Northern Thailand's largest city, Chiang Mai, is known as the Rose of the North. It is serene, mountainous country and once upon a time the only way to reach it was by river or elephant.
Well Giaan Rooney has spent enough time in water so she took the opportunity to see how the elephants are faring, but not on the back of one! The services of elephants aren't required so much these days and that means they are often made redundant and sent begging in the larger cities. It's very demeaning to the huge and sensitive animals but there is a place where they are nurtured and tended.
Elephant Nature Park
Nestled in the beautiful Mae Taeng Valley, around 60km from Chiang Mai, the Elephant Nature Park is a place where people work for elephants, rather than the other way around.
The park was founded by Sangduen Chailert in 1995. She was born in the small hill tribe village of Baan Lao. Her special love for the animal began when her grandfather, a traditional healer, received a baby elephant as payment for saving a man's life. Sangduen spent many hours with the family's new friend, resulting in a passion which shaped the rest of her life.
She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Chiang Mai University and moved into working in the elephant tourism industry. She assisted owners of trekking companies to locate unemployed elephants which were deemed as virtually useless, and quickly learned just how much abuse and neglect they were enduring, sometimes over decades.
Considering the elephant is one of Thailand's most powerful and revered symbols working side-by-side with man on farms and in the jungles and once adorning the Thai flag it is difficult to imagine just how they are becoming endangered. There are fewer than 2000 wild elephants and 3000 domestic in Thailand. Logging was banned in Thailand in 1989 which meant the demand for trained working elephants decreased. Some still work in illegal logging but Sangduen and her team are on to it!
Elephant Nature Park is home to more than 30 rescued elephants, ranging in age from infants to old-timers which had been treated extremely poorly. With Sangduen, her team and volunteers they will live the rest of their lives in safety.
The park is open to day visitors and for overnight stays. They get to see the contented animals grazing, playing and communicating as they do in the wild, rather than performing tricks or carting people around. Day visitors may bathe the elephants both parties get a huge amount of enjoyment from it. The elephants are also indulged with a slip slop slap of sunscreen.
The park is non-for-profit and every visit directly supports the elephants and makes the invaluable work possible.
Giaan spent some special time with park manager Michelle Kobylka. She arrived as a volunteer nearly five years ago and has never left. Michelle stressed that maintaining the Elephant Nature Park is a massive job and they do rely on volunteers so if you're ready to roll your sleeves up and get down and dirty and fulfilled, why not join one of their seven-, 14- or 28-day programs. You pay around $70 a day and duties range from bathing, feeding and basic health care of the beautiful animals. All your meals are included.
Living with the elephants could remind you of situations you have seen back home. There's loving, fighting, head butting even a hussy in the group. Each of the rescued elephants has a story to tell landmines, poachers, drugs administered so they could work non-stop hours logging and trekking, but those days are over. They get through 136kg of food every day and they are always interested at tucker time.
The experience is unforgettable and moving and if you would rather walk beside an elephant than ride on top of one, this is the place to go.
Chiang Mai, a 40-minute flight from Bangkok
Elephant Nature Park offers seven-, 14- and 28-day volunteer programmes that include accommodation, meals, transfers and volunteer activities. They cost approximately $400 per person, per week.
Close Encounters with the elephants is one of the rare places in Thailand where elephants no longer work for humans. You will learn about the problems elephants face in South-East Asia, as well as the changes advocated by the Park regarding their care, treatment, and training.
Prices correct at December 10, 2009.
For further information
Elephant Nature Park
Ph: +66 53 272 855
Visas: Australians may stay in Thailand for up to 30 days without a visa.
Electricity: 220V with European plug of two circular metal pins or Japanese plug with two parallel flat blades.
Time zone: GMT +7.
Currency: The baht.
International dialling code: +66.
It is recommended travellers to Thailand see their doctor at least six weeks before departure as there are specific vaccinations that are recommended for Thailand. Other health precautions and preventions may also be recommended are best discussed with your doctor. For further information, visit www.welltogo.com.au and www.smarttraveller.gov.au.