Meeting the elephants
What an amazing time we've had!!
We arrived in Chiang Mai quite late and headed to Julies Guesthouse, a place we had been told by a number of people that it was a great place to stay. We arrived around 10.30pm to be shown to our room by the night guard. The room was quite small, though it had an ensuite bathroom which I was thankful for as the next three days I was quite ill and needed the bathroom quite a lot, something that would have been a nightmare if it was shared!!
On the 1st Sept we got up early as we were being picked up at 8am to go the Elephant Nature Park. We had been looking forward to this since we had begain planning the trip, so it was very exciting for it finally be here! We were the first to be picked up and had to go round to several other hotels to pick up the others in our group.
Free to roam
Our guide was a Thai man called 'Eric' who gave us a bit of information about the days activities. We first headed to the local market where we helped load up two pick up trucks with bags of fruit. There were bags of cucumbers, bananas, some things I didn't recognise and a multitude of other things that we all formed a chain to pass down to the truck. After the truck was full we climbed back into our minibus and watched a film on the park. The Park was the creation of a Thai woman called Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert. Lek means small in Thai, but her vision was massive. She grew up in a small tribal village, granddaughter to the village's Shaman. After saving the life of a man, her grandfather received an elephant as a gift and so Lek's love for elephants begain. She gained an university education and set about making a difference.
Coming in for lunch
Elephants are revered in Thai culture, emblems of them are everywhere, on shops, hotels, restaurants and of course, temples. Unfortunately, the standard of care most elephants receive is far below what their status as the national symbol would suggest. Captive elephants are considered livestock so receive the same rights as cows and buffalo, which is none. Most elephants were employed as logging elephants, hauling huge logs through the forest all day. When logging was banned in 1989 the elephants became unemployed. Their owners couldnt afford to keep them so they were sold, many were smuggled through to Burma where illegal logging still flourishes. Others were sold to trekking camps, where they were trained to perform 'tricks' such as painting, playing football, darts or dancing on their back legs.
They also had to carry the many tourists wanting to ride on an elephant. Many baby elephants are taken to Bangkok
, where they are used to beg on the streets, getting money from tourists in exchange for the chance to feed them a small amount of food.
Lek believes that all elephants have the right to be free, never having to work in camps and be subjected to the often cruel training methods employed in teaching them their 'tricks'. She started Elephant Nature Park, leasing a small area of forest from the Government. She called this Elephant Haven and bought her first elephant out of her own money. The first elephant she found was Mae Perm. Mae (meaning mother) Perm has been passed around from owner to owner, never knowing any real security, being owned by a poor karen tribal family, a British logging company and a rich family, who kept her chained in the garden as a 'show piece' to guests.
Fun in the water
Since coming to the park Mae Perm has settled into a happy, carefree life, being the surrogate auntie to several of the youngsters there. A few years ago Lek rescued a completely blind elephant called Jokia. She was worried how Jokia would fit in with the others, but Mae Perm immediately adopted Jokia and now is never far from her side, making sure she is always safe.
Lek has undergone a lot to bring her dream to life, death threats and opposition from the locals scared that she was going to drive them out of business, being just a few. In 1995 a Texan man, a self made millionare in the coffee business and founder of the Serengeti foundation donated enough money to buy 50 acres of land not far from Elephant Haven. Lek moved the 4 elephants she had rescued to this new land and the place has flourished, now looking after more than 30 elephants.
Getting a bath
We pulled into the park around 10.30am, unloading our backpacks as we were staying for three days. We were led up a couple of stairs into the feeding platform and there they were. Elephants, everywhere!! The feeding platform is raised about five foot off the ground, about level with the elephants heads. We couldnt believe our eyes, free roaming elephants mere inches from us. There are no fences at the park, the elephants are allowed to wander wherever they want, its the humans that are confined to quarters. Each elephant has its own mahout (sort of a keeper/guardian) that spends every day just following their elephant about, making sure it doesnt get up to mischief. We were taken down to meet the smallest members of the park, two baby elephants, one three months old and one four months old.
