- This is a very special blog for me and it’s dedicated to all the beautiful and majestic Elephants in the world!!!!
It’s been a dream of mine to be close to Elephants for a very long time and when Mick asked me what I would like for my 40th birthday I immediately said I want to visit an Elephant Park in Thailand. To begin with, Thailand is one of my favourite places in the world (I will be writing about Thailand in a 2 part blog very soon). After months and months of researching on-line I came across an Elephant Park in Chiang Mai, trust me there are heaps of elephant parks but they are not all sanctuaries. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is exactly that and I was confident that this would be the perfect place to spend time with these majestic animals, caring for them, preparing their food, bathing and cleaning up after them. This place isn’t just an ‘elephant park’, it is a rescue centre, a sanctuary and a safe haven for elephants that have been mistreated, raised for entertainment purposes, like circuses, street shows or for elephant rides for tourists. Some have injuries that would prevent them surviving in the wild, like land-mines injuries to feet and legs, pelvic injuries, others are blind…..but they all have one thing in common, they have all had a very difficult and unnatural existence and ENP is a place that they can come and see out their days in as close to a natural environment as possible……this is an endangered species and we humans need to do more to protect them. People that are close to me know exactly how I feel about them…….and people that spent time at ENP leave there feeling exactly as I do!!
So having decided that ENP was definitely the right place I booked on-line and paid a deposit of €50 to secure our vacancies for a week of volunteering at the park, what better way to be close to elephants and feel that you’re spending time with them and making a positive difference in their lives? All correspondence with the Elephant park administration was perfect and they answered all my queries……with each email I was growing more and more excited, the time to travel just couldn’t come soon enough…..
That time finally came around and with all the excitement that had built up, it was literally all we had thought about over months and months and we were now on the plane to Chiang Mai!! We arrived late afternoon and headed to our hotel where we were to be picked up from in the morning by an ENP mini-bus. We were taken to the office where we were offered a drink and some fruit, given our volunteers’ t-shirts and our ENP water bottle. We had to complete the registration and pay for the week at the park. It cost us 24,000 Baht (€640) for the 2 of us for the week and that included all of our meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and accommodation.
We set off in individual groups and met some lovely people along the way. The journey to the park took over an hour. On the way they show you a video about elephants and how they are mistreated, it really isn’t pleasant viewing but it shows the reality that more and more elephants are being abused everyday and it makes you appreciate so much more that what you are about to embark on can make a difference in their lives. We reached the park and I couldn’t help but smile, I had butterflies in my tummy from excitement. We unloaded our back-packs from the mini-bus and were taken for a guided walk around the park. During this walk we realised that this was much more than just an elephant sanctuary as there was a huge area for dogs, another one for cats and also buffalo, monkeys and many other rescued animals. Our first encounter with elephants was with 3 lovely ladies coming towards us from the river, they walked over to where we were and we got the chance to feed them watermelon, corn and pumpkin (which turned out to be their least favourite, as they only ate it when all the corn and watermelon were gone). I WAS ON CLOUD NINE!!! All these years wanting to be close to them and I was touching them and feeding them, I never wanted it to end……but this was never about me, this was all about them.
Once all the volunteers arrived from their various hotels and hostels around Chiang Mai we were gathered together for a quick brief about the elephants in the park and our safety. As pointed out by the resident carer, ”We love them, we do everything for them but we must never forget that these are wild animals” And of course she was right but from our giddy excitement it was clear the majority of us needed to be told. After the meet and greet we were shown to our rooms, very basic but clean. At the end of the day it’s a bed to sleep in and a shower to wash up, you’re in an amazing part of the world in an even more amazing park so being in your room is not something you’ll be doing during the day anyway so basic and clean is all you need.
We weren’t given any chores on the first day so we were free to look out into the park and watch the elephants roaming around until lunch-time. The food at the park is all vegan as you’d expect in an animal rescue and rehabilitation centre!! So all you carnivores be prepared to eat veggies (and tofu) all week, but saying that the food was really tasty and everyday we had different choices. Mick isn’t a vegan but he enjoyed the food very much.
