I’ve just had the privilege of playing with elephants at Elephant Family Sanctuary, in the Maewang District, about an hour and a half south of Chiang Mai. It’s run by my Thai adopted brother Chaiw, who rang me on Saturday afternoon and said he had booked me in for the next morning to go on a half-day excursion and I would be picked up earlier in the a.m. than I am generally comfortable with. So I hauled myself out of bed, foregoing my crucial morning coffee, (potentially fatal to those around me) and got myself ready for this momentous occasion. The EFS silver van duly picked me up at 7.15am and we did the rounds, via back roads and lanes, to pick up the other clientele that were in on this particular trip, Theresa and Tom from California and a young lady from Israel who I think was named Carly. We were a small group today, which I’ve found is always a good thing, as you get to ask your guide lots of questions. And I am indeed rather nosy, although I prefer the label “Curious” or “Enquiring”. There was also a driver, who didn’t speak English, and our guide was a lovely young lady called Hnong, friendly and full of smiles, with quite reasonable English.
We drove through the rain heading South, stopping at a ‘local market’ where I grabbed some fried rice with an egg balanced on top, then turned off the main highway and began heading between beautiful mist-covered mountains and through rain-soaked jungle. I asked our guide what the name was of the mountain we were heading towards and she and the driver had a chat about that, then informed me that it had no name. So we dubbed it ‘Doi No Name’, “Doi” being Thai for mountain. (This being a foreign concept for me, harking from New Zealand where every mountain, hill, river, stream and indeed probably damned near every blade of grass has a name and usually a story to go with it). Dogs moved casually off the roads in front of us and homes dotted the countryside – some just basic grass huts peeking out of trees and shrubs and others two-storied Thai wonders with beautifully crafted fences and yards that had been groomed in a most military manner.
Eventually we veered off the sealed roads and onto bumpy muddy ones, then finally we came to a halt in a nondescript place with a couple of huts that held up a few lackadaisical men who looked like they should be holding newspapers and puffing on tobacco pipes. Ushered out of our shiny air-conditioned van, we were given a large bag of cucumbers or bananas each and told we were to walk for the next five minutes to get to the actual camp. Our walk included the ubiquitous shoddy-looking bridge – this one about four lengths of large bamboo canes wide and graced with a loosely fitted hand rail that was just far enough away to make things a wee bit uncomfortable, and high enough over the river to offer an unwieldy, and possibly moderately painful landing should we go for a tumble. I just love an adventure in the jungle.
At the other end of the bridge, all having navigated it without falling or meeting with trolls, we climbed a bit of a hill and we were at the camp. Several open-air huts were strewn about, and to the left of us, to our unabashed delight, was a large shelter containing a small variety of pachyderms – two larger ones and three that were obviously quite young. Woohoo – thar she blows!!!
Hnong took us to one of the open air huts where we separated the bananas and loaded up some cotton bags to wear, and she gave us three instructions to use when feeding the elephants. The first one sounded like “Boon”, to be used when offering them food. The second one “Dee”, essentially meaning “good”, and the third one “Hyud”, sounding like “Ute” to my ears, to say “stop” if the elephants were getting out of hand (read “trying to steal more food and then see if there was some in your pockets”). We tried to listen, but by this time the elephants were playing in the river nearby and emitting cute little honks and squeals and it was really, really distracting. They then got out and were sent back up the hill by the mahouts, but they acted a bit unruly and I wondered just what we had gotten ourselves into.
Two of the babies, who I found out were Joi, or ‘Tula’, a three-year-old male and Pooklook, a female, also four years, were sent to a landing at another part of the river, and down we went to give them some bananas. We tried out our newly-learned instructions, and I’m not sure whether they cared what we were saying or not, but they were really good at hoovering dem fruit! Trunk up, curl around the food and down the hatch. That’s pretty much how it went for about ten minutes flat. They were so darned cute and it was sort of the equivalent to giving loads and loads of candy to very large and super adorable children. Squeeee!
Back to the hut to load up with cucumbers, we then walked to yet another part of the river where the other three elephants joined us for a feast. I got to feed Diamond (or “Phet” in Thai), the largest male who is 10 years old. As it turned out, I was standing downhill from him, so I got to look up at the maw into which said cucumbers were disappearing. Erm, just a little bit intimidating. He was, however, quite the gentleman, and really rather delicate about plucking the goods from my hands, considering he could probably render your average Landrover very very flat with that proboscis of his. After a while the cucumbers starting running out, and it became apparent that I may be the only one with some left. Long story short, I manoeuvred myself to the steps of yet another bamboo bridge nearby in an attempt to remain upright as several elephants jostled for my friendship, or rather, The Goods in my bag.