Meeting the founder of the park
They were SO cute, playing about trying to grab shoe laces and could push me around with ease! Feeding time was at 11.30, announced by the banging of a wooden bell but the elephants knew already, they had been lining up since we arrived, their internal clock (or rumbling bellies) telling them it was lunchtime. Each elephant gets their own basket full of fruit, and we were allowed to hand it to them under the watchful eye of the mahouts.
They are truly huge, able to eat a full bunch of bananas in one go, wrapping their truck around the fruit with such dexterity and gentleness. There are more muscles in an elephants truck than in a humans entire body! Some of them were picky about their fruit, discarding watermelon to grab for the tastier bananas, but other were greedy little buggers, even bending down to reach under the platform for any fruit that had fallen under.
Mookie, on of the many rescued dogs at the park
After the elephants feeding time it was our feeding time, a huge buffet lunch with tons of different dishes to enjoy. We got to know some of the other people during lunch, there were volunteers staying 1, 2 & 4 weeks, how we wished we were one of them! It was a surreal experiance, sitting at a table with elephants wandering about in the background, very cool! After lunch came bath time, something we were really looking forward to. The mahouts led the elephants down to the river that runs through the property. In the wild bath time is a fun experience for every elephant, with plenty of fun and frolics had by all ages. The mahouts got the elephants to lay down on their side, some almost completely submerged with only their trunk popping out the water like a snorkel. We were allowed to wade into the water and armed with bucket and scrubbing brush, proceeded to get up close and personal with a living breathing gentle giant.
A mahout takes shade in the elephants shadow
An elephants skin is almost an inch thick, and is surprisingly hairy. Corse hair standing straight up is sprinkled over their entire body. We got to splash water over them, mainly getting each other in the process but the elephants seemed to be loving it. Further down the river several of the more boisterous juveniles were having wrestling matches, trying to push each other over, it was the sweetest thing to watch. Once we had washed our elephant they were led out of the water and we could stroke them, they didnt mind as the mahouts were feeding them slices of bread as a treat. We then had to retreat to a viewing platform, the babies were coming down to the water to swim and mother elephants are VERY protective of their young, charging anyone that they deem to be a threat.
BK, the dominant bull
Something that seems to be unique to the park is the way herds have formed. Elephant herds normally consist of related animals, mainly females, of various ages, who have strong bonds and will stay together for most of their life, only breaking off when the herd gets too big to form their own herd. At the park, herds of completely unrelated females have formed, and this is put down to their strong family instincts. Several females have become 'aunties' to the babies, looking after the youngster, which gives mum a chance to feed, essential if she is to keep producing enough milk. After bathing, elephants like nothing more than to give themselves a dust bath, throwing mud all over their freshly washed bodies, effective sun screen!
We then watched another film on the park, one we were warned at the outset had rather distressing scenes.
The film focused on the harsh realities of a working elephants life. The sad reality is that every elephant, once it reaches four or five years of age goes through a barbaric and sick 'training' method called a Phaajaan. The elephant, which a lot of the time has still not left its mother, is either chained to a tree or in a wooden cage barely big enough to contain it. It is then beaten, violently and repeatedly, never allowed to sleep while a series of men take turns to shout commands at the bewildered and terrified animal. When the elephant fails to obey the command it is stabbed with a wooden pole that has nails driven into the end of it, sharp hooks are also smacked into its head, sometimes embedding itself so deep it takes several yanks to free it. This goes on for days, sometimes weeks, until the elephants spirit is broken.
Mum, baby and adopted auntie
Only then is it deemed a 'safe' elephant. The wounds inflicted are terribe, the elephant is so weak it cannot stand and sometimes is so weak it dies. A few deaths is seen as acceptable in a centuries old training method, a 'holy man' was even shown hitting the elephant in the head with a hook while 'blessing it'. The whole thing made me sick to my stomach, saddened that such torture is routinely inflicted on such a magnificent, and by trait, gentle animal. Lek hopes to change the way elephants are trained, she has rescued two orphaned elephants, who have never gone through the phaajaan and is training them in a completely different way. Instead of detroying their spirit through torture she trains by rewarding good behaviour; in her words she trains with love.