The following day all volunteers were placed in 3 groups of around 10-12 people. Mick and I were in group B and what an amazing group of people they were!! For each day your morning and afternoon chores are written on a board by our co-ordinators. They would assist us with our daily work and they were the loveliest bunch of guys and they made everything a lot of fun and obviously assisted us and also taught us a few things along the way. Our first chore was in the ‘elephant kitchen’. It’s hard to believe that they eat for up to 18 hours a day so preparing their lunch and dinner is literally a constant process. We unloaded a truck full of watermelons and stacked them on the shelves and made sure they were washed properly. It was such a fun job and everyone was laughing and joking and just having loads of fun. The members of our group came from far and wide as you’d expect, France, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Germany and Taiwan and each and every one of them was absolutely fantastic. Since leaving the park we have all become Facebook friends and I’m sure this time together will mean we will remain friends forever. We finished unloading and cleaning and all headed off to our rooms for a wash and brush up before lunch which was served. Lunch is at 11:30 which is a touch early but it’s ok as you do get hungry working in the heat of the morning. In the afternoon we were taken to a field to collect sugar cane and grass for the Ele’s… and it was hot!!! but we were all helping out and made it a fun day. We happened to be in Thailand as they were celebrating Songkran (New Year celebrations), during the three days of Songkran (13-15 April) it is tradition to throw water on each other during this time…….and did they throw water??!! We were being taken to the fields in the back of a big truck and by the time we got back to the park we were soaked through!! Every time we passed a house, a shop or any group of people, young and old on the road, we’d have buckets and hoses of water flying at us from all directions, the back of the truck was more like a swimming pool!! but apart from it being a lot of fun it was hot, so in many way’s it was cool relief from the mid-day sun.
Dinner was served at 6 pm everyday and after dinner everyone would chill and have a drink, Chang beer and Sang Som rum for some……coconut water for me!! and by the second day we knew each others’ names and everyone got on really well. Being a volunteer didn’t mean that you worked 8 hours a day, there is a lot of down time but this is also nice as it gives you time to just watch. Honestly, there’s nothing more beautiful (for me) than just looking out and watching elephants doing their thing…..which to be fair usually means eating but you know, if that’s what they do then watching them doing it in their own time, in their own space, at their leisure, really is one of life’s gifts and I enjoyed doing that so much……and writing it now makes me realise how much I miss it.
As it was Songkran it only seemed right to head down to the river which snakes it’s way along the park, we were given the opportunity to try tubing in the afternoon after our chores were completed. We were taken by truck to the next village and there were so many local families playing in the water. We hopped in to our tubes…..which were literally just that, an inflated truck’s inner tube….and we all drifted (some rather quicker than others) down the lazy river. Our friend Luke had the best idea as he took a beer or two with him as he gently floated down river……although him and Mick for some reason kept on getting beached in low water…..Mick later realised that his tube was slowly deflating, which is not a good thing when floating is the most important aspect of what you’re doing!! Every 100 meters or so there’d be a group of kids or a family in the water who couldn’t wait to throw water on you as you passed, all in all it was a lot of fun.
The following morning….after another night of Chang, rum and coconut water….we started with breakfast at 7, this is a mixture of tradition Thai soups and rice dishes and of course the bits and bobs for us westerners…..toast, cereals and fruits. Then chores began at around 8.30 am and today it was time to shovel some Elephant poo!! how exciting!?!…. It truly isn’t as bad as you think, the smell wasn’t all that bad but there was lots of it!! but again you are there for a reason so we didn’t care because being a volunteer is not about you, it’s about the Ele’s so every chore we did was for them and their well-being. Another of our chores was to collect corn and grass from fields. We set off in the morning after breakfast to a field full of corn and grass, it was hot but after a few hours we had filled a truck full of grass, it was a great accomplishment, the whole group gave 100% while we were there to get the job done. The kitchen staff prepared a lovely picnic lunch for us and we sat under the trees enjoying noodles, rice, peanut butter sandwiches and Thai sweets. Having finished our picnic we waited in the shade for the second truck to come and collect us so we could return to the park……on the way back they stopped us off at a 7-11 store so we could buy a cold drink or an ice-cream…….you’ve rarely seen a group of adults so excited about a visit to a convenience store!! Well refreshed we all jumped back on the truck and were on our way.
Getting back to the park and seeing the elephants munching on the grass that you cut, really makes you happy and makes you feel that you are making a difference in their lives.
