We glanced at each other, heads tilted down, tears streaming from both of our eyes. I stroked the side of her beautiful, enslaved gray head, unable to contain the pain I felt for her. I felt frustrated. I was completely and utterly helpless. There was nothing I could do to free this chained up majestic creature from her elephant jail.
I’ve never been that much of an animal lover. I don’t not like animals, but I’m not usually the one running up to every dog or cat that I come across. Puppies, sure. You’ll get a squeal out of me. There are definitely a few dogs in this world that have captured my heart. But, I eat everything and have never thought about being a vegetarian. I actually avoid watching those documentaries that tend to convert even the heartiest of meat-eaters, cherishing my ignorance of the meat industry.
There was something different about this animal adventure even before it began. I felt something. Excitement was a piece of it, but there was an additional layer that I couldn’t put my finger on.
Since I began following travel bloggers and researching Southeast Asia, I read all about the horrible treatment of pachyderms in the tourism industry. At elephant camps around the country, visitors will trek with or ride on top of elephants. These rides are terrible for the elephants’ spines as their heads are actually the strongest part of their bodies. Additionally, in order to train the elephants and gain full control, mahouts regularly and viciously beat the elephants into submission. I vowed never to ride one. I may not be an animal-lover, but I do have a heart (I think).
When I heard about Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, I knew that I had to make it a stop on my Northern Thailand route. The aim of the park is to provide a sanctuary to care for the elephants and keep them safe. Visitors wander around the park with a guide, free to stop and pet their rough gray skin or take “elphies” (elephant-selfies, obviously). As a volunteer for the day, you get the chance to bathe and feed elephants as well.
We started the morning with a sleepy ride from Chiang Mai, our guide showing an educational video highlighting the mission of the park, the history of the animals in the region and the issues that they face. I was initially worried by the number of mini-vans carrying park-goers, afraid that this would be an extreme tourist trap and that I would feel overwhelmed by the number of guests. Then, as quickly as my concerned thought came to mind, it vanished. The first gray masterpiece walked came into view.
Graceful. Quiet. Playful. Warm.
These first impressions of these behemoths left me feeling somehow connected to them, stunned by their magnificence. I treaded slowly and quietly through the landscape, focusing intently on the stories our guide shared. By name and trunk nudge, she identified each elephant’s life history. The one-year-old elephant, Jungle Boy, teases the dogs until his nanny steps in to separate them. Another has finally recovered from stepping on a land mine. And finally, this story:
She was carrying tourists up a mountain when she gave birth.She watched her baby tumble down the mountain. She turned and ran after it, hoping to save her newborn. The mahouts began to sling rocks at her eyes, forcing her to behave and keep working. She lost her sight and her little one that day.
Each elephant has chosen an adopted family of four or five in the park, protecting and caring for each other. One of the older elephants has chosen a life of solitude and only spends her days with the dogs, rather than surrounding herself with a pachyderm family. Every animal at Elephant Nature Park has some type of mental or physical handicap caused by humans but their energy revealed an effortlessly forgiving happiness.
It was these stories that dug inside me.
As I strolled through the park, I felt an earthly connection to the beings around me. Mesmerized by their sheer size, natural beauty and deep resilience, my heart ached at the thought of the abuse these animals had endured. I realized that, even with my constant photo snapping, admiring every hair and spec of dirt on their massive bodies, there was no way to truly capture their essence.
We explored the land for hours, following and observing their every move, catching their contagious smiles. Even as we fed them watermelon, laughed at their mud fights, caressed their rough skin, and washed them in the river with pink buckets, they were clearly the owners of the land; humans just guests in their home.
I felt an urge to return nearly the minute I left the park. Maybe one day I will. But even if I never get the chance to play with these giants again, I realized the second I stopped on the side of the road with a few friends who suggested that we go “see some elephants” and saw my first glimpsed of an elephant used purely for tourist purposes, that this visit had truly left a mark on my soul.
Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai offers one day, overnight and week-long volunteer packages. I participated in the Single Day visit, but would have loved to do the overnight or the week long volunteer package! You can find more information about them here.
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