We arrived early evening on Tuesday and were able to take a walk through the night market and get a feel for Chiang Mai. We Immediately felt how polite and laid back the people are here and enjoyed looking around at the local items. We stopped by a food cart for some dinner, watched some traditional Thai dancing and took note of souveniers we may want to bring home. After the exhausting five days of travel it was time for a bed, it had afterall been since Seattle (two nights) since we’d slept in one.
After missing the first few travel days and bypassing Bangkok, we jumped right into our planned activities on Wednesday morning. We were picked up at our hotel and headed a little over an hour out of Chiang Mai to the Elephant Nature Park. Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand and it was nice to get a little perspective of the area. It was a beautiful drive in, ENP is the farthest park out on the remote road up and over the rolling hills. The weather was beautiful and we laughed at the big coats and scarves everyone was wearing and how cold they talked about it being, this is their winter so I can’t imagine how hot it gets in the summer. 36 Asian Elephants roam free around the park, 32 females and 4 males, not to mention the dozen or so dogs, oxen and one bear. We were given a tour of the grounds and headed straight out to the clinic where we met the first two rescued gentle giants. ENP is run by an amazing Thai woman who is on a mission to save mistreated and beaten elephants and educate people how to teach with love and positive reinforcement. They staff their own vet and travel all over the region providing medical treatment where needed.
The first two we hand fed and were amazed at the recovery they went through and the strong bond between them. One of them was locked in chains and forced to breed; the weight and brutal lock broke her hip and part of her back, it’s amazing she’s walking and still alive. The other elephant was beaten and blined in one eye and immediately bonded with the broken girl when she was brought to camp. They never leave eachother’s side, a true testiment to how inteligent, caring and protective these animals are.
Elephants eat 10% of their body weight a day, or 250 – 400 pounds, and spend their 18 waking hours chewing. Needless to say we had a lot of feeding to do, good thing they have a big elephant kitchen full of pumpkin, bananas, and watermelon. Then it was bath time to cool everyone down so we headed out to the river with our pails and splashed away.
Lunch time was a great spread with more choices then we could even try. The highlight was the spicy papaya salad, so delicious. After we refueled it was back to feeding the elephants again. The afternoon was mellow and we were able to just spend time with the amazing creatures. We met the two babies, got kisses and watched playtime in the mud.
There are two documentaries on the park and the work the owner, Lek, continues to do. It’s amazing how highly regarded the elephant is, both in work and religion, and what a part they play in Thai culture yet how poorly treated they are. A centuries old tradition to “break” the animal’s spirit and “teach” them who is master is still actively practiced and hard to hear about. The laws are complicated and rarely enforced. Domesticated animals have no rights here and that speaks for the working elephants. The wild elephant population has decreased 95% over the years mostly due to logging. Since the 1980s when logging was made illegal most working elephants were out of a job. Tourism has become their new job and they’re now subject to begging in the streets, giving rides and performing circus tricks. It was important to us to find and support a rescue program where the focus was on elephants and treating them as special as they are.
Well, our first day was a great success! We had such a great time and loved every minute of it. We ended up with about 300 pictures so looks like we will have enough to document the experience.