OYOP: Chiang Mai, Thailand & Elephant Nature Park
Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, is the country’s cultural capital. Today, it is an interesting mix of old world history and new world modernity. You might be strolling down the street with a McDonald’s ice cream cone while Buddhist monks in bright orange robes glide by you on the way to a 13th century temple. Within the brick walls of the old city, which is surrounded by a moat (a moat!), it is easy to get lost in the history of this place. The brick wall and moat were originally built to quarter off the city’s ancient temples, and are now everyone’s frame of reference. You might have a tuk tuk driver ask, “Are you going inside or outside of the wall?” and you might answer “Inside, to the place on the southeast corner near the moat.”The city of Chiang Mai itself wasn’t as charming as I’d hoped it would be. There are tacky modern shopping centers near the old city. An overload of western food for “farangs” (the Thai version of “gringos”) permeates throughout the city. Though, it’s not surprising that a destination as popular as Chiang Mai with so much in the way of history and attractions has been built up in recent years to cater to visitors and the ever-growing retired farang expat community. Though the Thai language dominates, it is surprisingly easy to get around in English here, as I have found to be generally true in Thailand. As is so often the case, the real magic of Chiang Mai lies outside of town, in the dense, green jungle and endless, lush mountains. One day, we rented a scooter and rode about an hour outside of town to a nearby mountain, Doi Suthep. We cruised up the switchbacks of the mountain roads, slowly feeling the air change from sweltering heat to a cool, mountain breeze as we climbed up in altitude. After a quick visit to the temple on the mountain, we continued up into the mountain’s misty fog and eventually found ourselves in a Hmong hill-tribe village. Hill-tribe villages are sprinkled throughout the mountains of northern Thailand. The hill tribes are known for their traditional crafts or customs, such as the long-neck karen tribe whose women wear brass rings around their neck that push their collar bone down to have the appearance of a longer neck. However, they also have extremely low standards of living and often no rights to the land on which they live. The first sight of the Hmong village on which we’d stumbled was a line of modest open-air shacks serving up local food and selling handicrafts. Locals were reclined back in chairs or gathered chatting at a neighbor’s shop, seemingly prepared for an influx of visitors that weren’t to come. As soon as we’d arrived, the cool mist transformed into a long, afternoon storm, and we ducked into a small cafe for Thai milk tea and spent hours with the local owner who entertained us with wooden puzzle games that she sold at her shop. We shared few words, as there was little English to be found at this hilltop village, but we passed the hours of the rainstorm, communicating with lots of hand gestures and laughs.
The Elephants of Thailand
It is impossible to visit Thailand without becoming enchanted by the idea of visiting the Asian elephants that reside here. There are a few thousand Asian elephants in the wild in Thailand, but just as many elephants are domesticated and live their lives in the logging or tourism businesses.
I, like many people, had not thought much before about the elephant tourism business. Since I was a kid, I knew that elephants perform in the circus and that people ride on their backs. I, too, thought it would be a unique experience to ride on an elephant. But as I got closer to having the opportunity to learn about and visit elephants in Thailand, I wanted to make sure I knew more about what I was getting into.
In order for an elephant to become domesticated for the tourism or logging businesses, baby elephants are taken from their families and abused until they become obedient to the mahout (trainer). The baby elephant is chained, dehydrated, and starved until its spirit is broken, and it easily succumbs to the mahout. Through the elephant’s life, mahouts continue to use chains and sharp bull hooks to train or punish the elephants, and the animals are subject to long-hours in the heat with little to no food and water as they perform tricks or carry tourists on their backs.Today, elephant shows and elephant riding on a seat are still popular tourist attractions in Thailand. Though, there is now a trend toward elephant care camps as a form of tourism as well. Visitors pay to spend time with elephants that were rescued from the tourism and logging businesses and can feed and bathe them. These plentiful elephant camps sounded like a much better alternative to me.
I grabbed brochures for about a dozen elephant camps, got online, and started doing my research. All of these elephant camps advertised that the elephants had been rescued and were now being properly cared for at the camps. Still, most of these camps offered barebacked riding, which is much less weight than riding on a seat, and mahout training. However, I wasn’t interested in seeing the elephants still at work.
Furthermore, some websites added a disclaimer that the elephants still must be chained and that bull hooks were used at the camps. When this wasn’t explicitly listed on the website, the “bad” reviews on trip advisor would answer this question for me. I felt confused about what these camps were really offering in the way of better lives for the animals. I just couldn’t get behind supporting an elephant camp with which I didn’t feel 100% comfortable.
Instead, I sought to visit the anomaly in the group, Elephant Nature Park, a 30,000 acre park that is home to rescued elephants, as well as water buffalo, dogs and cats. The elephants here are not chained and no bull hooks are used. There is no riding allowed, no shows, and no training. A care taker is assigned to each elephant, and they follow around the elephant as it roams all day, and if it strays too far, they simply entice it back with food. Most of the elephants here are older, and many are blind or have mental problems from decades of abuse and labor. Still, they are free today and provide proof that an alternative to the chain and bull hook method by the other rescue camps is possible.
We had an incredible experience watching the elephants roam around, living in herds, and I was happy to have the opportunity to support an elephant care facility that I could easily get behind. Hopefully, more tourists will do just a little bit of research and only support experiences with elephants that they feel confidently about. The tourism industry and the elephant camps survive based on consumer choices, and it doesn’t take much to learn and figure out what you are comfortable supporting.