A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant

Author: Eleanor McIntosh

“Wow, they’re so big and ….. close” one of our group remarks, as everyone presses their faces up against the window of the minibus.  We are driving past lush pastureland towards a wooden structure framed by rolling hills, otherwise known as the headquarters for the Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park.  Here we will experience an encounter with one of Thailand’s most venerated cultural symbols, the Elephant.  As we survey the park, one of the first eco-tourism sites established in Thailand, we absorb the peace and tranquillity which seems an integral part of what can only be described as a “wellness centre” for elephants, who have been saved from logging operations, street begging, and animal entertainment shows. 

Our guide “Bam” directs us towards our first elephant meet and greet.  Not sure what to expect, everyone begins to shuffle awkwardly, in awe at being so close to such huge creatures and also slightly scared, though nobody wants to admit it.  Bam asks for volunteers to undergo a very special experience, an elephant kiss, which has some similarity to being touched on the cheek by a gentle and rather large wet sponge.  One particularly brave American puts his hand up and steps forward remarking that “I don’t get many kisses at home so I better get one now” earning him a hard stare from his girlfriend and laughter from the group.  Although cautious, the American stands side on while the elephant’s trunk snakes towards him to plant a squelchy kiss on his cheek.  A moment of disbelief is followed by a huge smile of wonder, and soon everyone is puckering up for a kiss worth telling your grandchildren about!

As we have been engaged with this elephant, more have arrived and are crowding around for their breakfast, a huge basket of tropical fruit prepared by volunteers and donated by Thai food growers.  As visitors to the park we have the opportunity to feed the elephants twice, and we are soon splattered with fruit pulp and elephant spit as these rampant eaters chow down on our offerings.  We also get an opportunity to touch the elephant’s extremely tough and wrinkly hide, which feels exactly how you would expect… tough and wrinkly!   In a surprisingly short time we find ourselves empty-handed, and with the excitement of the morning feeding over, the elephants drift away to graze in the surrounding pastureland, the result of a generous donation by a wealthy Texan.

We now have the opportunity to learn some of the sad stories haunting the pasts of these powerful majestic creatures.  Jokia, an ex-logging elephant, was forced to give birth whilst working, and could only watch as her calf rolled down a logging hill where it eventually died.   Her resultant misery and grief caused her to lie down and refuse to work, earning her a savage beating from her mahout (handler) and the loss of her eyesight.  Luckily for elephants their trunks can act as a “seeing eye”, thus, Jokia is still able to function as a normal elephant.  Maximus, the park’s oldest inhabitant, was hit by a car whilst street begging.  His owner could not afford appropriate care for his broken leg and it did not set correctly, which has left him permanently crippled.  Hope, another park favourite, was rescued from having to undergo the cruel training designed to break these creature’s spirit, where an elephant is placed in a corral and disciplined until it learns to follow human commands.  Given these awful tales, one could forgive the elephants for bearing a grudge against humankind.  However, one gets a sense that they feel no rancour towards us, and instead, have found a sanctuary where they can begin to rediscover how to be an elephant.  Many have even forged strong bonds with their fellow rescued elephants and in turn formed little herds, in which they now live out their lives in comparative peace and quiet.

During the afternoon, there is an opportunity to participate in bathing the elephants.  Everyone changes into their swimming gear and heads down to the river, walking amongst the elephants, and watching their obvious delight as they submerge themselves beneath the water like ungainly grey submarines.  Soon everybody is at work scrubbing away while the elephants lie back and soak up the sun.  However, all our hard work comes to nothing as the elephants head towards their favourite dust and mud pit, where they baste themselves to protect their hide against the multitudinous insects and the harsh sunlight.  We stop to watch some of the younger elephants have a mudfight, although with some reluctance on the part of one of the babies.  Despite encouragement from his mahout (in the form of bananas), he trumpets and stampedes in the opposite direction from the mud pit.  After several attempts, the baby’s mother finally unceremoniously dumps her offspring in the pit, and he is soon happily playing, demonstrating the elephant’s comparatively human sense of family and fun.

After giving the elephants their evening snack, we are told we must prepare to leave these gentle giants about whom we have learnt so much during the day.  By visiting the park, we have all played an active role in ensuring that the elephants can grow old peacefully despite their traumatic backgrounds, with our donation going towards their upkeep of over a million baht a year.  The park also offers other opportunities to assist with building and expansion projects, such as volunteering, with many of us pledging to come back and visit very soon in this capacity. 

As we drive away, we catch just a glimpse of the flapping ears and swaying tails which mark one of Thailand’s unique national treasures.