I’m not one to swan about on deck chairs, sipping cocktails while watching the sunset at a luxurious beach resort. Oh no – I have to go out and punish myself in some strange and unusual manner for being a Westerner whose life is easy compared to many the world over, and who can scrounge up enough spare dollars to jump on a large airplane and fly to foreign climes. Far be it from me to wallow in comfort in pleasant surroundings while locals scurry to and fro with platters of gorgeous food and glasses with wee umbrellas poking out of them. That will not do at all! Far better that I throw myself into yet another deep end, fray my nerves with unfamiliar situations and learn to swim like hell until I’m at the other side of God-knows-what pool I’ve dunked myself into this time.
My 2012 discomforting scenario of choice was to travel up to the jungle territory of Chiang Mai, North Thailand and volunteer at Elephant Nature Park for seven days. Ironically and tragically, the day I made my decision to do this, a woman was accidentally killed in New Zealand by an elephant – not that I knew that at the moment I made the booking for the park. I found out on the phone later that day through someone who thought I was stark raving bonkers when I said I was going to do it anyway. Well, by my logic, people are killed in car accidents too, but that doesn’t stop us from driving.
It’s taken me many months to get around to writing about my experience at the elephant park. That’s because it was such an incredible, life-changing experience that I’ve found it very hard to put it into words. Unlike me, I know, but there you have it.
So here we go – part one of what will be several of the parts that it will take to describe this awesome time of my life. Best you get yourself a drink and some slippers – this is going to take a while.
Elephant Nature Park – Day One
At 8am a shiny silver van squeezed its way down our lane outside the Malak Guesthouse to pick us up for the week we were to spend at the Elephant Nature Park. The driver and his cohort struggled to lift our luggage into the van – this was starting to get a little embarrassing, due to the mixture of shopping and books contained therein. Perhaps it went through their minds that we had our own elephants that we were smuggling into the park.
They drove us to the Elephant Park office in Chiang Mai where we filled out paper work and finished paying our fees. Walking into the office, one of the first things I noticed was a cage on the right, just inside the door. It contained a wee tiny squirrel, not really any longer than my index finger, busily making a hamster wheel go round. I said hello quietly, not wanting to frighten the little guy, then suddenly he was clinging to the bars right in front of my nose, looking straight at me. “Hi! Hi, whatchya doin? What’s up? What’s happening? Woohoo!” It was like meeting Scrat off the Ice Age movies, up close.
Animals and people milled about everywhere in this place – I had to share my chair with a dog to get my paperwork done. We were given a drink bottle holder and a t-shirt each, the opportunity to snatch a muffin and have a sniff of our coffee, then it was back into another van and we were on our way. A guy that got into the front seat next to the driver started off pretty much immediately at us on how we should learn Thai – how would we like it if they came to our country and spoke Thai instead of English, etc, etc. At that point I wondered what on earth we had gotten ourselves into. Were we off to a military-style camp, to be held captive until we could speak like natives? We drove along in relative quietness, each one of us probably mentally practicing our drop and roll techniques for when the van slowed down…
We drove for about an hour, getting further and further from civilization, then the van veered off onto a smaller road that went uphill, through trees and past elephant trekking places, Zipline outfits, banana plantations and several other tourism businesses. We then started to drive past trees that had orange scarves around their trunks. These scarves were put there by Lek, the park founder, and several monks. Apparently to cut down one of these trees will give you bad luck for a long time, so it is a gentle type of tree conservation that saved the trees from chainsaws. Upon the approach to the Elephant Nature Park we all arched our necks like crazy as we entered the gate, with the hope that we would see elephants immediately, though they remained stubbornly invisible.
Approximately forty of us piled out of our vans and gathered at a building that was used as a meeting point. We were sorted into groups and told our schedule –
- 7 am Breakfast,
- 8 am Work starts
- 10 am – finish work
- 10.30 am – feed assorted elephants
- 12 noon – lunchtime
- 1 pm – bathe elephants
- 2 pm – work
- 4 pm – finish working, bathe more elephants
- 6 pm – dinner
Sounded pretty reasonable, and very cool with the inclusion of so much elephant contact. Rooms were appointed to us, wifi spots pointed out, etc. My luggage was unable to be found, and it turned out that it had been too heavy to bring in the vans and had been relegated to following on later in the ute. How mortifying!
We split off to discover and settle into our new digs for the week. Mine and Ursula’s was the last one down the end of the long driveway that was hovered over by drooping trees. I couldn’t help remembering back to the snake that dropped out of the power lines in Old Sukhothai, and truly hoped that I wouldn’t suffer a repeat performance in the dark on this path. Our room had two beds with mozzie nets draped over them, a concrete-lined bathroom with – oh joy of joys – a western toilet, and separate shower room. There was a strange bit of passageway behind the door, leading behind the shower part and round the corner, but neither of us were brave enough to squeeze in there and explore it. The floor sloped slightly with an outlet at the bottom of the outside wall for water to drain out of. And creatures to get in… Every time I used that toilet for the entire week we were there, I opened the door and looked around the room first. I didn’t need any more critter surprises! Behind our accommodation were the quarters where the elephants were kept at night. And it turned out that elephants only sleep for three hours or so each night, so the rest of the time one gets to listen to them rustling about, chewing through piles of corn, rumbling to each other and squeaking from time to time, no doubt telling each other some good human jokes.
