The Thai Elephant Conservation Center of Lampang, an accessible daytrip from Chiang Mai, gets travelers close to the pachyderms and even closer to each otherby Marco Ferrarese
“I thought Thailand had a lot of elephants,” my father said as we strolled along one of the streets that jut out of Thapae Gate, losing ourselves in the tourist swarm of post meridian Chiang Mai.
We had arrived in the morning, and this was his first visit to Thailand, a visit of great expectations and—for me—tougher preparations. My dad had been to Asia before, in China and Malaysia, and he hoped to see something diverse, more exotic, in the kingdom. For this reason, I decided to trade the southern islands or Bangkok’s city comforts for a short exploration of the North. To me the region had been a highlight ever since I first visited in 2007, and I wanted to show my old man what I considered to be the best that Thailand has to offer.
Of course, my dad had come with expectations that clashed with the increasingly urban vibe of Chiang Mai, an attractive city full of secretive angles and inspiring temples, but far from the lush, shady jungles his imagination was craving. Elephants, a typical symbol of Thailand’s exotic lure, had become the symbol of his travel satisfaction. “You can only see them occasionally in towns,” I answered, “otherwise you must head out to a camp.”
Since I was the one who had been living in Asia for the past seven years, I felt it almost mandatory to avoid the services of a tour operator and surprise my dad by bringing him to see real Thai elephants without all the controversy that comes with pursuing such a touristy activity. It’s well known that some elephant camps do not treat the animals well, and I wanted to avoid showing him some sad zoos that would just reinforce stereotypes. To seek out a more authentic experience, I chose to rent a car and drive an-hour-and-half down Highway 11 to Lampang, home of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (Km. 28-29 Lampang-Chiang Mai Highway, Hang Chat, Lampang, +6654829333), the country’s only government-owned elephant camp, which was founded in 1993.
Upon pulling over in a vast parking lot at the side of the highway, we immediately realized that the center was much bigger than what we had imagined. Behind an entrance that looked like that of a jungle-themed park, a huge swath of forest extended as far as we could see.
“Please take a seat,” the ticket seller said before directing us to a line of waiting shuttle carts. They take visitors along a ring road connecting the center’s different areas: in fact, we learned that besides tourist attraction, the Elephant Conservation Center also serves as a hospital for the pachyderms. Injured elephants are taken here from all parts of Thailand and cared for as if they were sick humans. And when they are too far away or too sick, the center sends a Mobile Elephant Clinic to locations all over the country. What’s more, to help change the widespread perception that mahouts are the first among elephants’ abusers, the center published the first Elephant Care Manual written in the Thai language to help improve the animals’ conditions. It’s been already translated into English, Japanese, and Laotian.
Given these credentials, when the shuttle bus dropped us before a bend that opened into a pond ringed by forest and a clearing, we were less worried that our visit could have turned into a zoo experience. That’s where my dad saw the first elephant stables of his life.
“The African elephants I saw at the zoo back home were bigger,” he said, as skeptical as ever. But he was indeed interested: he kept walking toward the observation platform, intrigued by several elephants that waited in the shade, their mahouts gently sat over their heads. The men held the infamous hooks that many travelers have seen used inhumanely elsewhere, but they kept them slung at their sides like long and innocent nails, with no intention to ruin the silent empathy they had established with their giant mounts.
As we got closer to pat and inspect the animals, three other bigger elephants came out of their stables guided by their mahouts. They continued walking in line, rocking their heavy bodies step after step down to the water until the first dipped slowly into it. Its lower body disappeared as it inched forward in the murky waters. All this while, the mahout on top of it had risen to his feet, balancing over the elephant’s back. For a moment, it seemed as if the man were floating over waters like some sort of Asian Jesus. When the elephant re-emerged from its dive, the man balanced on its back and started washing it with the care of an old friend. Soon enough, one after the other, six other elephants plunged ear-deep in the pond, splashing water from their trunks, playfully enjoying their refreshing bath.
At this point, my dad wasn’t questioning anymore but watching attentively and snapping pictures with his compact camera. Although an increasing number of people came up behind us, the openness and natural surroundings of this space had given him the jungle impression he was craving for. I observed him gulp perceptibly as the biggest elephant walked slowly past us, going up the slope and on the road, leading its colleagues as they followed single file. After the bath, the elephants were going to work.
“Follow the elephants to the show area! See them paint with their trunks!” a woman in a work suit said into a megaphone, attracting swarms of school kids who had come here on visits from the city. They followed the animals in front of a building with an open-air arena nearby, queuing up at the ticket booth.
I waited to follow my dad, but he didn’t move. “Don’t you want to see the elephant show now?” I asked, not understanding what was wrong with him. He watched the last elephant in the line disappear beyond the gate before answering. “It’s OK,” he said, “I don’t think we should.”
“Is there anything wrong?” He looked at two older elephants standing before the stables, freed from any tourist burden, and said, “Absolutely not. We didn’t come to see a circus, did we?”
We jumped on the next shuttle cart and returned to the headquarters and the parking lot. As we drove out of the park and got on the road back to Chiang Mai, something blazed in my dad’s eyes: it was the sparkle of satisfaction we both had hoped for.