Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Baanchang Elephant Park: Chiang Mai, Thailand

I still have plenty more pictures to share from our time in Cambodia, but this week I thought I would take a break and fast-forward to the next destination of our honeymoon: Chiang Mai, Thailand! Specifically, the Baanchang Elephant Park north of the city.

As I mentioned before, when Jonathan said he wanted to ride elephants during our honeymoon, I was concerned with the ethical issues around animal tourism. So, I Googled "ethical elephant riding in Thailand" and found several possibilities, including Baanchang Elephant Park. I then looked each of the locations up on Trip Advisor to seek corroboration of their claims of ethical treatment. Several of the parks had reviews noting visible animal cruelty or otherwise unpleasant experiences by the visitors, but Baanchang's reviews were positive overall, and many users noted the respect between the mahouts and the elephants at this park. So, Baanchang it was!

Riding elephants was part of the package, but the focus was on elephant education. We learned about the various circuses and cities the elephants had been rescued from, which unfortunately included some pretty horrific stories about the abuse the elephants had endured. :( We also spent quite a bit of time feeding the elephants, which was amazingly fun! The park buys all their produce from local villages to help support the local economy, which I thought was pretty neat.

I don't know why I kept making such awkward faces....

We learned several simple mahout commands to guide the elephants, such as "walk," "stop," "right," "left," and even "good," to compliment the elephant. :) We also learned how to tell the elephant to lift its trunk so we could place food directly in its mouth, as Jonathan is demonstrating here:

This little guy's nickname was "The Kiss" (below). I think you can see why. :)

Finally, after bonding with the elephants all morning, we climbed on for a ride! Unlike many elephant rides, which use large carts that damage the elephants' shoulders, we rode bareback. I have to say: I honestly think it was way more work for me than for the elephant! I felt so tense the whole time because I was trying not to lose my balance while at the same time trying not to squeeze the elephant's neck too tightly with my legs. But I eventually did get the hang of it, and the mountain trail we strolled along was gorgeous.

My favorite part was definitely bathing the elephants at the end of our day! I didn't get any pictures of us actually washing the elephants, in the interest of protecting our electronics, but I did snap a photo of the mahouts getting the elephants into the water:

Full disclosure: Baanchang does chain their elephants, which I assumed was to protect the visitors, but apparently it's actually to prevent the elephants from fighting with each other. Because they are all rescued from different parts of the country, they do not all get along. The elephants are also confined to the barns at the night, which was very disappointing to me. I was hoping they would have free range of the park after the tourists had gone home for the day, but our tour guide told us they have to stay within a confined area because otherwise poachers will enter the park and kill them during the night.

Although the experience wasn't perfect, if you want to ride an elephant you need to realize it's not going to be completely natural. Overall, I was pleased with our experience and learned a lot about these beautiful creatures. If interacting with elephants is something you are interested in, I would definitely recommend Baanchang!

Have you ever participated in animal tourism? Were you happy with the result?

Linking up with Bonnie Rose for Travel TuesdayAsh for Two for Tuesdays and Nicole for Treat Yo'Self Thursday.

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