Before we even left the UK, we knew we wanted to visit Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. We’d heard about it from Mike’s little sister, who told us it was a sanctuary which rescued elephants from captivity and rehabilitated them. The nature of the elephants’ previous lives and training meant that they can never be fully released, but they spend the remainder of their days in safety and comfort while the park does its best to raise awareness of the dangers and cruelty of elephant riding.
Due to the flexible nature of our trip, we weren’t able to book too far in advance as we weren’t sure exactly when we would be there. Hence it wasn’t exactly a shock to us when we finally got around to booking, only to be told that there was no availability on our chosen dates or for a fortnight either side. Balls.
Enter Elephant Haven in Kanchanaburi – a partner of Elephant Nature Park which sticks closely to their ethical values and promises. We made some slight alterations to our trip and were able to book without trouble. You’ve never seen two grown adults so excited.
Our package was this one, which cost just over £130pp and included…
- Return transport from Kanchanaburi
- One night’s accommodation in ensuite chalet-type buildings
- Lunch and dinner on Day One
- A trip to Krasae Cave and the Death Railway
- Breakfast and lunch on Day Two
- Unlimited tea and coffee
- Elephants… ‘nough said
The day finally rolled around when we would be meeting the ellies. Chris and Emily were joining us too, and not one of us slept properly the night before as we were so excited. We’d arranged for the minibus to collect us at our hotel and, surprisingly for Asia, it arrived bang on time at 8am! We arrived at Elephant Haven approximately two hours later, including a quick stop for coffee and snacks.
As the minivan pulled into the front yard at Elephant Haven, we could see a group already feeding the elephants their breakfast. We all took a collective breath as we saw the elephants. They were able to roam freely and were very curious. I scrambled out of the van as fast as my little legs could carry me – luggage, phone, and snacks completely forgotten – and launched myself in the direction of the nearest elephant. I didn’t want to touch them at first as both nervousness and awe got in the way. I simply wanted to watch them, so I did. They’re such gentle creatures and you can see the intelligence in their eyes. You also really don’t appreciate the sheer size of an elephant until you’re stood in front of one…
Patrick, the camp manager, introduced us to each of the elephants in turn – giving us a little history on the camp and each of the elephants’ stories. Each elephant is assigned one member of staff to be their buddy, ensuring everyone gets to form a lasting relationship. It’s very obvious how much each member of staff cares for the elephants, and also clear that this feeling is mutual. The elephants are at ease and appear very comfortable. One of the staff members, Winai, is learning English but has a long way to go. He compromised by telling us all “ok, ok, no danger”. This became the camp’s new catchphrase – you’ll hear staff and guests alike repeating it. Even better, Winai can say it in German too!
We were given a quick briefing once everyone had arrived, then headed off to make the elephants some breakfast. We made rice balls by mixing fresh bananas with rice, salt, and rice bran. We also chopped around a tonne of watermelons! These were put into buckets and we went off to commence feeding. During feeding time, the elephants line up behind two parallel wooden fences which are completely open at either end. Rather than to keep the elephants in, these open-ended fences keep us human safe! Elephants are huge creatures who can get a little overzealous when there’s food involved. While they don’t intend to hurt us, they do thrash their trunks around to break their food down, so it’s much safer for everyone when they stand behind the fences. I have to stress that they can move away or around the fences freely – it’s simply a part of their routine.
With hands covered in sticky banana and rice bran, we dived into the buckets and took out our freshly made rice balls. During feeding, we really got to see a little of the elephants’ personalities. The youngest ellie, Chopper, is both cheeky and greedy. She tried to cram as many rice balls into her mouth as possible, as well as stealing them from her elders! Her trunk found its way towards our hands at every opportunity and she’d take food from us even if she had a trunk-full already. Having an elephant reach towards you with her trunk and take food from your hands is an incredible and indescribable experience.
Watermelon went down a treat with the elder elephants too – its texture means it’s easy for them to chew on. Soon, breakfast was gone and the ice was broken between the elephants and guests so it was time for our morning walk.
