Photo Essay: Elephants in Thailand

by Christy on

Elephants are incredible animals.

They’re highly intelligent, extremely community-oriented (most live in family-based herds), and exhibit empathy and altruism. They’ll come to the aid of elephants they don’t know, other animals, and even humans in distress. They are also one of the only species on earth that has a recognizable ritual around death.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Elephants are revered in Thailand, but unfortunately that reverence hasn’t translated into widespread protection or conservation efforts.

Although they were traditionally used in Thailand’s logging industry, the majority of elephants now work to entertain tourists. Elephant treks, painting demonstrations, and feeding sessions on the streets of Bangkok are popular tourist activities in Thailand; regrettably, the elephants are subjected to harsh – and often cruel – conditions to generate money for the local economy.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

There are some conservation efforts in Thailand, though, perhaps most famously the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Lek, the founder and owner, has rescued dozens of injured and mistreated elephants since creating the sanctuary in the 1990′s.

If you want to interact with elephants on your trip to Thailand, but you’re concerned about doing so in a way that supports responsible tourism, then the Elephant Nature Park is probably your best bet.

We’ll write more about our time there in a later post, but for now I wanted to share some of the photos we captured. Enjoy!

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Most of the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park are paired with a mahout (or elephant trainer), who makes sure they’re happy and well cared for.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Volunteers regularly feed elephants from this platform, so this hungry elephant is trying to rustle up a snack.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This mahout carves small wooden elephant figurines while he travels with his elephant charge around the sanctuary.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Elephants sense the world through vibrations they pick up from their feet. For elephants forced to beg on the streets of large cities, the sensory overload from passing cars and trucks is extremely disorienting.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Every day around 1 PM the elephants head to the river for a bath. Some of the elephants are assisted by volunteers, while others play in the water with their herd or their individual mahouts.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

After the river, they race to the mudpit to apply a layer of natural sunscreen.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Which is hard work, of course, so maybe it’s time for a nap?

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

An elephant can lift up to 100 kg with its trunk. Amazingly, it can also pick up a single blade of grass.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This elephant and her mahout play a game while they wait in the medical clinic to get an infected foot abscess treated. The second elephant is her BFF; they go everywhere together, so of course she tagged along for moral support.

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

To see more photos of elephants being adorable, check out our Facebook album from our time in Thailand!

{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Christy March 20, 2012 at

I love the post processing in these. Really great photos! We didn’t get a chance to visit the Elephant Nature Park, but I have heard great things.
Christy recently posted: El Capitan Canyon, You Stole My Heart

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

Thanks, Christy – the lighting was sort of iffy when we were there (hazy and mid-day), so I had to do something to help the photos out. ;)

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The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen) March 20, 2012 at

I LOVE elephants! They’re one of my favorite animals. I bet this was amazing to see in person. Great photos!
The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen) recently posted: 10 things you might not know about Montreal

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

They’re one of my favorite animals as well! Baby elephants are just way too cute for their own good, and I love their capacity for intelligence and compassion.

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Cole @ Four Jandalstwitter: fourjandals March 21, 2012 at

What amazing photos! Would love to meet the elephants here and looks like they are treated well which is a nice change :)
Cole @ Four Jandals recently posted: Adventures in France: Skiing the Three Valleys

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

It is a nice change – it’s just sad that they have to be abused to get here first. The whole industry needs to get revamped!

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Sabrinatwitter: countryskipper March 21, 2012 at

Beautiful pictures! Must be an amazing experience to visit the park.
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Christy March 25, 2012 at

I think it was our favorite experience from Thailand – the whole day we all kept looking at each other with goofy grins on our faces, like “Is this for real?? I’m feeding an elephant!” :P

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Annette | Bucket List Journey March 21, 2012 at

You have made me wish I was there right now! What a memorable experience and I can’t wait to do it myself :)
Annette | Bucket List Journey recently posted: My Biggest Regret in Venice, Italy

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

Are you planning to head to Chiang Mai, Annette? If so, you should definitely check out the Elephant Nature Park!

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Lisa March 22, 2012 at

What a great post. I want to see the elephants when i visit Thailand, this sounds like the place to do it. I love that they’re taking care of them and taking in mistreated elephants.
Lisa recently posted: Live a Little: Bringing Spring to Life

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

That was the real kicker for us, Lisa – there are a ton of places around Chiang Mai to ride elephants and all that, but ENP is actually trying to protect them. Once you learn more about the plight of elephants in Thailand it’s hard to support any other tourist organization.

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Mark Wienstwitter: migrationology March 23, 2012 at

Great photos, elephants are such amazing animals – I didn’t know they had a ritual for their dead – cool tidbit!
Mark Wiens recently posted: Photo Favorite: Dramatic Clouds at Ao Nang Beach

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

Isn’t that interesting? Quite sad, though, especially for herds that face a lot of poaching.

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Sophietwitter: SophieR March 23, 2012 at

Love the vintage tint of these photos. Fits so very well.
Sophie recently posted: Devil’s Bridge

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

Thanks, Sophie! :D

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Christopher March 23, 2012 at

These photos–and the style of the photos–are grand. I love the pic on the mahout riding on the head of the elephant. And I learned a few things I didn’t know. Great post.
Christopher recently posted: Good Things Come in Threes

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

It was cool to see the mahout riding like that. Most of the mahouts at ENP don’t ride the elephants (it isn’t really necessary and might not be good for them), but for some reason a few go that route.