Feeding time over, we all walked into the river for bath time. For some reason I had presumed that we were to bath the elephants, but after being showered at least twenty times by Diamond and his versatile trunk, it turned out that I had gotten that particular detail quite wrong. Soaked to the skin, I swear that if an elephant can grin, I saw him doing it. So just for the record, if you go on this particular trip, DO NOT take your precious mobile phone or non-waterproof camera with you to the river. Diamond’s tender ministrations will render it completely unusable within moments.
We meandered back to the huts for a beautifully set-out and delicious lunch, followed by luscious watermelon chunks for desert. Fortunately we had stayed in our wet clothes, because what followed was a mud spa for the elephants. Well, not just the elephants actually, because very quickly things turned into a full-on mud-slinging match. (The mahouts started it – honest!) Somehow the elephants did actually get a certain amount of attention during this time, when the human sludge-trolls remembered what they were supposed to be there for and rubbed some on their bristly hides as well. Diamond seemed to be feeling a little aloof at this stage, so it was “Thangwa” (meaning December, the month she was born), the eight-year-old female, and the babies, Joi (November), Pooklook (chubby and cute) and Pompoi (meaning “fat” in Thai, because she was 120 kg when born), that got the benefit of most of it.
We then needed to go back down and rinse off in the river, so we walked gingerly down the steep slope, while the elephants played at sliding down their part of it (apparently great fun in the rainy season). This time Hnong armed us with plastic bowls and we used them to scoop water onto the eles, who were charmingly snuggling up to each other and not-so-charmingly kicking and pushing each other, the babies wriggling nearer the shallow rapids where they took delight in the tickling of the water bubbles. Some water actually went over the elephants, lots of water went over the humans, who quite frankly needed it to get the thick layers of sludge off.
Our half-day almost over, the women in our group went over to the hut where the hill-tribe ladies had a few goods on display, while Tom and I took our last look at the elephants and the camp. Diamond took advantage of everyone’s distraction and boldly stole my watermelon, which I had barely started on. Discretion being the better part of valour, I chose not to argue with him about it. Heck, I could get some more back in Chiang Mai anyway.
Finally, after changing into dry clothes, we posed for photos with the elephants behind us. Well, the others posed, while I wiggled and squirmed in Diamond’s grasp, as he had decided that it would be great fun to wrap his trunk around my body, head, neck, arms and anything else he could get a hold of. His olifant version of cuddles. Each time Hnong called and asked me to look at the camera, he would start all over again, so the majority of pics show me trying to deal with a large, bristly snake-like protuberance writhing all over my body. So much for dignified portraits!
With some reluctance, we allowed Hnong to take us back to our van, via yet another interestingly-put-together bridge, and through rice paddies, fields of elephant grass, and gloriously scenic vistas. We stopped along the way to visit the Maewang Waterfall, which is reached by descending many concrete steps with a sturdy guardrail to hang onto. A nice touch to a wonderful morning. The drive home was conspicuously quiet, as we contemplated what we had experienced and dozed to make up for our early morning start, while the wheels turned and carried us, with somewhat of a jolt to the psyche, back to city life.
As a note here, I’ve spent a few weeks around elephants in the past, and have learned to be very wary of them, as many of them have had traumatic and torturous dealings with extremely unkind, and indeed unmerciful, humans and as a result of these dealings can be touchy and unpredictable to be around. And understandably so. I have learned that it’s best not to touch them and to avoid going into their personal space, as it’s not usually very nice for them, and it can be extremely dangerous for us.
Having said that, while I probably should have felt more alarmed over Diamond’s attentions, I actually felt totally okay with it, as all the elephants were obviously well-treated and loved and thus were very relaxed and happy beasties to be around. Also, I didn’t approach Diamond – each time we were in close proximity to each other, it had been his choice to approach me. Please keep this in mind if you ever go to an elephant camp/park/sanctuary, or the like. Just try to imagine a complete stranger coming up to you and putting his or her hands all over you without your permission. Not very nice, right? Well, it feels exactly the same for an animal. Just stand back and observe them, and if they want to be touched by you, they’ll let you know.
So, to wrap up, I am so grateful to have had this experience, and I happily endorse Elephant Family Sanctuary. I gladly recommend you pay them a visit. Their elephants are contented and well-treated, there are no hooks or other weapons used on them, they are not forced to do demeaning tricks for your entertainment or carry you in hard, heavy seats on their backs, and the staff of EFS are doing their best to ensure this is a place run in an ethical and humane manner. I am really proud of my Thai brother Chaiw Suksomphot for putting this place together, and Chaiw, if you’re reading this, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindness and hospitality, and may your future and the future of your staff and elephants shine with love and happiness.
Sawasdee kha. xxx
The above photos courtesy of Elephant Family Sanctuary.