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Walking with Elephants in Thailand

by Kate Dernocoeur, guest blogger

 She pads up the dirt road like someone quietly scuffing in leather slippers. If I close my eyes, it’s all I hear: scuff…scuff…scuff. Slow. Meditative. I could get lost in the peace of it.

She’s an ex-addict. When she came here, it took three weeks to detox her from the amphetamines she’d been given so she could work for one of her owners 12 hours a day, and for the other the rest of the time.

When I met her, she was my age—52—and safe at last. The two-ton elephant behind which I was walking will live out her years at Elephant Nature Park, a wonderful place in the hills an hour’s drive outside Chiang Mai, Thailand.The 90 acre park, situated on a bend in the Mae Taeng River, is shared by volunteers, staff, and mahouts (elephant handlers, one per elephant) with more than three dozen elephants. It is a quiet place, interrupted not even by internet bandwidth or cell coverage.

I knew little about these amazing creatures before spending two weeks in 2005 as a volunteer to help walk, bathe, and feed them. You can meet them, too, by going to and learning about this award-winning conservation effort founded by Lek Chaillert, a tiny woman with a huge heart, in 1996. All of the elephants have stories, many heart-wrenching, of abuse and neglect. They range in age from 8 months to 86 years old. None will ever again face the indignity or disrespect of (illegal) logging, farming, or even soccer-playing, painting, or giving rides to tourists. The elephants at Elephant Nature Park have only to be elephants, and thereby delightful ambassadors to visitors who come to see them in their natural glory.

 What an experience! Every day, I strode alongside the herd on its walkabout  up the road and back.  We also scrambled up the hill to tie strips of cloth blessed by Buddhist monks on trees, to prevent deforestation.  In the heat of midday, an elephant is wonderful portable shade.



Bathing twice a day meant ambling to the riverside beach, splashing in, and finding someone to scrub and toss water with a basin. The elephants love water.  Even better: mealtime! According to“Elephants in Thailand,” by Adam Flinn , elephants consume about 300-600 pounds of fodder and 40 gallons of water daily (which is why keeping them in the city is dastardly). About 1:00 pm every day, a truck arrived filled with squash, bananas, pineapple, cucumbers, and more. We offloaded and rinsed it of pesticides, then fed the elephants from the feeding platform. Later, some were not above doing a bit of food scavenging!

Lek’s dream is to conserve habitat and preserve the Asian elephant. From millions of elephants roaming much of the planet at one time, according to Flinn, there are maybe 30,000 Asian elephants left, and only three or four thousand in Thailand (down from over 100,000 at the start of the 20th century). May we all see the benefit of her efforts.



Here’s Kate giving her elephant friend a cool down during her experience at the Elephant Nature Park.   Her next adventure: walking across Africa.  We hope she’ll share her experiences here on


Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    Jan 18, 2012 Reply

    Amazing creatures… so easy to fail to appreciate.

    I had been seriously interested in natural history for more than forty years before I “got it”. I’d seen elephants in zoos, circuses.

    Everyone (?) knows how magical dolphins are… elephants are the same, for many of the same reasons: Highly intelligent, empathetic. Intense family relationships… even more than dolphins, I would say.

    My epiphany came sitting in an open Land Cruiser on the banks of the Chobe River, northern Botswana amidst a herd of wild elephants. Some of the older elephants came over, very sedate and dignified and checked us out. The benign scrutiny of their eyes is hard to describe, but changed my appreciation for these wondrous beasts. No longer were they just the great gray lumps which stood around, bored to dementia, in zoo compounds. This is not a rant against zoos… they do good work… but knowing elephants through those in zoos is like knowing humans through those in nursing homes.

    • posted by
      Jan 18, 2012 Reply

      I totally agree.  I too have seen elephants in Botswana. Had  several different experiences including one where we got between a Mama and her baby.  Wow.  She raised and extended her ears and took off after us.  Fortunately our jeep could go faster than she could.  We got out of there.  

      There is something really fascinating about elephants and I appreciate Kate sharing her experience in Thailand with us.   

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