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dtravelsroundtwitter: dtravelsround March 23, 2012 at

You know how much I love ENP and those elephants. This is gorgeous!!
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Christy March 25, 2012 at

Your posts on ENP were actually one of the reasons we checked it out. :)

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Natalietwitter: turkishtravel March 24, 2012 at

In my eyes, the perfect job would be working with elephants. I love them and think despite their size, they are so soft and good natured. Great photos.
Natalie recently posted: Dolmabahce Palace – The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

I couldn’t agree more, Natalie – I would LOVE to work with elephants. The cool thing is that you could really develop a bond with them; the elephants follow Lek around all the time and have such obvious affection for her.

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Laurence March 24, 2012 at

Looks like this is the best way to enjoy elephants up close – without wandering through the bush that is ;) Lovely photos!
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Christy March 25, 2012 at

Ha, true. You can see them in safaris, but that’s from a distance. I guess this is really one of the only “humane” ways to interact with elephants; most of them are injured and can’t be released back into the wild, so human interaction is a lot more of a necessity.

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Scott - Quirky Travel Guytwitter: quirkytravelguy March 24, 2012 at

Elephants are amazing. It’s great to see them in environments like this rather than a circus or tiny American zoo.
Scott – Quirky Travel Guy recently posted: Photo Teaser #27: Street cafe

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Christy March 25, 2012 at

Seeing elephants in those contexts is so sad; at the Chiang Mai zoo we saw a baby elephant chained in an open area, and tourists could pay a dollar or two to buy fruit to feed it. The baby elephant had no space to move and was obviously quite unhappy.

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Andrea March 24, 2012 at

Awww – I love elephants! Great photos, guys – what an awesome experience!
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Christy March 25, 2012 at

It was a seriously awesome experience – now I want to go volunteer at the ENP for a week or more. :)

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Laura March 24, 2012 at

Great photos in an interesting style. I love elephants and I like the way you captured them. Thank you for sharing these lovely pics with us.
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Christy March 25, 2012 at

Thanks, Laura – glad you enjoyed the photos!

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Artitwitter: artisdiary March 24, 2012 at

Elephants are revered here in India too! Especially in the Southern part you will find them in Temples and they are part of many ceremonies too. I too just love them. Wonderful creatures.
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Christy March 25, 2012 at

For a long time, when I thought of elephants I thought of India – that’s actually where our first interaction with elephants happened! It’s interesting how they’re similarly revered in different parts of the world. :)

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Ali March 26, 2012 at

Beautiful photos! I hate that so many elephants get treated so badly, so it’s nice to hear about places like this that take care of them.
Ali recently posted: The Great Ocean Road in Photos

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Christy March 27, 2012 at

It is really great that places such as Elephant Nature Park exist, and I hope more start to emerge; I just wish they didn’t have to.

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Amanda March 26, 2012 at

Elephants are so freaking cool. I love the photos here!
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Christy March 27, 2012 at

Thanks, Amanda!

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Kate March 27, 2012 at

Gentle giants! I love the pictures.

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Camtwitter: travelcanucks March 29, 2012 at

Great photo collection guys! Elephants are such interesting animals, I’ll never forget the time we went on an elephant safari in Nepal and the elephant sprayed us with mud water, not cool, but memorable!
Cam recently posted: Our First Family Trip to Palm Springs, California

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Christy March 30, 2012 at

Ha, that sounds both terrible and awesome at the same time. :)

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Wanderplex March 29, 2012 at

It’s shocking the kind of mistreatment of elephants that goes on in Thailand, but when I visited this elephant park, I was also amazed at how some of the abused elephants had been rehabilitated and transformed. It’s a really touching experience.
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Christy March 30, 2012 at

Hearing the stories of all the individual elephants was one of the best parts; I especially liked hearing about the elephants who had formed adopted families, or a few who became inseparable friends. It seems like that’s a really important component of the rehabilitation process.

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Ayelet - All Colorestwitter: allcolores March 29, 2012 at

I love these photos, and the information is fascinating. I was relieved to read there’s a way to interact with elephants in a place that is concerned about preservation.
Ayelet – All Colores recently posted: Bucket List: The Middle East, Or: Israel Loves Iran Loves Israel

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Christy March 31, 2012 at

That’s one of the things that drew us to ENP, Ayelet – once we became aware of what elephants in traditional tourists attractions are put through, we just couldn’t bear to support those.

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Rease March 31, 2012 at

I had no idea Elephants sense the world through their feet, how interesting. I love these photos, thanks for sharing this experience!
Rease recently posted: Eating Cheap in Paris

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Christy April 3, 2012 at

Isn’t that a fascinating factoid, Rease?

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The GypsyNesters April 9, 2012 at

Sooooooo jealous! I love elephants and your photos are excellent. What did they feel like? Are they soft?
The GypsyNesters recently posted: Life’s a Beach

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Christy April 10, 2012 at

When you push on their skin a little bit the texture is squishy, but just rubbing it was rough and scratchy! I wasn’t expecting all the hair, which is really bristly. And Kali says the kisses were wet and stinky. ;)

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Christinatwitter: christinahegele April 15, 2012 at

What an amazing experience this must have been. Very cool pictures and really interesting info – I had no idea the vibrations they pick up through their feet were so crucial for navigating around.
Christina recently posted: Panoramic view: Curral das Freiras, Madeira

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Christy April 16, 2012 at

Thanks, Christina! It was an awesome experience and we learned a ton.

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cheryl April 29, 2012 at

WOW! Such lovely photos.I love elephants, such beautiful and emotional creatures. So lucky you got to hang out with them. :)
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