I started a new job in September. The company I work for has offices and manufacturing facilities all over the world. Since September I’ve been to Paris, Los Angeles and two cities in Thailand – Bangkok and Chiang Mai (the factory is actually in Lamphun, 30 minutes from Chiang Mai). When I organized the trip to Thailand I made sure I had a weekend free so I could see a little bit of the country. When you fly in on a Monday and work every day, you don’t see anything except highway, cars, hotel and work facilities. I had never been to Thailand before. Actually the only place in Asia I’d been was to Singapore and that was only for 2 days as layovers on the way to and from New Zealand.
Honestly, I was a little nervous traveling to Thailand on my own. I was new and hadn’t met any of my colleagues there yet either. All new and unknown. By the end of the 9 days, I felt really comfortable and at ease and confident. My Dutch colleague, HJ, calls Thailand “Asia-Lite” because it’s a very easy place for westerners to travel in. Easy for him to say! It was still a little scary for me.
My colleagues are incredibly nice and helpful and took great care of me. I had lunch with them in local lunch spots and dinner at the best Japanese restaurant in Chiang Mai. They made sure I had rides where and when I needed. I hope next time I won’t be such a burden and can be more independent. I loved touring the factories and seeing how people work. I love factories in general anyway – stuff is really happening there! Stuff is being MADE. I’m a maker at heart – any kind of making I get excited and interested.
Anyway, the point of this blog post is to tell you about the elephants! Before I left for Thailand, DB bought me a travel book. I needed to find out what I could do on my free weekend. I found a day trip to an elephant park. Not just any park. This is an Elephant Nature Reserve. Elephants roam around free. They form their own family groups. They are not ridden or forced to perform stupid tricks for tourists. Some are rescued from terrible circumstances and some were born on the park. The center was started by an amazing woman named Lek Chailert. They have a FB page of course. Their web site is here. You can book a trip in advance if you like.
On Saturday morning a van arrived at my hotel to pick me up. I was the last on the route and there were already 8 others in the van. We drove the 2 hours to the park and watched a short movie about the park while en route. We got there around 10am which was feeding time. All the tourists (there were probably 75 of us there on this day) were shy and hesitant. The tour guides showed us what to do and how to feed them. The elephants receive 60% of their food from humans and the rest they forage for themselves.
Here’s our guide, and just some of the food that is prepared for the elephants.
After feeding time we took a walk out into the meadow to a small group of females and a baby. The baby was was about 9 months old. One of the nannies is very old (60-70 years old) and the other nanny was injured in a logging accident and walks with a very bad limp. Logging with elephants was only outlawed in the 1990’s in Thailand. The practice continues in Cambodia and Myanmar.
We were able to walk right up to them and touch them and talk to them. It was pretty amazing. We also walked by the little hospital they have there where they treat elephants from the whole area. This is an elephant tooth.
And this is an 80 year old elephant.
After walking around a while it was time for lunch. They set out long tables of hot food for all of us – very tasty. I have to say, my tour group was not very social. There were 4 couples and me and each couple really kept to themselves. At other tables people were talking together and sharing travel stories. Oh well. I concentrated on the elephants. I asked the tour guide lots of questions.
After lunch it was bath time. We went down to the river and elephants joined us. Not all of the elephants are allowed to come to the river with us. One family group is super protective of their baby and get a little crazy in the water when strangers are around. Another family group has a 3 month old baby and no one is allowed to get near enough to touch them as they are extremely protective and the baby is too young to interact safely with people. All completely understandable.
We splashed around, throwing water on the elephants to clean old dirt off them. Of course after the bath they head to the dirt and mud area and cover themselves again, which is what they are supposed to do. The dirt keeps them free of bugs and sunburn.
After we washed some of the elephants, the family group that keeps to themselves came down to the river and we had to go up to the sky walk to be safe and keep them safe too. After we watched them in the water, they all came walking towards the main building, where we were standing, and hung around like they were posing for photos. In the end we were able to mingle with them and we all got used to each other.
The only elephant we really had to look out for was the Naughty Boy. He’s just a teenager and like all teenage boys he likes to stir up trouble. Everyone scatters when he comes around. He’s not that big yet, however, even a small elephant running at full force can knock you down and cause you serious physical damage.
Here’s a photo of Lek with her elephants. There was also a guy with a big movie camera making a documentary for the Discovery Channel. I’ll have to look out for that on tv!
It was soon time for feeding again. And then late in the afternoon we went to see the 3 month old baby, his mother and 2 nannies. The nannie on the left had half her right rear foot blown off when she stepped on a land mine while logging in Cambodia. The baby is so adorable.
I made some short movies during the day. It’s here on youtube. If you watch to the end, you will see this family group with the 3 month old baby. The nanny with the blown off foot is on the left of the screen. You will see her thumping the ground with her trunk. Only once do you hear it really well. What an amazing sound! And watch the baby try to imitate her!
You are welcome to look at all my photos here on flickr.
All in all, it was a great day. It’s surprising to me how much of that day has stayed with me. It had a big impact. I want to go back. I want to take DB there. I encourage anyone who likes to travel or plans to travel to Thailand to go there and not go to the places where you can ride elephants. We drove past one of those places and could see the elephants chained to cement pads waiting to be ridden around the roads. This is not how an elephant should live. And if you can’t get there but would like to help Lek save elephants (and water buffalo and other animals in Thailand and greater Asia), please donate to her organization. She’s the real deal.