The day we left home, a full year stretched out endlessly before us. I’d noted the halfway point…barely; too mesmerized by Rwanda’s turbulent beauty to truly appreciate the milestone. For the last nine months we’d lived almost exclusively in the present — our minds swirled, permanently suspended in sensory overload, with the vibrancy of each new destination. Now, we entered the autumn of our travels and, grounded again by the concreteness of our inevitable return, our appreciation of each incredible moment was heightened even further.
We took a deep breath on our arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The air was cooler and invigorating. The ever-present dusty heat of Cambodia gave way to verdant, rolling hills — the “mountains” of Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is a small city whose Buddhist temples and yoga studios are the yin to the yang of buzzing markets and increasing numbers of tourists and ex-pats.
There are plenty of cozy backpacker havens in Thailand, but we were drawn to Chiang Mai by a woman, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. Lek opened the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in 1996. Her tireless quest to save the Asian elephant and to change traditional attitudes toward animal cruelty made her Time Magazine’s 2005 Asian Hero of the Year. The backstory to Elephant Nature Park is a long and brutal one which I’ll abridge. Suffice it to say, elephants don’t volunteer to carry tourists on their backs or dance in the streets.
Once a captive elephant reaches a few years of age, he undergoes the phajaan, which literally translates to “crush [the spirit].” The elephant is taken from its mother and forced into a pen just large enough to stand in. Men work in shifts, relentlessly beating and stabbing the defenseless animal. Every movement of resistance, even if only to evade the blows or call out in pain, is punished further. Food, water, and sleep are withheld. Days to weeks later, the young elephant’s broken body and spirit submit to the torture. If the elephant survives, it will begin a new life of servitude to its human master, the mahout.
As an outsider it’s easy to pass judgement, but at its core this is a cultural clash. To many Thais, the phajaan is part of their heritage; it’s a way of life and means of subsistence. This, however, is now in flux. In the past, elephants labored in the logging industry. Today, almost all elephants are employed in tourism. Ultimately it is tourists’ money that will either sustain or eliminate the phajaan. Fortunately, ENP and a few other progressive elephant sanctuaries represent a true alternative.
ENP is nestled in a valley on 250 acres of land divided by a refreshingly cool river. To discourage illegal logging, many of the trees in the surrounding forests are blessed in a Buddhist ceremony and tied with an orange sash. It is literally hallowed ground, making it the perfect place for animals in need of both physical and spiritual healing. The majority of elephants that Lek rescues are in horrible condition: many of the females are deformed with broken backs and hips as a result of forced mating, some elephants were blinded by their mahouts after refusing to work, and others were victims of land mines. We had hoped to volunteer at ENP for one week, however, as our schedule tightened, we conceded we could only visit for the day.
When we arrived, the entire park was buzzing. Dok Mai, a newborn baby elephant, had surprised the entire staff with her arrival the night before. We spent an hour at the enclosure, watching mother and daughter as she encouraged her baby to stand and walk. That magical moment came with repercussions.
Dok Mai’s older brother seethed with jealousy at the turn of events and took it upon himself to recapture the attention he deserved. He crashed around the park harassing the other elephants and mock-charging visitors. Since it can be difficult to differentiate an elephant’s mock-charge from an actual charge, the best, and safest, response is simply to run. Throughout the day we had to be aware of both the boisterous adolescent’s location and the nearest place to take shelter, whether inside an elephant enclosure or on the elevated viewing platforms. We were never in real danger, and the added exercise and excitement was a bonus. The real gift was observing his exuberant personality, something rarely seen in captive elephants; especially the older, broken generation.
Later, we fed the elephants watermelon, squash, and pineapple. Blind elephants snuffled at our arms with their trunks, gently exploring our hands as they hunted for their favorite treats. A few educational sessions followed an amazing vegan Thai lunch, and then we had time to explore the grounds. Elephant Nature Park also houses 400 dogs, 50 buffalo, and numerous cats, birds, etc. All animals were rescued, and many required surgery performed by the center’s veterinarians. We ended a long, hot day by joining the elephants in the river for a bath.
At ENP, you cannot ride the elephants. They won’t dance or perform tricks that demean both the elephant and onlooker. Instead, you will learn about their plight while working in close proximity with these amazing animals. The elephants that approach you choose to do so, while others graze in the distance or swim in the river.
Given their freedom, these noble animals are capable of so much more than any human could ever force from them. We were witnesses to their rehabilitation, watching as they forged bonds of love with their new, kinder mahouts, while building families and friendships amongst one another. Incredibly, each blind elephant that Lek adopted was, in turn, adopted by a resident elephant at ENP. It was moving to see them carefully guide their stricken companions around the park.
In a continent not known for animal rights or environmental consciousness, Lek and the ENP are a beacon of hope. It is humbling to watch one person as they change the world. As travelers, it is important to recognize that for everything we take away, we also have the opportunity and responsibility to give back.
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