If you’ve never been to Chiang Mai before, I’m sure you’ve at least heard of it.
This city in northern Thailand is far away from all the party islands in the south and has no beaches, but is home to all the elephants! And if you’re looking for delicious vegan food, this place doesn’t disappoint.
Many people visit Southeast Asia and spend money on “trekking” tours, elephant rides, or a day trip to a “sanctuary”. Although many of the mahouts are starting to put down their hooks and realize that there is money to be made in elephant conservation, the sad truth is that many tour companies harm elephants whilst advertising to customers that they are indeed protecting them. I saw far too many “sanctuaries” offering elephant rides! Most tourists don’t come to Asia deliberately wanting to harm elephants, but at the same time, most of them don’t know the reality and the cruel practices involved in elephant tourism. This video below explains the “phajaan” process and features Elephant Nature Park’s founder, Sangduen Chailert:
I decided to visit Chiang Mai’s first, and most famous, elephant sanctuary and rescue centre – Elephant Nature Park. They provide a sanctuary for endangered species but also rescue cats, dogs, buffalo, and other animals! They contribute to rainforest restoration by doing tree planting, but most importantly, they educate their visitors instead of entertaining them.
It was apparent when booking a day trip that this place was insanely popular! Even booking two months in advance, all the tours were full except one – Pamper a Pachyderm. This particular tour involves “pampering” newly rescued elephants from the neighbouring camps. To be honest, I’m happy that this was the only tour left because I learned so much!
We started the day off driving to the camp which is 60km from the city. On the ride there, they showed us a video explaining the cruel elephant tourism and logging industries. The video also explained how to behave around the elephants so as not to frighten them: for example, don’t tease elephants with food, and don’t run up behind them and pull their tails (I don’t know why anybody would do this!).
When we arrived at the camp, we had the chance to meet three beautiful, newly rescued elephants. And because it was January 1st, New Year’s Day, some people who signed up for our tour had partied a little too hard the night before, leaving our group size at a very reasonable 6 people (including me and my friend). This really gave us a chance to spend quality time with the elephants and get to know them. I immediately learned the difference between an Asian elephant (brownish colour, smaller or no tusks) and an African elephant (tusks, larger, greyer) after stupidly asking, “What happened to their tusks?”
Since they were newly rescued, it was clear that they came from a previous life of hard work and misery. We could see the scars on their bodies, the bright blue spots of medicine on their backs to treat their infections, and even one who was extremely malnourished. Although these elephants had no reason to trust humans, after spending only a few hours with them, we could tell that they were comfortable around us. We learned that elephants are extremely social animals, who make lifelong relationships with friends and family, and who grieve the loss of loved ones. It’s crazy to think that people would want to harm these innocent creatures!
The first thing we got to do was make the elephants’ breakfast! Their “cookies” consisted of a base of special elephant bran, oats, rice, plantains, salt, and pumpkin. We also fed them huge baskets of watermelon, which they absolutely loved! The best part was watching them eat – some were polite eaters and would eat the watermelon chunks whole, and some were picky, making a mess and spitting out the watermelon rinds! At first it was a bit scary to maneuver the food around their trunks, but after awhile, we got used to it.
Afterwards, we went for a long walk through the river and the jungle. We fed them plantains to keep them on the right path, and we clumsily followed them through the rushing river. When we got to the top, we enjoyed a delicious vegan buffet lunch overlooking the jungle – amazing! The elephants also indulged in knocking down and eating full palm branches in one giant bite!
Later, we had a chance to bathe the elephants, which is actually more difficult than it sounds. Since the elephants are so big, you have to throw many bucketful’s of water in the right spot to get them even slightly clean. And the tricky part was to avoid standing directly behind the elephants and frightening them. The best part was watching them play and splash around.
The elephants returned home, and our tour guide made us go rafting to get to Elephant Nature Park’s main camp. I had seen “rafting” mentioned in the tour’s description, but expected a tranquil gliding through calm waters, casually resting on a bamboo raft. Boy was I wrong! This was proper rafting with currents, sharp rocks, and helmets (something I’d never done before and was always terrified to do). Our guide in the boat barely spoke English, but he kept telling us to “lock your feet.” Let me tell you, I locked my feet for dear life! When we went over a particularly dangerous area and my friend fell on top of me from her side of the boat and pushed me into the river, my entire body fell overboard, but MY FEET STAYED LOCKED! It took 3 people in the boat to pull this greedy vegan back up. And although the guide tried to scold me for not locking my feet, I proved to him that I had indeed locked my feet! I think he was impressed but didn’t show it.
Back at the main camp (soaking wet, and belly full of unclean water!) we got to see all the amazing work that Elephant Nature Park does first-hand. We saw baby elephants, blind elephants, elephants with broken legs, orphaned elephants, and complete families of elephants that had adopted one another. It was particularly sad to see the elephants with injured legs and feet, who were used in the past to detect landmines, or who had been injured while being forced to work in the logging industry.
A lot of the injuries and scars that we saw were from elephants who had previously worked in the tourism industry, giving tourists rides. The process of “breaking in” or training an elephants for riding or performance is a long and cruel one. Mahouts will beat them or use hidden sharp objects to control them and steer them in the right direction. Elephants’ bodies can get aged and injured quickly from carrying such heavy loads on their backs; and their eyesight deteriorating from working in the sun, or eyes forcibly poked as “punishment”.
Therefore, it was especially wonderful to see these creatures playing, rolling around in the mud, and relaxing with their “family members.” In the camp, we also got to see the cabin accommodations, for the tours where you stay overnight or long-term (something I definitely want to do in the future!)
At the end of the day, we bought some souvenirs from their gift shop to support the Save Elephant Foundation and said goodbye to our new friends. After spending only a mere day in the camp, I’ve become much more passionate about protecting these creatures and now try to educate the people around me about the plight of elephants in Asia. I definitely recommend visiting Chiang Mai for the delicious food, amazing temples, but most importantly, the meaningful elephant experience!
Some of my favourite vegan restaurants in Chiang Mai:
Goodsouls Kitchen 52/2 Singharat Rd., Chiang Mai, 50200, Thailand
Freebird Cafe Manee Nopparat Rd, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat 50300, Thailand
Pure Vegan Heaven Nimmana Haeminda Rd Lane 11, Tambon Su Thep, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat 50200, Thailand
Bodhi Tree Cafe 2 11 Ratchadamneon Road Soi 5 Muang Chiang Mai, Thailand
Reform Kafe 1/4 Sripoom Road Lane 7, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Vegan Heaven 44/6 Loi Kroh Rd 44/6 Loi Kroh Rd, Tambon Phra Sing, Thailand