Swaying from side to side, we rumble up the mountainside away from the rustic streets of Chiang Mai and further in the green of the forest. As we enter a clearing, the mini bus comes to a halt and the door bursts open, letting in the warm morning sunshine. As our group adjusts to the new surroundings, we see them… a small herd of Asian elephants. We had arrived at our Elephant Freedom experience day.
The Elephant Freedom experience day is run by The Elephant Nature park, one of the key conservation efforts in northern Thailand. The Elephant Freedom experience day is a special, small group ‘saddles off’ project in cooperation with a Karen settlement in the south-west of Chiang Mai. The aim is to improve the life and treatment of the elephants under the care of these independent owners, by moving away from traditional forms of elephant tourism such as elephant riding, removing the saddles and instead offering, kinder, eco tourism options such as elephant experience days.
During our time in Northern Thailand, we were lucky enough to visit one of these ‘saddles off’ projects and it has been without a doubt one of the highlights of our trip.
Elephant Freedom experience day in Chiang Mai
We started our day by changing into traditional Karen garments (although this isn’t essential) and made our way to the hut and veranda. We then set about preparing the food for the elephants. We had to chop the bamboo and sugar canes using a machete to make them a good size for the elephants. For people who weren’t quite confident enough to hack away at the bamboo and sugar canes, there was also the option to wash the bananas and separate them.
We then made our way down to the elephant paddock, which was a large clearing nestled in the side of the mountain. The paddock was surrounded by a wooden fence, which looked very natural and seemed to blend into the surroundings. In our small groups we fed the elephants the food we had prepared, by placing individual bananas, bamboo and sugar canes onto their trunks.
Being that close to the elephants was awe inspiring and made us aware of just how majestic, powerful and yet incredibly gentle these creatures are.
After feeding the elephants, we followed them on a trek through a valley. It was such a wonderful experience seeing them in that environment. As we made our way along the valley we heard a rustle of leaves in a shrub 20 – 30 foot up the mountain side. When we looked up we could see one of the elephants had climbed the mountain side and was foraging for food. Our guide explained that Asian elephants have more toenails that the African elephant, which enables them to climb and helps them forage for food in their natural surroundings.
Following the trek, we made our way back to the hut and veranda where we started our day and found a great selection of self serve vegetarian food options laid out underneath the canopy. We plated up our food and made our way to one of the wooden tables. It was the perfect time to take a break and soak in the experiences of the day, especially as the boys were starting to get a bit tired and groggy from their trek with the elephants.
After lunch our guide ushered our group into the back of a truck and we made our way down to the river. We noticed the main river had another, smaller river running into it and as we followed the smaller river’s path, we noticed the elephants making their way down it.
As the elephants reached the main river, we were each given a bucket, which we filled with river water and threw over the elephants. Even Bear, who isn’t always the first to jump at a new adventure, grabbed a bucket, stood at the sloping river bank and threw lashings of water over the elephants to cool them.
After a while our group sat on the bank and left the elephants to just be. We watched as they played together and chased one another through the water. Seeing them interacting as a natural herd would, was such a wonderful experience and one we will never forget.
To end our day, our group jumped back into the back of the truck and we set off back to the hut and veranda. We then had some time to change out of the traditional Karen clothing and back into our own clothing, before our group bundled back into the mini bus, ready to start our journey back into the city of Chiang Mai.
As the picturesque mountains, turned to rolling hillside and then back to the rustic streets of Chiang Mai, I reflected on the day I had just experienced. From the moment I stepped into the clearing to be met with the sight of these majestic and ancient creatures, to the time I spent watching them interact with one another in the river. Every moment, was utterly perfect and being able to experience that with my children, is something that I will treasure for a lifetime.
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