The minivan whips through the Chiang Mai traffic for 20 or 30 minutes as the guests inside all remain perfectly silent. A couple yawns are drawn from the group of tourists, a couple whispers of “I’m so tired”, and a fair number of bobbing heads trying to fight a return to a short night’s sleep. I can’t help but think that this is nicer than I imagined. Elephant Nature Park is massively popular, so I figured on a couple dozen other guests at least. Our car of 10 isn’t so bad.
Soon, we pull off at a rest stop and I realize my folly. There are at least a dozen other “Elephant Nature Park” minivans, just like the one I’ve been riding, heading in the same direction.
Down the road, we leave the urban sprawl of Chiang Mai and slip into a more mountainous region. The road shrinks from highway to rural road. We pass by camps of elephant trekking companies. A group of tourists ride Thai Elephants in single file along the roadside. Inside the mini-van, individuals start to mutter judgmental curses at the elephant riders under their breath as they pass: pricks, wankers, ignorant fucks.
We approach Elephant Nature Park, and pull to a stop. The park itself is beautiful. An interesting meld between nature, viewing areas, and the necessary elements required for maintaining dozens of Asian Elephants, not to mention over a hundred rescued and orphaned dogs.
Elephant Nature Park is everything I love about travel. It’s proof that the arrival of travellers to a region can provide a positive impact as well as the variety of negatives that are so often highlighted. Without the over a hundred tourists that now stand swarmed around a platform hand-feeding elephants fresh fruit, funding a place like this would be nearly impossible. Visitor’s pay 2,500 Baht (about $75USD) for a single day excursion to the park, and that money, along with donations and a massive volunteer force, fund the massive operation.
Each elephant requires about 200-300kg of food each day. Without a share of the almighty tourist dollar funneling in here, there is no way this park would be possible.
As soon as the tourists come in contact with the elephants, many of the same people scoffing at the tourists back at the elephant trekking camp seem to lose their own reasons for being here. They spend little of their time learning about the elephants, and most of their time trying to get a #selfie with each and every animal they see. Inches away from one of the massive animals, tourists stand with their heads focused finely to their travel smartphone clicking through all the filters, finding the right one to post to facebook and instagram as soon as they get back to the land of WiFi. Travel for bragging rights, in its finest form.
The day-tour to Elephant Nature Park has you walking with elephants, hand-feeding them, and even getting into the river with them and giving them a bath. Their attention, however, is completely constrained to the amount of food you have around you. Once the bucket of watermelons dwindles they move on.
Despite all the good that happens here, though, it’s hard not to get a bit caught up in the fact that basically all aspects of what I’m growing to hate about travel happen right here as well. Tourists that care more about the photos chase the elephants around; especially the young ones they’ve especially been told to keep their distance from. They swarm the animals with seemingly less care for animal’s well-being, than their own enjoyment. Only slightly better than the same elephant-riders they were scorning earlier in the day.
The elephants; they look happy, though.
At lunch, as I sit down to watch a couple documentaries on the treatment of elephants in the work force – both as beggars in the cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and in the tradition villages – I can’t help but dream of a Thailand that still has a place for wild elephants. And well the National Park space for wild elephants is limited, tourism could really save this species whose global population has dwindled to less than 30,000.
In the end, what I think I learned through my experience at Elephant Nature Park is multi-fold. First and foremost, I learned that elephant trekking though isn’t ideal, without things like that there would be no place for previously domesticated Asian Elephants in Thailand, or much of Southeast Asia for that matter. It’s how the animals are treated that’s the difference. In an old article about an Elephant Back Safari in Zambia, I asked what the difference was between horse riding and elephant riding. If you’re against the use of one animal for enjoyment, or work, how can you be against another? But, when it comes down to it, it simply comes down to the treatment of animals. That’s the bottom line.
I also learned at Elephant Nature Park, and in Thailand in general, that I really need to distance myself from tourist destinations that draw the type of partypackers like the ones that that go mental at Songkran, and care about nothing more than getting drunk and taking selfies. I need to get off the beaten path again. I need to explore places that haven’t yet been left with the many blemishes of tourism. As beautiful the work they do at the park may be, it was a stark reminder that traditional tourism is far from what I need in my life. It’s time for adventure again. It’s time for China.
If you want to get involved with Elephant Nature Park, or visit the park as a tourist, be sure to head over to their website for more information. It’s a great cause, and they really do appreciate any support they get, and in any form.