During my last day in Pai
, we enjoyed watching the pre- Songkran celebrations before I boarded the bus to Chang Mai
After about 1 hour of riding in the minivan we were stopped because a tree had fallen and was blocking the road. The driver stopped and opened the doors so that the passengers could observe what was happening. It appeared that the tree had just fallen as there were less than 15 cars in front of us. As I looked at the tree I noticed several men swinging their machetes. They had the tree chopped up and the road cleared in about 10 minutes!
The next morning I took a tuk tuk to the Elephant Nature Park office in Chang Mai. There I filled out some paperwork and met some of the other volunteers. We were given a free t-shirt and then we were loaded up onto the bus. After about 2 hours we arrived at the park. The excitement grew in my stomach as I looked out over the tropical landscape and caught a glimpse of several elephants.
We arrived just as the snack bell sounded for the elephants. This is the time where anyone who wishes may feed
the elephants by hand. All the elephants have their own basket filled with pieces of banana, corn, sugar cane, tamarind, watermelon, pineapple and squash.
The elephants anxiously grab whatever you have in your hand with their trunk and then put it into their mouth. Then once you get brave enough, you give the command “bon” and touch the underside of their trunk to have them lift their trunk up and open their mouth for you to toss in as much fruit as you can.
Shortly after snack time was bath time. At around the same time every day the elephants all visit the river in their family groups. Once they are in the water the volunteers help by throwing buckets of water onto their backs. Unfortunately, we were not able to give the babies a bath because their family group is too protective. Usually we have plenty of warning when this particular group is coming so everyone gets out of the water and out of their way. However, this was not the case on the first day. Somehow the entire group approached unnoticed. Everyone was running to get out of the way. I was caught in a terrible position and
I was left with two options…. One was to swim in between the elephant that I was washing and the incoming stampede or to turn my back to the group that was charging in and swim for the other side of the river. However, I knew that most animals will chase whatever runs away from them and that this was not the shortest route to safety…. So I took the first option and in a super human effort that would have put Michel Phelps to shame, I reached the shore just as the group came crashing into the water.
That evening I attended the welcoming ceremony where we were given a blessing by some of the local shamans, this included a white string bracelet that was supposed to bring good spirits to us and protect us during the week. Clearly whatever spirits that were protecting me had to start working before the ceremony! Otherwise, I would have been a pancake at the bottom of the river.
The next day we split into two groups and for the rest of the week we alternated jobs. These jobs included traveling to a remote location to cut tall grass with a machete and
then bundle it up and load it into a truck or riding into the rainforest and chopping down banana trees with machetes, then bringing them back to the park to feed to the elephants. The daily jobs included shucking the endless mountain of corn and shoveling the reappearing mountains of elephant dung (poo).
We did have time for a lot of fun activities as well. One day we participated in the Songkran festivities as we loaded up into the back end of two trucks along with several buckets and two water tanks. It is basically the largest water fight that one could possibly imagine. As the streets are full of locals, all of which are armed buckets and water guns. Some even manage to have ice water!
We also filled up a mud pit for the elephants to play in. This was great because the larger elephants would approach you and want you to fill up their trunks with water from the hose. Then they would spray it all into their mouth and maybe a little on you. The baby male was hilarious! He acted just like a little kid! He would try to steal the hose, smash buckets and
chase people around after he was covered in mud.
One afternoon he managed to escape from his fenced in area (where the elephants are keep in the late afternoon and through the night.) Another volunteer and I tried to keep him from climbing over the fence but his will to escape was too strong. He just ran around a little before some mahouts (elephant trainers) put him back inside. We told them that the fence was broken but they did not listen to us. Within a few minutes he ran towards the broken section of fence and climbed over again despite our efforts to keep him inside. This time he wanted to have some fun by chasing us around. We had to just push back when he charged at us and then out maneuver him. After a few minutes the mahouts showed up again and we helped them get him back inside and fix the fence.
The best experiences came at the end of each day when Lek (the owner of the park) would sing the babies to sleep, I would then enter the fenced area and sit with the baby female petting her and listening to Lek’s beautiful Thai
song. Some of the adult elephants would even start dozing off while they were still standing up. What a beautiful experience all of it was.
After returning back to Chang Mai and reuniting with Xiomara we decided that I was going leave for Pai to attend the Vipassana meditation retreat Xiomara had just returned from. She told me about how great it was and I knew that I was ready to try it out. So I signed up for their intense deep cleaning course. I completed the course after 13 days and it proved to be both, the most difficult and the most rewarding thing that I have ever done in my life. During the course one learns to live fully in the present moment and to overcome so much. It was a silent retreat so the only people that you could talk to were your teachers for about 10 minutes per day. You were also deprived from you normal 8 hours of sleep, at one stage severely deprived! One more thing, you ate vegetarian and were only fed 2 meals a day with a small soymilk to drink at night. It sounds like a great time right?? HAHA. But
like I said, you learn that you can overcome all of these things and so much more. One takes a deep journey to the depths of their soul and frees themselves from so much. I would be happy to talk in greater detail to anyone who is interested, so feel free to ask me. It was truly amazing and it has given me wonderful tools that I will have for the rest of my life.
After the retreat I traveled to Chang Mai and then to Siem Reap, Cambodia where I would be reunited with Xiomara at last.
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