There's a lot of debate about what constitutes an ethical elephant sanctuary. These gentle giants have been working animals of Thailand for centuries, but with teak logging made illegal in the 80s, the tourism industry is where the big bucks are - many elephants are now relegated to providing rides for tourists, or performing tricks.
As awareness of ethical tourism becomes more widespread, so do the questions of how these creatures can continue earning a living - elephants are not cheap to maintain, and most of them are not equipped to be returned to Thailand's (limited) jungles.
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) began its journey in the early 1990s, and it has come a long way since then. What began as a tourist site as part of Chiang Mai's forays into ecotourism has now blossomed into an established valley sanctuary with more than 80 elephants, as well as cats, dogs, and water buffaloes.
The park is located about 60km outside Chiang Mai, and visitors can either make their way to the ENP office on the outskirts of the Old City, or have a pick up arranged from their accommodation. We were staying at Sleep Mai? Lifestyle Hotel Tha Pae, which was less than five minutes across the river, so it was a breeze to get to.
A mural of the park's co-founder, and one of the resident elephants.
During the ride to the park, we were introduced to our guide, Eh, who briefed us on the rules of the park. There was also a safety video played on the van so we would know how to conduct ourselves around the elephants.
Upon arriving at the park, we passed through enclosures for the rescue dogs living on the park grounds. There are more than 500 dogs in residence here - some of them are free-roaming, while others are kept away from guests.
Our introduction to the elephants starts from the elevated platform which makes up the dining area of the park. I guess dining also applies for the elephants! Our group was given a big basket of fruits to share with an elephant friend - mainly bananas and watermelons. Our breakfast companion for the day was Lucky, who was waiting expectantly for us to feed her. In her 30s, Lucky is completely blind due to an eye infection during her earlier life as a circus animal. This was not a setback for her at all though - she extended her trunk with such confidence, knowing there was food available for her, and we saw her again later in the day as she chomped down cornstalks in another part of the park.
After the breakfast introduction, we were ushered down to the park grounds, where our guide took us on a gentle stroll around the land, stopping every once in a while to say hello to an elephant, dog, or water buffalo. There were many stories told about the many elephants in the park, their pasts, and the road to recovery for some of the less fortunate ones who arrived at the sanctuary with injuries.
The 80 elephants in the sanctuary are free to roam and graze during the day, with little interruption from tour groups. We were but spectators to their days in 'retirement' from their past lives. It was a perfectly relaxing experience, and we had a great time even with the sun shining down brightly on our heads.
Lunchtime was also a free and easy hour, so we wandered about to explore the gift shop, and Cat Kingdom, which is the cat sanctuary part of the park. Newly inducted cats are kept in an enclosure where they could be quarantined before being let loose in the park. We made many feline friends during our visit, many of them lounging luxuriously on the gift shop counters, and even on the railings of the viewing platform.
For the second half of our day, we were led down to the river where a family of elephants were bathing. The youngest member of the park, a three-year-old baby was happily splashing about the waters while being watched over by his mother and aunts. It was a wonderful experience, and the elephants didn't pay us any mind. At one point, they wandered right through our group to make their way to a giant sandpile. They were so close to us, and we were in awe by their grace.
As we had booked the half-day tour, our trip ended around 2 pm, where we were led back to the van to take us back to the city of Chiang Mai. It was an amazing time, and definitely one of the highlights of our trip there. I had my reservations about going beforehand, not knowing whether I was supporting any mistreatment of these awesome creatures, but seeing them in the park put my mind at ease. I would highly recommend visiting ENP.