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Chiang Mai elephants

Thursday, December 10, 2009
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 in Thailand.


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 and

User comments
Finally the right ethical recommendation on a travel show! There are so many self-proclaimed sanctuaries out there that are just tourist traps. Elephant Nature Park is one of the rare places that does not allow rides or the use of the bull hooks. Others include Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary and the Elephant Island (run by Bring the Elephant Home) in Thailand. If you are not up for volunteer work in Elephant Nature Park, there are also day visits and over-nighters. For volunteer work, there's another project in Surin in its infancy. The government of Surin has set aside 2000 acres of land for it. If it takes off, it'll take300 ellies off the streets and be a very strong signal for tourism without tricks and rides to take off.
hi everyone elephant nature foundation australia has been setup to support the work of elephant nature park thailand. we are organising a range of fundraising events. so please join our facebook group (elephant nature foundation australia) to find out more. our 1st major event is a dinner being held in sydney on the 27th of March with every single dollar raised going to the elephant nature park in thailand!
I have just returned from a week volunteering at the Park and can highly recommend it anyone - all ages. I am over 50 and there were several of us in the group, but age didn't matter at all. The place is simply inspiring and a very positive experience. I will be back again next year. The food is sensational and whilst the accomodation is basic, you are there for the elephants anyway.The work done there is varied ie preparing the food and feeding them, cleaning up after them, washing them in the river, plus other odd jobs etc. Not too hard and done in great spirit. Plus there are around 50 dogs there, so wherever you go you have a few dogs in tow.
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, for writing a story about the most wonderous place on the face of this earth. I spent two weeks as a volunteer at the park and I am humbled and amazed at the love and respect I was able to experience there. I have loved Elephants my whole life and to be able to interact and grow to know them on such a level is more than a dream come true. They are by far the most incredible creatures on this earth. After everything they had to endure before coming to this park, they still allow us to share ourselves with them. When you first arrive at the park you can just feel the amazing energy that surrounds it. Lek is by far the most wonderful person I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Her's and her staff's dedication is beyond outstanding. All the volunteers were just amazing too. I did not want to leave, I left a big chunk of my heart there, and I will be back again very soon and often after that. Please go to the Park, you will be humbled.
Having been at the Elephant Nature Park on two occasions for overnight stays, I must congratulate Getaway on their coverage of this truly inspiring place. Education and support to the Thai mahouts is needed. It's been away of life due to the international tourist for too long. Mea Boon, the female with the baby who were on lease to Lek, have now been taken back my their owners and put back to work. They can be heard trumpeting at night as the camp they work from is very close. Too sad. I will be going back, but for longer next time. You are also encouraged to support the local community by going into the school. Again, education of the Thai people and the tourists is paramount.
i have actually been to chang-mai... it was a great experience, seeing the elephants and experiencing the activities there. highly recommended
Fantastic work being done with the elephants! Just a small comment for Getaway in that it is good to check out the local customs especially when it comes to dressing. Park notes that " Polite dress in Thailand is very different from other nations and it is quite easy to cause the locals offense. Although locals at the Park are more relaxed and tolerant, we ask you to refrain from wearing sleeveless garments, tank tops, bathing suits, or bikinis while volunteering at the Park" So it was a bit embarrasing to see the TV presenter in a singlet top!
Thank you for bringing us this truly inspirational story. I was ready to book my family on a holiday to Phuket. After seeing your story I am booking my family on a holiday to Chang Mai. This will be a holiday that my kids will remember FOREVER! Without your show I would never have known that a place like this existed and hopefully hundreds of other people will also be planning their holidays to spend helping these beautiful creatures. Those people that run this place are angels on earth - keep up the fantastic work!
I volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park about 18 months ago and will be going back again. It is the most amazing experience. I would encourage anyone to go and live with the elephants where they have a completely open area to walk around all day and you walk amongst them. It is also great fun at bath time, getting in the water with them.
I was lucky enough to go to this place with my friends when we were holidaying in Thailand 2008-2009 it was a wonderful experience and would recommnd it to everyone. Some of the stories behind these elephants are really sad but some great people are working round the clock to turn it around. Great place

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