Elephants and Beluga Whales. Two of the most beautiful and fascinating creatures on Earth. My obsession started when I was a little kid and as I got older it stuck with me. Beluga whales are pretty difficult to see in their natural habitat, but elephants are a different story. I have seen them both in zoos and animal conservation parks,but I always left feeling a little bit sad afterwards. Talking about the rights and wrongs of these institutions is a totally different blog post so I won’t go into that now.
When I learned that I was going to be visiting Thailand this summer the first and only thing I cared about doing was visiting a place where I could help and learn about elephants. There are many different types of conservation programs in Thailand that are there to educate tourists and help protect the elephants.
I started my trip in Chiang Mai and found a tour that met all my elephant expectations: Baanchang Elephant Park. They offer several different trips and I ended up choosing the 2 day Elephant Mahout training course. During this course, I would learn about what a Mahout did and learn more about elephants in their natural habitat.
My first day we got to meet all of the mahouts. A Mahout is a person who is dedicated to one elephant for their entire lives or however long they are in the elephant’s life. They have a special bond that you notice as soon as you see them interacting with the elephant. I was in awe of this connection and it made my heart smile. These mahouts treated the elephants like they were their children. They would scold them if the elephant was being naughty, bath them several times a day, feed them, walk with them, play with them, and most importantly LOVE them.
During my stay, I asked a lot of questions. If you know me, this shouldn’t come as a surprise…
Why are some of the elephants chained? There are some elephants that are still nervous from being held captive by cruel people so they do not trust the mahouts, people, or fellow elephants. Some of the male elephants will fight over a female when she is in heat. Basically, they are chained up for their own protection and to protect visitors.
Why can’t the elephants roam over all of the acreage you have? They tried to take them all into the jungle, but after a short time they all wandered back to the center of the reserve. The mahouts said that they are still nervous of being out in the jungle due to their past experiences.
Why do you have that hook tool that you carry with you at all times? It is to guide and discipline them. The mahouts said that the elephants are like little kids and need discipline. One mahout threw his to the ground and the closest elephant picked it up and handed it back to him. The mahout looked at me and said,”Do you think the elephant would hand it back to me if it were seen as a weapon to them??
Does it hurt them as I ride them? They said no, but I am not sure about this. I rode the elephants bareback so there weren’t any cruel chairs or harnesses, but I don’t think I have to ride an elephant again. It just felt wrong.
Where did they come from? All of the animals at the park were rescued or saved from circuses, the logging industry, found without their tusks in the jungle, or were hurt. The mahouts are providing them with a safe and loving environment where they can live and grow.
Are they safe here? Yes. They have a local sheriff that lives right outside of the park entrance so he sees who comes and goes. The mahouts told me that he was brave.
The mahouts patiently answered every single one of my questions. Now this park has lots of room for improvement, but since it is a nonprofit organization the only funds they receive are from the tourists and donations. It was the interaction between the mahouts and elephants that put my mind at ease. I could see that the elephants were happy and that the mahout genuinely cared about them.
If you go to this park, do the 2 day tour. My favorite part of this experience was eating dinner by the elephants and watching them without any other tourists around. I loved being able to hear them play and “talk” when I was laying in bed and waking up to see them eating breakfast with me.
Looking into an elephants eyes is one of the most magical feelings. It feels like they can see right through you. They know your secrets and smile at your thoughts. They are portrayed as gentle giants, but I know differently. Giants, yes. Gentle..hmmm I don’t think so. These creatures are intelligent and sneaky, and seem to always be getting into mischief. I can see why so many children fall in love with elephants and why this love sticks with most people throughout their entire lives. I hope that this type of eco/conservation tourism keeps growing. They only way to protect these beloved animals is to educate the world about them.
Would I go back? In a heartbeat.