempt to realize my dream of taking a bath with a baby elephant, I looked up dozens of other companies. As you can imagine, elephant trekking and encounters are a big part of Thailand’s tourism industry. First I wanted to find a company that didn’t allow riding because I didn’t want to financially support anyone that does precisely what the Nature Park is designed to rescue elephants from.
I had whittled it down to a few companies, many of them with very high reviews on TripAdvisor. They all swear that they love the elephants and that they are treated with great care. No matter how scummy the company, that’s part of the ad copy. I even sent a request to book one company, Baanchang Elephant Park, which has a solid 5-star rating on TripAdvisor. But when they returned my email, they noted in the small print that they use bull hooks and that the elephants are chained for safety purposes. When I looked closely at the pictures, I noticed all the elephants were wearing heavy collars and were chained to the floor.
At that point, I realized that elephants would not be part of my vacation. Because despite the glowing reviews on TripAdvisor about how happy the elephants seem and how humanely they are treated, I can’t support a company that ever bludgeons their animals with a bull hook in the name of safety.
And I don’t blame the Thai people. They don’t have much, and they’re using the resources available to make a living, which are beautiful wild creatures like elephants and tigers. I do blame tourists, who turn a blind eye to this kind of thing so they can get a cute Instagram photo of frolicking baby elephants, many of which have been separated from their mothers at a young age. It’s the kind of thing that’s been happening in our own water parks for decades with whales.
When these companies are closely investigated, unethical and inhumane treatment is always found. That’s why Bangkok’s Tiger Temple, where sedated and mistreated tigers were available for public interaction, was shut down this year.
And unfortunately, there are countless elephant “sanctuaries,” “retreats,” and “shelters.” Too many people pay to ensure that those businesses remain profitable, so they are. I’m not going to change the world by skipping the elephant parks on my trip, but I can try by asking you to do your research. When you do your research, you’ll find that the only humane elephant sanctuary in Thailand is Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. They offer day trips as well as week-long volunteering stays to feed and care for the elephants or dogs. Everything else is animal abuse. So if you’re really set on getting to play with the elephants, go to Chiang Mai (it’s the best city in Thailand anyway) and book in advance.
As for me, I’ll come back. And when I do, I’ll be prepared. This time around, all was not lost for the ill-prepared travel blogger. In lieu of Elephant Nature Park, I went up to Thailand’s highest mountain instead.