Looking for elephants in Thailand. On a mission with mixed feelings.
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Trying to see some elephants with the best intentions in mind is still pretty difficult in Thailand. I mean there are gradations of course in the tourist business. You can go for a ride with one on a massive platform that is strapped on its back (I honestly can't believe people still do this...). Or watch one that is chained all day doing tricks. Or you can visit an elephant park.
View when entering the park
We did the last option when we were visiting Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand because we believed it was the best way to see them without endangering their welfare. We were still pretty picky about it and wouldn't just simply go to the first one we saw. After some reading on the internet, we believed our best option at that time was the Baan Chang Elephant Park, just an hour drive from Chiang Mai. This park is known for being a sanctuary for elephants. They are bought from abusive situations throughout the country and some of them are pretty traumatized. For around $ 60 per person, you will support the continuation of this park and spend most of the day with the elephants. Good intro, but is it any good in real life?
Good or Bad?
The main question we asked ourselves when doing our research before. Let me tell you first a bit about how the day is planned so you will get a good impression of this park.
You will start with an introduction where you will get the blue Mahout suit so that the elephants will recognize you as a friendly. Then it's time to feed them. The elephants are waiting in an open space and some of them are a separated from the rest, mostly because they are severely traumatized and are not very social in groups. There are baskets with bananas and sugar cane which you can hand out to the elephants. It's really fun to watch how much they enjoy this meal and how surprisingly skillful they are with there trunk
The feeding is the best part
After the feeding, a Mahout will explain how the park works, the relation between the Mahout and its elephant and how you can instruct an elephant whilst riding. Yes, riding the elephants is involved sadly. After a little practice, we were off for two loops around the Park with our elephants.
A walk around the park
Last part of the day involves washing "your" elephant in the pool. Although washing indicates that somebody or something will be cleaner afterward. Believe me, it's definitely not you. Be prepared to walk into a pool of brown water and elephant shit with your bare feet =) The elephants seem to enjoy it in some way, although I think they probably would have had more fun without us.
After the walk it's washing time
This is the description of a full day visit. There are many more tours offered which I don't have any knowledge of.
Our personal experience
We would say that overall, the place is not too bad. At least the animals are not being tortured or anything and the mahouts genuinely try to take good care of the elephants in terms of health and physique. I mean, most of the elephants are living a much easier life now than before. Most of them were logging on the border with Myanmar or were kept with the sole intention of entertaining tourists, like from a circus. But there were still some things that crossed our minds during the tour, which we weren't very proud of.
The tourists come first
The well being and satisfaction of the visitors is being put in front of the elephants' welfare. I mean, the first one I can relate to. But the second one should not be more important in my opinion. In Sri Lanka, we visited one of the National Parks where elephants roam freely. I only saw them from a distance. I did not touch, washed, fed or rode them or anything alike and the experience was still way better than a visit to this park.
Too many tourists
The park is open for business every day and our group was pretty big. The next group was already waiting for us. We had the feeling the place was too crowded for the elephants. The elephants were probably on a fixed and rushed routine every day.
The Mahouts use hooks
This traditional tool to control and punish elephants is still being used by the Mahouts. The Mahouts explained to us that the reason behind this is that most of the elephants in the park were domesticated by this tool in the past and still recognize it i.e. stay submissive that way. I saw some Mahouts use it sometimes when an elephant got off track during the walk. Although it was minimal and we did not like this, it was probably nothing compared to what the elephant had gone through a long time ago.
Riding the elephants (also in couples)
Our tour included riding the elephants. At least we sat in the neck like a Mahout and not on the back of the elephant. The backbones of an elephant are very fragile and not made to carry weight. The ride was pretty uncomfortable and some elephants had two people on it what meant that one of them still sat on the back of the elephant. On the website of the park, I found out that (nowadays) you can choose whether you want the tour with our without riding. A good thing in my opinion.
The elephants are kept on a chain all day
Supposedly for their own protection and to protect the visitors and the farms (and their crops) around the park. As far as I know, there are other places in Thailand and in the world where elephants roam freely in a closed area without any problems. And why can't they put the visitors behind some kind of fence? We're just there for roughly an hour during feeding. The elephants are standing there in the sun throughout most of the day.
Of course, there were some good things as well!
The elephant picks the Mahout and not the other way around
It also seemed they have a very good connection and the Mahouts spend most of their days (and nights sometimes) with the elephant.
Medical care seemed to be good
I did not saw any wounded or damage elephants and the Mahouts sought to make sure the elephants got enough movement throughout the day.
Riding is at least like a Mahout
Although we disapproved of the riding, at least it was in Mahout style and not on some kind of platform that you still see throughout SE Asia.
At least no platform or anything similar
We knew from the beginning that trying to see elephants in Thailand was going to be difficult in terms of animal welfare. Although we really enjoyed the day interacting with these animals, in the end we left with some twisted feelings. Baan Chang Elephant Park can be seen as one of the better ones, but still has a long way to go. Later on, we heard of the Elephant Nature Park where elephants do roam freely and no riding is being done. Another good one seems to be Patara Elephant Farm. If you would ask us now, we would not recommend the Baan Chang Elephant Park (yet).
Our visit to the Baan Chang Elephant Park is roughly five years ago. So a lot may have changed and hopefully improved since then. Have you visited this park recently? Let me know how you experienced it in the comments below!
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