If there was one thing I was going to do when I arrived in Chiang Mai for the first time, back in March of this year, it was ride an elephant. Vain visions of myself communing with nature while riding atop a massive elephant as we ambled through the Thai jungle had been playing in my mind for weeks. And there are plenty of companies here that would have been willing to help me make that dream a reality. You can’t walk two feet in Chiang Mai’s Old City without seeing company posters promising a life-changing experience trekking through the jungle on an elephant’s back.
As it turned out, I would have a life-changing experience with elephants in Chiang Mai, but it would not be quite the one I had expected. When a fellow traveler at a Couchsurfing meet-up mentioned he had heard that many of the elephants at trekking camps are treated badly, I began to rethink my plans. I had never been what anyone would call an animal rights activist, but I also wouldn’t go out of my way to hurt one or support cruelty. This same person told me about the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai. There was no riding there, he said, but volunteers and visitors did get to feed and bathe the animals.
Good enough for me. A week or so later, two friends and I boarded a minivan to the Mae Taeng Valley to explore this Elephant Nature Park. By lunchtime, I was so impressed by the work being done there, I promised myself that should I ever find myself in Northern Thailand again, I would come back to this place to volunteer.
Three months later, back in Beijing, I made a 4 a.m. decision to take a China break and return to Chiang Mai for a few months. My volunteer application to the ENP was submitted before I had even booked my flight.
A home for the elephants
The ENP sits on a large plot of land in the Mae Taeng Valley. Lush green mountains surround the park on all sides and a cool brown river divides it from a nearby village. Elephants roam the grounds, playing in the water, chewing stalks of bamboo and occasionally chasing down a baby elephant who's wandered too far from the herd. Without exaggeration, this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.
Nearly all of the 33 elephants here have been rescued from logging or tourist camps. Only four - Hope, Tong Suk, Chong Yim and Faa Mai, who have been raised at the park - have not been subjected to a brutal, barbaric practice known as the pajaan. This ancient custom is used to break young elephant’s spirits until they are submissive to their owners’ demands. Liz at the blog Gentle Living gives a good description of this disgusting practice and its purposes. Many of the older elephants at the park have been beaten, overworked, and in some cases made to participate in forced breeding programs. One female, Medo, had her hip broken when a bull mounted her during a forced breeding session. Between that and a broken leg suffered while working in a camp, it’s a wonder she can still walk at all. Sadly, most of the elephants here have similar stories.
The ENP was founded by a petite and courageous woman named Lek Chailert, who has devoted her life to saving elephants in Thailand and throughout Asia. She has faced down the Thai government, disgruntled peers, and even her own family in order to protect her herd and raise awareness about the plight of the endangered Asian elephant. For someone who has been profiled by TIME magazine and was recently named Thailand’s Woman of the Year, she is impressively unassuming, friendly and down-to-earth.
Meeting Lek and watching her comfort beautiful Faa Mai, a baby girl elephant who was crankily adjusting to no longer being able to feed from her mother’s milk, was one of the most amazing moments I have witnessed between a human and an animal. Lek can walk among these massive beasts without fear because they love her and respond to her in a way they don’t to anyone else. I have never seen anyone exhibit the kindness and patience she shows not only to the herd, but to the nearly 300 rescued dogs who also live at the park. Many of those are street dogs rescued by Lek and her crew from likely death during the Bangkok floods of 2011.
I arrived at the ENP as a weeklong volunteer the last Monday in August. One of about 20 volunteers who arrived that day, I was riding a high of excitement at being back at this beautiful place, though I had little idea of what to expect in the days to come.
The life of a volunteer
When I first signed on to volunteer at the park, I expected it to be hard work but wasn’t quite sure how hard. As I imagine many would-be volunteers do, I had visions of bonding with elephants, spending hours lovingly attending to their needs.
I realized early on that volunteering would not mean hanging with the eles from morning until night. The elephants each have a mahout, or trainer, who is with them the entire day. They see to the elephants’ needs and in most cases develop a deep bond with them. Even when visitors are feeding and bathing the elephants, the mahouts are never more than a few feet away.
The work we did as volunteers was harder than I anticipated. As someone who spends the vast majority of my work days sitting in a coffee shop working on my laptop, I don’t have a ton of experience with manual labor, and don’t have a particularly strong inclination to do it again. Planting jackfruit trees on a mountainside sounds like much more of a lark than it actually is, especially when you’re doing it in near 100-degree heat.
Of course there were moments when unloading pick-up trucks of fruit for the elephants, painting walls and shoveling remarkably large piles of elephant dung lost its charm and I started to lose my patience. The work was hot and tiring but after allowing myself a brief internal bitch session, I decided it was time to change my attitude.
I reminded myself that I came here to help the elephants in whatever capacity I was needed. I came because I was inspired by their stories, humbled by their resilience, and wanted to do something for them. The way I could do that was by planting trees, washing pumpkins and shoveling poop. I didn’t want to waste any of the time I had there being crabby; rather, I wanted to appreciate every moment I had at the park.
The most beautiful boys: Hope and Tong Suk
Were I to choose one highlight of the week, it would undoubtedly be a morning walk I took with Jodi, a long-time volunteer. Our walk ended up being mostly an extended conversation while observing Tong Suk, a young bull with a strong personality.
Tong Suk is magnificent. There is no better word to describe him. Others apply, certainly: young, ornery, strong, proud. But none suits him better than magnificent.
Because Tong Suk has never been through the pajaan, has never felt the end of a hook or nail gouge his thick but sensitive skin, he is fiercely independent and strong-willed. He is as close as it comes to a wild elephant in captivity at this park.
Because he is wilder than the other elephants, and because of his gorgeous but deadly tusks, visitors do not spend much time around Tong Suk and he doesn’t join the other members of the herd for bath time at the river. The family group, which includes the babies Faa Mai and Chong Yim, are fond of Tong Suk, however, and regularly pay him visits.
Since my first visit to the park back in March, I have admired Tong Suk from afar. Though I’ve heard affectionate stories about how he’s “naughty,” acting up when he’s in musth (a period elephant bulls go through during which they are particularly sexually aggressive), I always felt a particular fondness for him and for Hope, another young bull who was rescued from the jungle by Lek when he was a baby. My delight knew no bounds when Hope meandered over for some downtime with his friend and I had the chance to observe them together.
The two young bulls, who went through a competitive phase during which they were kept away from one another, have become friends during their adolescence. Watching them share food and wrap their trunks around one another was truly wonderful. That the elephants are capable of such great affection for one another and yet also possess such tremendous strength was humbling and inspiring.
My feelings about leaving the park at the end of the week were mixed. On the one hand, I had had my fill of manual work and was ready to return to Chiang Mai. On the other, I knew I would miss the elephants. Though they seemed even wilder and more mysterious when I left than when I arrived, I felt a great deal of respect for them.
The work being done at the ENP is important. The Asian elephant population in Thailand is seriously endangered. The people at the ENP aren’t just rescuing elephants who have been abused, they are trying to educate local communities about alternative ways of training the animals, to prevent the abuse from even happening.
Again, I’ve never considered myself an animal rights activist, but it is impossible to leave this place without being moved. Once you’ve learned about the emotional intelligence of elephants, seen what they are capable of and also what many of them have been through, it’s difficult to not feel passionate about this cause. As long as there is a market for elephant riding, painting, dancing and performances, elephants will be captured and forced to work against their will. Getting to see an elephant up close and touch them is amazing, but the more I learned, the more I appreciated Lek’s dream of a place where elephants can roam freely and safely, without human interaction or fear.