It wasn’t all about work, we got to bathe, feed and walk next to them and watch them swim and play in the water. You would hear the members of the herds talking to each other and gossiping between themselves. Elephants are very intelligent and communicate in a very open and affectionate way and they do not forget. This was painfully obvious by the 3rd day. By now you can differentiate a few of the elephants by their characters, some were shy, some playful, others a touch aggressive. All the elephants come to the feeding point and you can treat them to watermelons, corn and some elephants loved sliced bread. The babies were really naughty, especially Navaan, to me he was the cutest thing ever, as he was a little overweight he was not allowed to eat bread so he would try and snatch bread from his mothers mouth. There was a small plastic bath tub and he would play with it all the time, it was so lovely seeing him in action. I loved all the Elephants but I did have a soft spot for one, her name was Mae Jan Pen, she had a hole in her ear, her mahout (elephant carer) placed a fake flower in the hole so it wouldn’t look so bad, that lovely lady stole my heart. She was very approachable and she allowed us to kiss her trunk, touch her and take great photos with her. It was with Mae that I saw first hand how sensitive elephants can be and how good there memories are. Mae Jan Pen was always on her own, she’s not part of a herd as she had suffered being attacked by one of the male bull elephants and this left her traumatised, traumatised to the point where if a herd or even another single elephant got too close to her she would instinctively run away to distance herself from them. It’s very sad to see but also beautiful, as being in the park means she has the opportunity to live out the rest of her life until she passes from old age as her fears would be detrimental to her health and well being outside the park.
Her mahout creates beautiful wooden carvings in honour of Mae Jan Pan and you can buy one for only 400 Baht which is around €10. All Elephants have their own little families, the mothers and nannies of the 3 babies in the park are extremely protective of them just so you know and not be disappointed you can’t get really close to one of the babies.
Not only was it Songkran but we were also lucky to have been there for the parks’ 12th year anniversary, they had a special ceremony for the donators of the land for the park and of course for us volunteers. The ceremony included a special blessing from local monks to bless the park and all involved, it was nice to have experienced this.
During our last night at the park we were given a special dinner, we had children from the local area performing for us and it was really touching and I started to get very emotional as I knew our time at the park was coming to an end.
What I learnt from this experience is that Lek, the owner and founder of the park, is an amazing lady who has dedicated her life to these majestic souls and we hope that more camps will follow in her footsteps. We are constantly reading her updates and news feeds and it seems to be happening as more elephant owners are turning away from using their elephants to entertain tourists and are making plans to create more of these areas for elephants to live a more natural life. Unfortunately a lot of elephants are not as fortunate as they are still working and been used for human entertainment. To ‘condition’ an elephant and prepare it for a life in shackles starts from a young age, babies are separated from their mothers kept in a small box for 3 to 4 days where they beat and poke them repeatedly until their spirit is broken, just for us humans to say that we have seen a elephant perform, draw a picture, kick a ball or have many people ride on them on a daily basis. An elephant is not for our entertainment and the more we spread the word the less money will go into parks that abuse their elephants. At ENP you will not see a bull hook or anyone riding an elephant. I must remind you that all these elephants that are bought here have been used and abused almost all their lives. Now they live in peace and harmony as all elephants in this world deserve. The truth is, these elephants would never be able to survive in the wild after all they have been through and the conditions they have had to endure, this though doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have the chance to live free, and parks like ENP offer them that very life. Furthermore, people like Lek and places like the Elephant Nature Park need to become more common-place in order to help rescue them and give them a free life, only then will we possibly see a reversal of their decline in numbers.
Mick and I were so touched by this place, so moved by the work of the people that dedicate their lives for the cause that we plan to go again very soon and it will become an on-going thing for us, as volunteers, as carers and maybe even as ambassadors for this cause.
Everything about the Elephant Nature Park and it’s surroundings are beautiful, magical, peaceful….life changing even. Please read up on the facts before you visit any park to ensure you make the right choice. I cried in the mini-bus leaving the park, you can well imagine how this placed touched my heart.
Also to all the friends we made along the way I’m certain you will all relate to this post. Lets continue to spread the word, lets continue to educate and lets all meet up there again in the near future to continue this great work.
For the elephants.
Andria and Mick
http://www.elephantnaturepark.org for further information on how you can help.