Before even leaving New Zealand on ‘Our Awesome World Adventure’, we always knew we were going to visit an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
Surprisingly there were numerous rescue centres and sanctuaries to choose from in and around Chiang Mai. After the obligatory research into each centre, we chose the Elephant Rescue National Park, which had great reviews and also our main requirement of “No Riding”. Although 20, or even 10 years ago, riding elephants was seen by many people as an acceptable, and an even sought after, tourist activity in Thailand; it seems to now be actively discouraged by most. However, sadly we have seen numerous examples of this inhumane activity still occurring within Thailand.
The elephant rescue was about a two-hour drive from Chiang Mai within the Doi Inthanon National Park and we shared a vehicle firstly, with a couple from Germany and then after they changed over to another vehicle part-way through the trip, a couple from Spain. We spent the drive talking about our adventures with both couples and us receiving plenty of advice for when we finally reach Europe.
On arrival at the rescue centre we changed into a traditional Karen cloth and unfortunately it was not a ‘one size fits all’. So myself and a couple of the other guys present had to make some slight alterations to the top, ripping some of the stitching to allow us to be able to move our arms. We then met the elephants, which consisted of a herd of five, including one large male and one baby. They started on the first of their many meals of the day consisting of some bananas that had been picked up from the morning markets. Lincoln was one of the first in the group of 16 to feed the elephants and throughout the day was always first in line and very keen to maximise our time interacting with them. Braxton on the other hand, was a little more reserved and despite being amazed by them, preferred to spend his time watching from a safe distance of about 5-10 metres. At this stage, while we were all getting familiar with the elephants, they were behind a small fence and once everyone, including the elephants, seemed comfortable, we took a short walk through a rice paddy field and into an open area where we could freely interact with the elephants with no fences between us. To say this was an incredible experience is an understatement, having these massive and majestic animals beside you really makes you appreciate the beauty of them and we feel deeply sorry for the elephants in Thailand who still wear chains and seats, have hooks used on them and do shows for tourists. With our traditional bags filled with more bananas and sugar cane, the elephants were very keen to make as many friends as possible. Lincoln made sure he got around each and every elephant and tried to share his treats as much as possible. In his eagerness, he was the first of our group to give out all of his food. However, he still enjoyed getting up close and personal with them and even managed a hug and kiss from one of the elephants. Braxton eventually got brave enough to feed an elephant and choose the baby to start with, which quickly gobbled down the offering of bananas although she was not so keen on the sugar cane which was left behind each time she was offered one.The one thing we noticed here was the guides never made the elephants do anything they did not want to do and if they wanted to wander off and do their own thing they were never forced to come back so we could take more photos. It was also evident that the guides cared a lot for the elephants with hugs and a lot of laughter throughout the day. After about an hour, we then headed down to the stream to bath with the elephants. We were all looking forward to this the most and after a very quick walk to the stream we soon found ourselves in some very cold water ready to scrub and throw water over the elephants. Lincoln quickly noticed that most people in our group were very hesitant in getting in the cold water, so proceeded to splash everyone until they joined us. This made him a target to everyone else, including the guides, to throw a little bit of extra water in our direction whenever anyone had a chance. Once everyone was in the water, the elephants came down and joined us in two groups, with the baby elephant especially loving the water and often going right under the surface. After scrubbing the mud and dirt off the elephants, we went back to a small hut and cleaned ourselves up a little, before feeding them yet more bananas and sugar cane. Meanwhile, our guides had laid out a lunch spread consisting of a couple of local dishes, rice and watermelon. It was a good chance for the group to sit around and talk to one another about where they were from and what had brought us all to Thailand. We were then given a chance to say goodbye to the elephants before we got back in the vehicles for the trip back to Chiang Mai.
It was without a doubt, one of the most amazing experiences we have had together so far and one that we will all undoubtably treasure for a very long time.