A few months ago, we saw an incredible documentary on Animal Planet channel about people saving elephants in Thailand. After the government banned commercial logging in 1989, many elephants became jobless overnight – they were used to drag logs out of the forest, and were no longer needed. As a result, many elephants ended up in the tourism industry, sometimes forced to beg in the streets of Bangkok at night. Many elephants suffered from neglect, abuse, car accidents, or even landmines when they are used for illegal logging in Laos, etc. This is aggravated by the fact that domestic elephants in Thailand have virtually no rights and are not protected by law. Abusing them or even killing them is punishable with only a small fine.
Some people are making a heroic effort to change this. In the Animal Planet documentary, we learned about the projects of Bring The Elephant Home and the Elephant Nature Park. Bring The Elephant Home is run by a Dutch lady called Antoinette who buys abused elephants from mahouts across Thailand, and she brings them to the Elephant Nature Park (www.elephantnaturepark.org), which is run by an amazing Thai lady called Lek. “Lek” means small, but she is a strong woman with a big heart and tremendous energy.
Even before visiting the park, we already decided to sponsor one of the elephants through a regular donation that goes towards food and veterinary care. So we were very curious to see what is happening here and meet ‘our’ elephant, which is called Dok Ngeon.
We arrived in Chiang Mai on Sunday evening, and spent a couple of hours exploring the city centre. We first went to an amazing vegetarian restaurant called Taste of Heaven which supports - no surprise here - the Elephant Nature Park… afterwards we made a short walk around the night bazaar, before heading back to the hotel to be ready for an early start.
In the morning, we were picked up for the one-hour drive to the park. The park itself is situated in a peaceful valley far away from the main road, and when we got closer we could already see the herd of 34 elephants, walking around in a beautiful meadow, After a warm welcome and a short safety briefing, we went on to feed the elephants. They have a huge appetite, and they can easily eat 10% of their body weight each day. Brunch for them was pumpkin, water melon, banana, and corn – banana was the favorite, with much less enthusiasm for the pumpkins…
After a great vegetarian lunch, we continued with elephant bathing! They thoroughly enjoyed this, standing in the river while people splashed them with water, or even going deeper into the river and going all the way under water, rolling around and clearly having fun. And of course, after they come out of the water, the first thing they do is cover themselves with mud and sand… but that’s only as protection against the sun and insects.
After bathing, they wandered off into the park for some private time until dinner… It was good to see that they could come and go as they please, without being forced into any activity. Each elephants has one or two mahouts, who take care of them and follow them through the park.
Lek wants to use the Elephant Nature Park to show that there is a better way to enjoy elephants – you don’t need to ride them, they don’t need to make paintings, they can be enjoyed just for what they are… elephants. She also shows videos to all visitors about the way elephants are trained, which we didn’t know about previously. Every elephant is put through a horrific torture training called the ‘pajaan’ which is a 3-7 day process during which the elephant is mentally and physically broken, so that they become submissive and are ready for further training. We’ve seen videos of this, and it’s truly heart-breaking. Just remember that next time you see an elephant begging in the streets of Bangkok or when an elephant makes a painting for you…
The Elephant Nature Park is a huge success (on our second day there were over 100 people), and Lek wants to show to the Thai people that tourists are willing to pay more to see elephants in their natural habitat, rather than performing tricks. Once they realize that, there will be no more need for ‘pajaan’ and tourist shows.
After the dinner feeding, the elephants were brought into their sleeping quarters. As we stayed for the night, we could see this ritual, and spend some time with the two babies, one 5-month old and one 3 month-old (who’s the son of Dok Ngeon, the elephant we’re sponsoring). These babies were born in the park, which is a sign that the elephants feel happy. The youngest baby was very naughty, playing with Sjoerd’s shoe laces all the time… he even tried to climb over the barrier of his sleeping quarters to get to them. We tried to push him back, but he was surprisingly strong for his small size. In the end, the mahouts had to put an extra barrier just to keep him inside! It was lovely to see them nursing with their mother, playing a bit, falling asleep in the pile of corn every now and then, only to wake up and continue to play.
