Warning: This blog post contains 55 photos of elephants. Just coming clean now so you know what you’re getting into.
Two of the most meaningful days of our Thailand adventure were spent at the Elephant Nature Park about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. This was one of those ‘bucket list’ things for Alex and thus we booked our overnight stay there months in advance of planning anything else. We’re so grateful she had the vision AND that she researched it so thoroughly and found a place that is revolutionizing elephant tourism and treatment.
Most tourist elephant camps keep their animals in captivity, directing their movements with sharp long-handled hooks and providing rides for tourists that literally break the elephants’ backs (they’re much less sturdy than they appear.) And frankly, none of these tricks would be possible without what’s called the ‘spirit crusher’ – a horrific structure that a young and/or captured elephant is placed in and abused until their will to resist is gone.
This camp however, was founded by a lovely woman named Lek who believes not only that elephants should be able to live humanely, but also that it can be done without hurting the economy – both tourism and logging. A couple of short YouTube videos are below. In the first, Lek talks about the meaning of elephant rescue. In the second, you see evidence of the love she offers her elephant residents who often come to her with spirits broken and bodies injured, thus needing some serious TLC.
We did not get to meet Lek as she was off doing the serious business of elephant saving, mainly in the form of educating other camps on what is possible as well as the Thai government on needed legislation. We did however feel her spirit in everyone we met there.
Within minutes of arriving, we were asked to help feed the herd. We were quickly directed to stand behind the red line, hold out the watermelon and squash, and wait for the long trunks to reach in so that we could tuck the food into the ends. We soon learned that those trunks were strong enough to take our arms with their lunch. Also, a couple of the elephants had been blinded by the hooks in their previous abusive lives and thus swing their trunks back and forth looking for the food, so yes, we stayed behind the red line without further reminders. It was our very quick introduction to the fact that these were not animals in a petting zoo, but rather strong beings remembering their wild origins.
We then took a little tour of the grounds. First was the elephant kitchen where the daily supply of food is stored and prepared. Bananas, watermelon and squash from local farmers is the typical menu. Each elephant eats between 200 and 600 pounds of food daily, so what you see is a fraction of one day’s worth!
If you look closely in the next photo you’ll see a woman sitting down behind the squash cage. She is cutting watermelons which is a three-time-a-day job!
The following photo shows the women steaming the squash for those that no longer have teeth and thus can’t crunch open the full veggies. They take care of their elders!
One squash bin is on the outer ‘wall’ of the kitchen and thus we witnessed one girl sneaking an early lunch later in the day. We didn’t tell.
The tour included our first walk into the open park and an opportunity to get closer to the elephants.
We learned that the little guy in the photo below got stuck in a jungle trap and remained there, struggling, for a couple of days before being rescued. You can see his still-swollen front left leg in the photo below. He’s at the park temporarily to heal and has been taken in by this herd of elder females for his stay.
Alex was surprised by her hesitation to get close to these ladies. This respect was well founded. Not only are the animals large, they are also surprisingly quiet when they move so they sort of sneak up on you while you’re just standing around. A little unnerving. First picture is Alex’s first pose, followed by her ‘lean in a little closer’ pose.
Note the gentleman standing to the elephant’s left. That’s her mahout – the constant companion who takes care of her every need. They have been trained in new ways to guide and direct their elephant charge without harsh words or hooks. It’s amazing to watch. Each mahout is provided a home on the grounds with his family and is offered classes in English as well as veterinary medicine if they choose. And they ‘audition’ for their coveted position with the elephant having the final say in who she prefers.
This beauty had a hole in her ear from branding and so now her mahout gives her a fresh earring flower daily.
The daily care chart in the animal hospital area. Most injuries are a result of previous abuse – stepping on land mines in the logging areas near the mountains between Burma and Thailand or getting caught in traps.
Dusting themselves to cool off in the hot afternoon sun.
Taking a little stroll through the river to…wait for it…get to the other side!
And then playing in the river. Kids. I’m not sure that little guy on the bottom of the heap is having as much fun as the top guy. (BTW…little ones are males. All of the fully grown ones are females. That’s typical of a herd in the wild. We ladies gotta stick together. When they come to the park, they’ve obviously been long removed from their families of origin and thus form their own new clans. Interesting to learn who ends up coming together with whom and who doesn’t get along. The few adult males at the park were secured in their private areas since they don’t get along with each other well and more elephant babies isn’t the goal here.)
