Posted by: Alicia Phillips | August 6, 2013

Elephant Nature Park

I had the unbelievable chance to work with a group of Asian elephants for a few days in Northern Thailand. Elephant nature park is a worldwide renowned park that rescues elephants from abusive owners or logging camps, or circuses and allows them to live out the rest of their lives roaming free around Mae Taeng valley in Northern Thailand.


The Asian elephant has a pretty grim history. In the last 30 years it’s numbers have decreased by 50%. Elephants used to be used primarily in the logging industry but thankfully in 1990 Thailand banned logging. Good for wild elephants but bad for already domesticated elephants. Where do they go now? What do they do? They can’t go back to the wild and are out of work. Most died and many were used in the tourist industry. Tourists think it’s great to come to Thailand and ride on an elephants back. They don’t realize that elephants can break their back or get severe spinal damage from years of carrying heavy loads on their backs. A lot of elephants are used for begging as well. Mahouts, or elephant trainers, will walk with their elephants through busy city streets getting the tourists to pay to feed the elephant. Elephants use their feet to sense tiny vibrations of the jungle floor- I can’t imagine the stress they must feel walking through the city. Domesticated elephants are known to sway their heads and trunks back and forth, a behavior unknown to wild elephants, it shows that they are stressed and may develop psychological disorders.

Don't Ride Me!!

Don’t Ride Me!!

Wild elephants are turned into domestic elephants by a technique called crushing that is a hundred year old tradition. Basically what happens is they are captured then pulled into a bamboo cage where they are unable to move any part of their body. They are then beaten with sticks, poked with spears, bull hooks and chains, especially in the sensitive areas like they ears and feet. They are not allowed eat, drink, or sleep. They are kept there, sometimes up to a week, until their spirit breaks and they are then trained to follow commands given by their mahouts.  They come out scared and bleeding and weak and are then put through weeks of beating and training to follow commands and perform stunts.

Elephant Crush

All the elephants at Elephant Nature Park have a history, and they all have scars to prove it.  Quite a few of the elephants there are blind. One elephant, Jokia, used to work as a logging elephant. She was pregnant and pulling a load up the mountain when she miscarried and her baby fell out and rolled down the mountain.  Jokia, unable to rescue her baby, had severe emotional trauma and refused to do anymore work. At which point her mahout deliberately stabbed her in the eyes and blinded her. Jokia now lives in at the park and another elephant has “adopted” her and leads her around the grounds and they never leave each others sides. All of the elephants at this park have similar stories. Some have broken legs from getting hit by vehicles or from stepping on land mines. One elephant I saw had a big earring on one of her ears. I asked about it and was told she had a hole there from a bull hook used on her years ago, she she came here they covered it up with an earring.



Enter Lek, probably one of the most amazing women I will ever have the privileged to meet. Her name, Lek, means tiny in Thai. She grew up in a tiny village in northern Thailand and grew up loving elephants. Eventually, she decided to open this park to abused and abandoned elephants who need a place to live. Here they don’t have to do anything but eat and bathe and play in the mud. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to be as an elephant than Mae Taeng valley. With big open spaces, jungles and a river running through it. Lek and the work she does is known around the world. Several documentaries have been done about her work by National Geographic, Discovery, BBC, an Animal Planet. In 2005 Time magazine honored her with the Hero of Asia award.

Lek and her Elephants

Lek and her Elephants

Beautiful Mae Taeng valley

Beautiful Mae Taeng valley

There are a ton of elephant parks in Thailand and Cambodia. Some of the parks let you ride the elephants and at the end of the day they gather he elephants and they perform for you or paint pictures for you with their trunks all for a cheap price. However at elephant nature park you are not allowed to ride them, they don’t perform for you, they can roam wherever they want. This park is for people who would rather walk beside an elephant than ride on top of one.

And every penny given to Elephant Nature park is used for the elephants. A lot of the tour companies won’t advertise going to Elephant Nature Park because Lek refuses to give them a commission- because all the money that comes in goes towards feeding the elephants or finding and buying abused elephants.

This load of Bananas will feed the elephants for one day

This load of Bananas will feed the elephants for one day

I was able to feed the elephants, they eat 10% of their body weight everyday! And give them a bath in the river after which they promptly went and covered themselves with mud (they use it as a sunscreen).


LOVE bathing in the river!

LOVE bathing in the river!

Then immediatly covered in mud

Then immediately covered in mud

I am so so so happy I came and volunteered at this elephant sanctuary. If you ever make it to Thailand make sure you come and visit. You can spend 1, 2, or 3 days or 1-4 weeks volunteering here. Check out their website



  1. So cool Alicia,… I remember u tellin me about this n; you’ve finally done it… 🙂

  2. WOW!! This is amazing and so sad, but happy at the same time! I’m so glad you enlightened me about riding on elephants. I had no idea it was actually harmful to them, but it makes sense!

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