Accommodation inspected, we went back to the main building to meet the elephants. This building is a large open-air one, with an atrium in the centre, gift shop, resting areas, a meeting area, a massage area, a conference room, and then entrance to the long skywalk, with an open-air conference area (the Beach Hut) at the end of that. Dogs sit and lie all over the place – including on the tables and seats. Apparently several hundred of them were rescued by the Nature Park people during the 2011 Bangkok floods and brought back to the park to be fed and re-homed. No room for germaphobic non-animal-lovers in this outfit! There are also eating areas and the kitchen, whose door sounds exactly like an elephant’s call when opening and closing. Close to the kitchen area is a place where people can feed the elephants. This has a line painted along it, about four feet in from the edge, behind which one is warned by various signs on the walls to stand for safety reasons, and there are long, very strong steel poles creating a barrier between elephants and people.
We were invited to feed the two elephants standing behind the pole, trunks probing about on our side of it expectantly. Most of us pulled back in fright – jeepers, those elephant trunks were huge! Bigger than an All-Black’s thigh! (That’s a very large football player, to non-kiwi readers.) It’s one thing to look at an elephant on television, or from a distance at a zoo, but up close I quickly realized that they could just mow several of us down with one thwack if they chose to. Who knew vegetarians could be so big!
Moving gingerly at first, we learned how to feed the elephants corn, watermelon pieces and bits of pumpkin without being swallowed whole ourselves, and most of us whipped our cameras out to record it. Illogical of course, considering we would be there for the next seven days, but the novelty the situation was just too compelling to resist getting a few shots in. There are no chains on these elephants – they are free to roam at will in the daytime. I made an immediate decision to treat them with extreme respect – I didn’t want to be answering to one of these beasties if I somehow managed to annoy it!
Lunch was pretty impressive. A long line of tables groaning with food – all vegetarian. And then more around the corner!! Delicious too, as it turned out. I introduced myself to Hawaiians Victoria and her husband FredBob. Not his real name, but I was apologizing ahead of time for in all likelihood forgetting their names, and Victoria and I decided that FredBob seemed like a great name to use for someone who’s name you can’t remember, so the poor guy (whose name is actually Paul) got stuck with it for the entire week. He was ever so tolerant about it, bless him. Turned out Victoria and I are both linguists and have a mutual interest in Monty Python lines, so a new friendship based on mutual idiocy was immediately born. Their friend Lynda had a marvelous way with the ridiculous also, so the air around the lunch table was most convivial. Two more Hawaiians sat with us – Rhonda and her lovely daughter Olivia. Victoria and I had a great time comparing the Maori language with Hawaiian and noting the differences and similarities – yay for nerds!
At one o’clock in the afternoon it was elephant bathing time. Down at the river we were given a small bucket each. A few elephants joined us in the drink and we all threw water over them, while they stood there relishing the attention. I felt something rather solid touch my leg and nearly leapt out of my skin, thinking immediately of water snakes and crocodiles. Looking down, I discovered that my killer animal was actually a large lump of elephant pooh. Way to go, brave traveller!
When the elephants had enough of being showered by awestruck, squealing little beings with buckets, they left the river and we all raced up onto the skywalk to watch them. Several of them stopped and rubbed themselves on the underneath of the skywalk, which swayed about with their movements. Quite a unique feeling that, standing on a structure that an elephant is pushing around effortlessly. A tiny bit alarming, but pretty cool too.
At 6.30pm, after another amazing spread for dinner, we went to a welcome ceremony, put on by the local hill tribe. Various rites were performed by the Head Shaman, then some women elders tied a string on each of our wrists with a particular kind of knot, which were to be removed by hand (not by cutting) at the end of our seven day visit. We then went and watched a documentary on the method of domesticating elephants – the phajaan. This is an enormously cruel process, in which very young elephants are ripped from their mothers sides, put into a crush where they cannot move, poked at with nails and other sharp instruments, tormented, starved and deprived of water until their spirits are broken. In some cases, this can go on for several days. This is done in many countries – it’s not just particular to Thailand.It was an awful thing to watch and most of us left afterwards in complete silence. And I’ll bet my bottom dollar that each and every one of us inwardly vowed to never go to a place where elephants are ridden or perform tricks for the rest of our lives.
I’m sorry to have to write in such a heavy way, but most people are unaware of this domestication process, even local Thai people. So the more it is known about, the less people will support places that use elephants for riding and shows, and the more people will seek out outfits to visit where the elephants are treated with respect and kindness.
Back to lighter things, we managed to find our accommodation without being mugged by legless things, inspected the bathroom without mishap, wrestled with mozzie nets and flopped into our beds and went to sleep listening to elephant conversations and chewing noises. Day one at Elephant Nature Park accomplished.