To make sure the elephants get enough exercise, we trekked through the jungle with them and went exploring. It’s really funny to see elephants rubbing themselves against trees to scratch an itch, or throwing dust over their heads with their trunks. As we reached the river, the elephants would paddle around or swim a little and it was easy to see how much they loved the water. We’d end our trek in a large, open clearing in the forest. The elephants wandered off to graze and explore, and we were able to watch them in their natural environment.
After the trek, we left the elephants to roam and returned to camp for our lunch. All the food we ate over the two days was amazing. Every dish was vegetarian and super-tasty. With lunch devoured, it was bath time. The elephants had returned to camp at their own pace while we ate, so now we walked with them towards the mud pools where they bathed. When we arrived, the elephants moved as one towards the deep pools and began to spray themselves, and each other, with liquid mud. I’d never seen anything quite like this before. The staff from Elephant Haven were happy to get up close and muddy by rubbing mud into the elephants’ skin to help them clean themselves. I took a back seat on this one and was happy to watch – still not quite confident enough to get too close to these gentle giants.
From the mud pools, we headed towards the river to wash the elephants. Pretty much the whole group dived into the water, keen to hurl water from buckets at the elephants to wash the mud from their skin. It was clear to see how happy the elephants were in the river, especially Chopper. It was like watching a group of super-sized puppies playing in water! Chopper ripped up a small tree from the bank and paraded it around like a dog with a stick before charging into the water. We all got soaked by water from their trunks and were able to get close to them this time.
After bath-time, we returned to camp. The day guests left in minivans while the six of us who were staying overnight were shown to our cabins. They were pretty plush compared to what we were expecting – an ensuite and comfy beds with a little balcony too.
We had free time in the afternoon to explore and get a little closer to the elephants. We were taken by Patrick, the manager, to an evening market to buy snacks and drinks before returning to camp for the night. When we got back to camp, we helped the staff haul around one tonne of watermelons into their storage room. No, really.
We had a delicious dinner before the elephants were taken to their beds for the night – this is the only time they’re ever locked in, and is purely to protect them from the poachers who frequent the area. We drank and played cards with Patrick and Khun, another staff member, until late in the night before retiring to our cabins for some much-needed sleep.
Aforementioned sleep was fleeting – at 6am, we were woken up by the sound of elephants trumpeting happily as they bathed in the river! There’s nothing quite like getting out of bed, throwing on your clothes from the night before, wandering sleepily out of your cabin to find a cup of tea (we are English after all) and remembering that the elephants wander freely here. I’m telling you now, that’ll wake you up faster than any cup of coffee! This time in the morning, while the six of us pottered around with the elephants, was some of the most precious. There were more elephants in the camp than there were people, and it allowed us to form more of a bond with these incredible creatures. All my nerves from the previous day had been banished and I got my very first elephant hug…
After breakfast, we left with Patrick and Khun to cut down some sugar cane for the elephants. Elephant Haven owns some land here and they grow food for their residents. Letting us all loose with machetes, the team showed us how to chop through the thick stalks and we soon discovered we were pros. One full truck later, and we arrived back at camp in time to greet the day’s new arrivals – almost thirty people on the one-day tour. Our timetable for the second day was similar to the first as the elephants have a lovely routine going: More jungle trekking and river playtime.
We took a side trip out to visit Krasae Cave and the Death Railway (which I’d dutifully prepared for by reading The Bridge on the River Kwai). This was only a quick visit, but it was good to get a feel for the country and history here.
When we returned, we dropped our bags and headed off to the mud bath where the elephants were waiting. This time, we knew what to expect and had come prepared. I waded into mud up to my ankles and began to rub it into the elephant’s bodies. They loved it. No, really. If elephants could purr, I’m pretty sure they would’ve. One of them was super-curious about my hands – she kept turning them over and feeling them with her trunk. She even started rubbing mud into my leg as I had rubbed it into hers. The magic and awe I felt at this moment is completely indescribable.
Our day came to a close around 4pm, when we said goodbye to Patrick, Khun and the elephants, and piled back into the bus to Kanchanaburi. The memories, though, will stay with me forever.