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Published: December 24th 2008
Welcome to our elephant experience! It was a big decision to visit the Elephant Nature Park, but we both felt it was something we simply couldn't miss out on. Looking back that has certainly proven to be correct as it is by far and away one of our most memorable moments to date.
The project was set up in 1990 by one small but big-hearted woman called Sangduen Chailert, but she is nicknamed 'Lek' which means small in Thai. She decided to set up the park in response to the maltreatment of elephants across Thailand and South East Asia. The park now provides sanctuary for around 30 elephants, all rescued from a life of misery in forced labour or performance shows for tourists in elephant camps or even on city streets. We find it incredible and a source of inspiration and hope that one woman from a poor rural background has accomplished so much in the face of massive opposition. In addition to running the park and rescuing elephants Lek and her assistants spend their time traveling across Thailand visiting remote areas to train the Mahouts to look after their elephants better, they also administer vital medical care and educate
In Thailand there is a large population of working elephants that work in logging and as beasts of burden, as well as in the tourist industry. It is difficult to explain but in brief, in order to put elephants to work in any sphere, traditionally they have their spirit broken by painful and prolonged torture to "train" them to be obedient to their handlers, called Mahouts. We find this paradoxical as in Thailand and South East Asia in general the elephant is revered as a symbol of power and peace. You would find this hard to believe given the way they are often treated. It is a tough question to deal with as there are centuries of tradition at work here. Once the process of breaking the elephant is achieved it can be seen that the Mahouts and their elephant do form a strong bond. There are a myriad of factors at work here, industry is changing, tourism is big business and the elephants habitat is growing ever smaller, all important aspects of the wider problem and which Lek and the Elephant Nature Park are working to alleviate.
On the way to the sanctuary our first
Buying the elephants lunch and dinner at Chiang Mai market
job was to stop off at the market to pick up the elephants food for the day, this involved packing up several trucks full of fruit and vegetables. As we traveled further into the countryside we started to pass by several elephant camps at which they offer rides and shows for the paying tourists. We were shocked at the number of these camps and even more astonished at how popular they are. It made us very glad that we were going to a far happier place and that our money was not going towards such places.
As we neared the park we caught our first glimpses of the elephants as a troop of them were being led back to the park after spending time at Elephant Heaven. This is an area of secluded jungle where the elephants are taken to experience their natural environment. Soon after arriving we were given a short talk about the park and its work before we were then allowed to meet the elephants! As we were introduced we were given their names and information with stories behind the rescues and hardships of the past. It was sad to hear many of these tales, but
also overwhelming, at first we were taken aback and left a bit speechless being so close to these massive giants. But it was a joy to see them at peace in the safe surroundings of the park.
Our second task of the day was to feed them breakfast! As the baskets of bananas were brought out the herds soon closed in from all over the sanctuary. We had to stay on viewing platforms as they can get a bit rowdy at feeding time. They reached over to us with their long dexterous trunks to hoover up the bananas from our hands. With insatiable appetites they ate whole bunches of bananas at a time, and while they munched one set down they were eager for the next, taking another bunch in their trunks. It was a strange but lovely sensation to feel and hear the sucking of the trunks on our skin. By the meals end our hands were covered in slimey elephant goo!
After watching some informative documentaries it was then bath time! Twice a day the elephants are taken down to the nearby river and allowed to splash around as they like. They are scrubbed down and
A mahout helps wash mother and baby
washed by the Mahouts and eager volunteers. Just like children this is a time the elephants either love or hate! Some jumped right in trumpeting their delight, while others sat back and had to be coaxed in gradually. We stepped up with buckets in hand and sploshed water all over them, scrubbing them down with our hands and giving them a wee massage while we were at it. It felt amazing to actually touch and stroke them, the thick rough skin and prickly short hairs under our hands felt strange but so good, we couldn't believe we were right there next to them. We had to watch out as some of the cheeky ones liked to hose us down with a spray from their trunks! Once back out of the water the elephants waste no time in reapplying their sunscreen, they suck up the dusty earth and spray it over their heads onto their backs and sides. The dust and mud act as a natural barrier to the hot sun. It was impressive to watch.
After our fabulous lunch cooked up by the permanent staff we then fed the elephants their lunch, queue more bananas and close encounters with
Best of Friends
Medo on the right with her best friend and protector Mae Mai.
inquisitive trunks. We then had some free time to relax with the elephants, some hung around near us, while others wandered off to other parts of the grounds. We sat up on a look out platform gazing at the herds going about their business. It was particularly amusing to watch one Mahout getting chased by a naughty young elephant! Watching the majestic animals plod freely and happily brought us a great sense of peace and contentment.
Our guide explained that while most of the elephants are not related, they have formed close bonds. The 30 odd elephants have settled into 3 separate herds. It was amazing to witness these special relationships, for example, orphaned babies being mothered by older females. Two elephants that particularly touched our hearts were Medo and Mae Mai. Medo, a former logging elephant was injured while still very young by a falling log, breaking one ankle so she could no longer work. But in order to earn money from her the owners forced her to become a breeding animal, her four legs were chained down while a huge bull elephant tried to mate with her. But he was in musth and rather than mate he
Karen gets a kiss from a friendly elephant!
went crazy and attacked her, crushing her to the ground breaking her backbone. Unfortunately Medo is permanently injured but after over 3 years recovering she is finding peace at the park. Mae Mai, a middle aged female elephant has taken her under her wing and never ever leaves her side. Each elephant has a touching story, many of which like the one above made us very emotional.
The free time spent observing the elephants merged into the afternoon bath time and we made our way back down to the river for some more water based fun. After bath time Karen was lucky enough to receive a big wet kiss from one of the grateful younger elephants. It was an unforgettable moment, and Tony even caught it on camera! The trunk reached up to Karen's cheek and sucked her skin affectionately. Smoooch!
There is so much more we could tell and describe, it was a busy action packed day, with so many lovely and special relaxing moments with the elephant herds. It was another thought provoking experience and once again we feel so lucky and happy. Save the elephant.
PS. We are writing this on Christmas Eve and
The sunsets as we say goodbye to our elephant friends
wish you all a very Merry Crimbo and a Happy New Year!
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