If I was to put one place on your list to visit while in Chiang Mai, Thailand I would 100% recommend Elephant Nature Park. You can think of this place as a retirement home for elephants that have endured some serious trauma in their lifetime but stand tall in the face of mistreatment. Observing these gentle giants in their natural habitat is, without doubt, one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. The sanctuary is a completely immersive experience complete with getting up close and personal with the elephants and getting to know their story before they ended up at Elephant Nature Park. I promise, by the end of your experience, you will not only find a true appreciation for these beautiful giants but also count the days until you can return.

How to non-rev to Chiang Mai

So it’s a bit difficult to non-rev to Chiang Mai’s CNX airport but not impossible! In my opinion, it’d be easiest to non-rev to BKK (you can find some of our tips on how to get to BKK there here!) and then to purchase a ticket to Chiang Mai. The tickets are routinely $35 USD or cheaper each way on Thai Airways, Thai Air Asia, and others. It might be worth it to purchase a ticket this time!

Bangkok Bangkok Airways, Nok Air, Thai AirAsia, Thai Airways, Thai Smile, & Thai Vietjet Air
Hong Kong Hong Kong Express, Hong Kong Dragon Airlines, & Thai AirAsia
Seoul Korean Air Lines & Jeju Air
Singapore Scoot & Silkair

Our experience at Elephant Nature Park started bright and early from our hotel on Wednesday morning. We got picked up by the shuttle to drive an hour outside of Chiang Mai City to the beautiful reserve. Along the way, we appreciated the beauty of the city along with watching an informative video about the tourist-driven elephant industry in Thailand. Not only are elephants one of the most revered creatures in Thailand, but they’re also among the most profitable. We learned about the abuse these beautiful creatures suffer at the hands of their masters – the circus, the riding camps where tourists pay money to ride them,  begging on the streets, the logging and mining industry and so on.

Many of these elephants start when they’re just babies. As goes the appeal with the cuteness of the babies, they’re forced to beg on the street, sell fruit, and perform tricks in the circus. As they outgrow their cute charm, they are then sold to riding camps/circus to live out the rest of their life in misery. There are about 82 elephants at the camp; a couple of elephants were born there, while the majority of them were rescued by the amazing founder of the camp named Lek. Her story is extremely heartwarming and I urge you to learn more about her work to save the elephants.

Day One: The Arrival

We arrived at a gorgeous site surrounded by lush forest, a river and beautiful animals around 9 AM. Upon arrival, we met a few of the elephants and gave them a bushel of bananas as a snack. After we got acquainted, our tour guide Apple took us around the sanctuary to meet the rest of the residents. I think it’s safe to say that we met about 12-15 elephants who all had a story worse than the last. Among some of the most common injuries were broken backs/ limbs, loss of sight and starvation. Our tour guide Apple informed us that food is often held back as a form of punishment in these camps to get the elephants to cooperate.

After we got acquainted with our groups and the girls (elephants), we were pretty hungry. We made our way to lunch and almost everyone in the group ate a little too much. Lunch was served buffet-style, with some of THE most delicious food I’ve ever had. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. After lunch, we resumed our campsite walk and made more friends. One thing they don’t advertise on the site and think they really should is the fact that not only is this sanctuary for elephants; it’s a sanctuary for ALL animals. The farm is filled with dogs, cats, buffalos, cows, ducks and more furry friends – all of whom have been rescued. There are quite a few dogs who were rescued from the meat trade, and some from the flood in Bangkok. We also got an opportunity to walk the dogs, mine was named Tofu!

After the walk, we were shown to our rooms we booked an overnight stay and I couldn’t recommend it more. We had a chance to shower, change and hang out with our group and grab dinner (another amazing buffet). After dinner, we were given free time to hang out and get to know our group. We met people from all over the world – our small group consisted of a couple from Brazil, a biology teacher from Oregon, and a couple moving to Florida from Hungary. Our group dynamic was great and we all got along swimmingly. A little bit after dinner, we made our way to the onsite Thai culture class where we asked our burning questions about Thai culture. We ended the night a little early in preparation for our early call time for Day 2.

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Day 2: The Interaction

We met for breakfast at 7 AM sharp and headed out for a walk with the elephants. We came well equipped with bananas in hand to meet our new friends. Along the walk, our tour guide Apple told us more about the life of these elephants who now call Elephant Nature Park home. You can really sense Apple’s love for these animals by the way she tells their stories.

She told us, she studied tourism and hospitality in college, but soon grew tired of the unfulfilling work with tourists. She has always had a passion for elephants, as she grew up around them. She found her calling to the park when the founder of the camp came to her village to rescue one of the elephants – after meeting Lek and seeing her drive, Apple needed no further convincing. Our entire group was awestruck by Apple’s story and determination to save the elephants.

After the walk, we took a quick break to pack up our things and meet for lunch. I was really sad this was the last lunch we would have at the park (I need their secret recipes for noodles). After lunch, we walked to the river and watched the girls bathe. The sheer joy on their faces, while they play with the water, is beautiful! Apple mentioned, on her days off it’s her favorite thing to do- watch the girls play in the water.

After bath time, we put our hands to good use and made a special treat for some of the elderly elephants who don’t have teeth. We mixed water, bananas, corn, rice, oats, and rice flour to make vegan meatballs – apparently, the girls love it!  We fed the girls and to our surprise, they loved it! After the feeding, we were given free time to hang out before heading out of the sanctuary.

It was a bittersweet goodbye. In our short time there, we formed a special bond with these girls and each other. They inspired me so much, that as soon as we left the campgrounds, I whipped out my laptop and wrote this article while everyone else dozed off. I would chalk up this experience to be one of THE best experiences during this trip. I feel blessed to have met and learned about these beautiful creatures. Hats off to Elephant Nature Park for giving me a new perspective on elephants!

Some great links below this gallery!

This natural and cultural journey through Elephant Nature Park is open to everyone! Download the StaffTraveler app and learn more about these beautiful ladies and their lifestyle, strife, and how much they can eat!

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