In the evening, there were around 30 people at the park, most of them paying volunteers who stay for at least a week and some overnight guests like us. The accommodation is very good, with nice bungalows on stilts and comfortable beds, excellent vegetarian food – and the silence at night was unbelievable. The only thing you could hear was the crickets and some birds, for the rest: silence, until the 70 dogs woke up in the morning…
This place is first of all an elephant sanctuary, but it also provides protection, care and food for any needy animals, including a big family of water buffalos, an ever-increasing number of dogs, cats and a pony.
Lek, who runs the Elephant Nature Park, is the granddaughter of a shaman from a hill tribe nearby, and an extraordinarily smart and compassionate woman with a huge heart. She started with one elephant, and ever since she has dedicated her life to taking care of elephants in need. She is well-known around the world, through documentaries on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, BBC and CNN, newspaper articles in pretty much any country in the world, and she was even named Time Magazine’s Hero of Asia in 2005… it was very inspiring to meet her and talk to her about her passion for elephants. And about two years ago, we wrote her about an elephant in distress at the Bridge of the River Kwai, and we asked her to save it. We never got a reply, but we found out that she actually went there several times to try to buy the elephant from its heartless owner. Unfortunately, he refused and played a dirty game of always increasing the asking price – if she paid, he would have just used the money to buy a new elephant and do the same thing again… But it was good to learn that she had tried, and hopefully one day she will succeed.
The next day, we left for Pai which is around three hours drive from Chiang Mai. This is a small and nice hill resort, and the starting point of our two-day white-water rafting trip on the Pai river. It was the first time we tried this, but we realized that rafting is by far the best way to enjoy nature – for two days we have seen only water and jungle… no cars, no other people, no house, nothing but nature.
Our group consisted of five people with a guide, in a sturdy raft that carried all our food and clothes. It was all very well secured, because the raft can flip and turn any time! It felt very adventurous, and sometimes slightly dangerous, but we definitely want to go rafting again.
For most of the trip, it’s quite relaxed – you just float with the river, and sometimes paddle a bit to change course and position yourself well for a curve. But sometimes it can get pretty rough, with the river suddenly turning into a white whirlpool, madly churning around big rocks in the river. At those moments, it’s all hands on deck and your really need to paddle hard to stay on course and prevent a collision with a rock… At some point during a particularly turbulent part, the boat bumped over some rocks and one of our fellow travelers fell overboard with a load scream. Luckily he was still hanging on, but now we had to save him, while some others tried to keep the raft in the right direction and one person tried to rescue his paddle… Total chaos!
In the night we slept in a jungle camp, where everything was well taken care of – nice dinner, quite comfortable sleeping places, and the sound of monkeys to sing you to sleep. The next day we had a relaxed breakfast and left around 10am, for another 5-6 hours on the river. After the drive back to Pai, we arrived exhausted but very enthusiastic that we found another way to enjoy the Great Outdoors!
Next day, we spent some time exploring Pai and its surroundings. It was very nice, but we were appalled to find a baby monkey locked up in a cage outside a restaurant in the centre. It’s the Blue restaurant, and the heartless owner got the little monkey only a few weeks ago. It was clearly distressed, screaming and running around in its small cage. We tried to convince the owner to let us take it to the Elephant Nature Park, but she refused, saying that the monkey was her baby and that she would never let it go. After an hour of trying, we had to give up – we were getting nowhere with her. We had to leave the monkey behind, and our only consolidation was that it seemed quite relaxed when the owner carried it around… If you ever go to Pai, just avoid the Blue restaurant (we have also written to all major guide books asking them to remove this place from their listing).
After Pai we drove back to Chiang Mai, where we spent a day visiting some of the major wats (temples), before it was time to head back to Singapore. The north of Thailand was beautiful, and we’ll certainly be back at the Elephant Nature Park – a strong recommendation for any animal lover.
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