Elephants are synonymous with Thailand and the rest of Asia. For centuries, they have been significant cultural and religious icons. There are an estimated 7,000 elephants across the country. Only half have the privilege of roaming wild through endless pastures and jungles. Most of these spectacular animals are found in the north on the Myanmar border or in the protected national park Khao Sok in the south. The other half have very different tales to tell. Humankind has subjected these sentient animals to endless evils, from marching them through murderous wars to modern-day logging, trekking and the circus performances that you’ll find familiar.
The advent of social media and Instagram, in particular, has created a flood of bucket list dreams; one of those is to ride on or bathe with an elephant. Have you ever considered how it’s possible to encourage a five-tonne animal to walk through crowded and polluted streets, trek along torturous paths for endless hours, have their sensitive skin scrubbed with a bristly brush, ride a bicycle or paint a picture? In short, you don’t without an awful lot of distress, hurt and immeasurable soul destruction. Each elephant that’s ridden or performs unwillingly takes part in an ancient form of torment called the pajaan. YouTube it; it’s not an easy watch.
Thankfully, Thai national Sangduen Chailert, fondly known as Lek or the elephant whisperer, has been providing a safe haven for her beloved Asian elephants for almost three decades. As a tribesman’s daughter, she grew up in the wilds of Thailand, where she bore witness to a pajaan. She never forgot the cries that she heard. This experience dictated her trajectory and formulated her life’s mission from a very young age. She is the sole founder of Elephant Nature Park (ENP). The park has grown beyond her wildest dreams. It provides an extraordinary hands-off experience where retired, disabled, forgotten and abused elephants are free to roam, form herds and enjoy their freedom.
Slowly the world is beginning to wake up and realise that watching a natural herd interact, play and be a family is much more pleasant than seeing the world from atop an abused elephant. Lek has and continues to single-handedly shake the elephant world to its very core. She continues to form inspiring relationships with previous logging and trekking organisations and individuals and show them ten-fold beauty in a free-roaming animal. She has introduced the Saddle Off Programme to many camps that previously permitted riding and bathing. Lek has rightfully been bestowed numerous awards such as Time Magazine’s Hero of Asia, The Ford Foundation’s Hero of the Planet, one of the six Women Heroes of Global Conservation and the Responsible Thailand Award for Animal Welfare.
Anyone that visits Elephant Nature Park will encounter an emotional and deeply touching experience. There are boxes of tissues on every table. Empathetic mahouts, guides and local tribesmen lead guests carefully through the park imparting stories about each elephant. It is extraordinary. You’ll hear desperately tragic stories about elephants who have lost their babies in cruel accidents, were forced to continue working in logging camps with broken limbs, or were subjected to modern-day war and landmine explosions. Lek, which means tiny in Thai, is far from it. She’s bold. She’s determined. She’s the voice of Asian elephants.
Local hotelier Anne Arrowsmith who runs 137 Pillars Hotels & Resorts, was deeply affected by her experience at Elephant Nature Park. She wanted to support Lek and the elephants wherever she could. It’s rather poignant that 137 Pillars Hotel in Chiang Mai was constructed from ancient teak logged by elephants in the early 19th century. “It seems very appropriate that we should form this long-term partnership with ENP to raise funds for the rescue and protection of these magnificent animals and to help to raise global awareness of the need to do so, as well as to be involved in the reforestation of the area”, said the Corporate General Manager.
137 Pillars Hotel in Chiang Mai offers magnificent weddings. None of which allows the bride and groom to ride an elephant. Instead, they encourage their guests to visit Elephant Nature Park for a hands-off experience. The Skywalk is Thailand’s first truly hands-off area that gives you a bird’s eye view of the herds of rescue elephants that roam freely, socialise, eat and play in their natural surroundings, including the nearby river, custom built pools and mud pits. You can also see elephants bathing without human hindrance in the shallows of the river, teaching their babies how to use their trunks and socialise in perfect harmony.
It’s time the world put their hats on and took the saddles off.
For more information about elephant free weddings, contact https://137pillarshotels.com/en/chiangmai/, to visit Elephant Nature Park, https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/ to help support elephants across Thailand https://saveelephant.org/.