Now we’re invited to help out with bath time. Notice they’re busy scarfing their watermelon snacks while we splash them down. It was not uncommon to have some interesting ‘droppings’ plop and float on by. No worries – their’s is an organic, vegetarian diet.
Post bath time – cooled, checking for the last bits of snack, and okay with a little love from the visitors.
Alex was more comfortable by now and had her first touches.
Post-bath feeding time – eat, poop, bathe, repeat.
We took a little break and got situated in our hut for the night. Since we were expecting tents, these cabins were fabulous.
A little Chang beer (pronounced ‘chung’) next to some elephants in the distance crossing the river.
We enjoyed a vegetarian dinner and a dance show by some talented children from a local hill tribe. One of the many cats on the property crashed the dance party.
Then off to the hut for some cards and bed, safe inside our mosquito netting.
We heard a little screech of surprise in the middle of the night. A kitty pushed the window screen back and snuck in through the window, snuggling up against Alex.
The burglar acting all innocent the next morning.
I should mention that cats have quite the retreat at the park as well. They have their own area with a caretaker, but also roam the grounds. You know how cats are – no boundaries.
There were stray dogs everywhere we went in Thailand and many have been rescued and brought to the park for care. They also have the run of the place, soaking up the love from any visitor who will give it to them, but steering clear of the elephants who are known to chase them or whap them with their trunks.
So a gazillion cats, a million dogs, and one lucky herd of water buffalo. Here they are behind an elephant and his mahout walking back from the river after bath time. Looks like the buffalo are heading down to the river to take their turn.
The next morning, we had a light breakfast including creatively toasted bread.
Since we were well versed now in how the park flowed, the second day was all about getting even closer to the elephants while learning so much about them from our guide, Apple. Apple’s father had been a mahout (a humane one) and thus she grew up around elephants. She cannot be a mahout because she is a woman, but she told us it would make her uber proud if her toddler son grew up to be one. It is definitely a revered profession. Sadly, I did not take any photos of her as we were so focused on the elephants. I think she prefers it that way.
Our adventure for the day was being chased by a herd led by the naughty boy baby when we got a little too close with our cameras. Again, no photos because we were seriously running away after Apple’s strong directive of ‘RUN!!’ Joel totally wiped out which was scary in the moment and provided hysterical laughter after. Here’s the tip: elephants can run up to 25 miles per hour, but only in a straight line so when chased, be sure to zig zag your path to increase your chances of getting away from them. Not something you learn and implement every day. Did I mention this wasn’t a petting zoo?
Some of them could be pet though and we loved every minute of it.
I loved this older lady. Can I have one, Joel?
Who has more wrinkles?
The deeper the indentations on the skull, the older the elephant.
At one point, something spooked the baby and all of the ‘mothers’ circled around to protect him. It takes a village, yes?
This poor gal is constantly lifting her back leg up. It is one that was injured on a land mine and hasn’t healed fully.
Every day a hired photographer is nearby taking photos of the elephants’ daily life to share with Lek, the founder, so she can ensure all is being well cared for in her absence.
A mahout with his girl.
The mahouts have a fair amount of down time each day and are often seen whittling next to their elephant. They are making little elephant replicas and are only allowed to create their own. We purchased one directly from a mahout and then three more in the gift shop. All proceeds go directly to the mahout artist. The figure on the far left is me with baby Drew (attached), then naughty boy Calvin with the tusks, Alex, and Joel in the lead. Our little elephant clan.
Our feet and Alex’s foot in an elephant footprint.
Hey, how about we take the long way around and skip the path?
Our final task for the day was to unload the watermelon delivery truck and so we formed an assembly line to get it done. Our group for this task as well as for the whole day included a family of five from France, two couples – one from Germany and one from Canada currently living and teaching in China, and us. Made for interesting conversation for sure.
Alex and one of the young girls volunteered to make the banana mush to stuff inside the steamed squash – delicious sandwiches for the toothless ladies.
One final family photo with one of our new friends.
Heading to Bangkok in the next blog.