We were lucky enough to actually met Lek during our stay.
Getting pushed around by the baby
She is tiny, just barely taller than 5' but is full of life. I was dumbstruck in her prescence and when our guide asked if we had any questions for her I found that my mind had gone completely blank (some will say no change there then!), she is truly my hero! After the second feeding and bath time the people that were only up for the day left and we were shown to our room, a cute cabin set on stilts which had a view of the elephants in the background. That evening a group of school kids from the local tribe came down and played music for us. We also had the unique pleasure of being blessed by local a shaman, tying a string bracelet around our wrist, left for girls, right for guys. He then walked round the room and sprinkled water over us, completing the blessing.
After dinner a few of us retired to the porch of our cabin and spent the evening telling jokes and stories about our travels and past experiances with animals.
It fun being around a group of animal lovers again, I must get back into working with animals! Next day we met up with Michelle, an Australian woman who has lived at the park for the past 5 years, even moving her dog over to join her. She led us out into the park to meet some of the residents. First up was Mae Perm, the grand old lady and first resident. She came up to meet us, lowering her head so we could stroke her. As Michelle told us about Mae Perm she (Mae Perm not Michelle) let out a low rumble, making the bump on her forehead vibrate like the top of a drum. Michelle said this was to let Jokia, the blind elephant, know where she was so she wouldnt worry. Jokia wandered over, and let us pet her too. We then met Max, the tallest elephant at the park, and tall by elephant standards.
Washing an elephant!
Max was used as a logging elephant but was sold when it was made illegal and begame a street beggar. Somehow the driver of an eighteen wheeler truck didn't see him and hit him from behind and dragged him for 5 meters. His legs were badly damaged and now walks with a limp due to the injuries he sustained.
I could go into so much detail about each elephant's injuries; one they are currently treating stood on a landmine in Burma and had part of her foot blown off. Another had her pelvis broken due to a forced mating to a bull in musth. Their stories are heartbreaking and yet it is heart warming to see how they are now thriving under the care of the dedicated people at the park. We mucked in with the other volunteers with jobs around the park, that day we helped rebuild the cat shelter fence (there are also rescued cats, dogs and buffalo at the park), and the last day we helped clear away the poo from the elephant shelters.
Max is HUGE!!
To describe the experience of spending three days is beyond words that I have, all I can say is that it will stay with us always and we are already planning when we will go back.
To remember our experience, we decided to get tattooed. It was a spur of the moment decision, one that happened as if by fate. The last day, we were helping Jodi, one of the ladies that works there, clear out the shelters and were talking about what we did. She described herself as an artist, we already knew from others at the park that she was a professional tattoo artist so it was nice to hear her describe herself as an artist. We got onto the subject of tattoos, me having four it was only natural it would come up, and she said we were welcome to come down to her house to look at some designs.
At this point we were just mildly interested in seeing her designs, so we waded through the mud down to her house and sat about talking. There was one design that caught my eye immediately, it was so striking, my mind starting weighing up where I could have it, the ideal place was the top of my spine but I already have one there. I mentioned this and Jodi asked to see it to see if it would go under it. As soon as she saw it she said that she could meld the two designs together, they would fit perfectly into one amazing tattoo. I said yes, wanting this design and estatic that it could go where I wanted it to. The design she came up with is fantastic, it hurt like hell as it was directly on my spine but was worth every second of pain as it is the most striking tattoo I have ever seen.
Rachel got a small tattoo, her first!! on her left ankle. In itself the experience was unique, we were in a small wooden hut, in North Thailand, getting a tattoo from a woman that lives with elephantss, while it was thunder storming and the power kept flickering on and off, with elephants walking past!!