I remember specifically the first elephant I saw in Thailand. She was walking right past our minibus as I made my way to the Elephant Nature Park for the first time. On her back, she carried a heavy metal seat with tourists perched on top. Most people know of riding an elephant’s back as a popular tourist activity. More often than not, they aren’t even aware of suffering these elephants are put through. They don’t realize the heavy seats can cause permanent damage to an elephant’s back, or that it is incredibly painful for an elephant to crouch down to enable people to climb on top. Or, worst of all, the way these elephants are taken away from their families as babies and tortured until they cooperate. It is honestly heart-breaking that this is the memory I have of the first elephant I saw. But it served as a good reminder as to why I was volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, what brought me to Thailand. If you want to know more about the abuse of Elephants and other animals in tourism you should have a read of National Geographic special report on “The hidden cost of wildlife tourism”, or explore the Elephant Nature Park’s website, they summarize it much better than I ever could.
This has to be one of my absolute favorite shots of my trip. The majestic Jan Peng (full moon) stands with her mahout, who would adorn the hole in her ear every day with a freshly plucked flower. The hole was caused by her last mahout who, like too many others, hit Jan Peng with a bull hook on the ear to scare her into compliance whilst she slaved away in the logging industry. Daily fresh flowers have since been replaced by a faux, bright orange one that will never wilt. Transforming this injury, a painful reminder of the abuse and trauma of a past life, into something beautiful and emblematic of the new, peaceful one she has found at the sanctuary. She is now visited by loving guests from all over the world and even got some attention from National Geographic!
I never intended on having favorites at the park, I was there to help all the elephants, but Kabu quickly changed that. Taking a short break from cleaning out enclosures, a group of us were stood around her, quietly watching. Out of nowhere she started walking… right toward me. She stopped with her face right in front of mine, close enough for me to touch her, and that was that for me. I was in love. Her mahout, a kind and funny man, exactly the type of person you’d hope she’s being looked after by, told me about her history. Kabu had been rescued from the jungle where she and her mother were forced to work in the logging industry for years. Her life before the sanctuary was nothing but abuse and exploitation. The hairs on her tail were cut off to make bracelets to sell to tourist and her front legs broken from a logging accident, so much so you’ll often find her leaning on beams and tree trunks for support. I can’t imagine how or why anyone would put such a smart animal through such pain. And smart she is, I saw her mahout pass her a little stick which she held in her trunk and used to itch around her neck. Thankfully she now gets to live out her days in a safe new home where she gets all the freedom, food and medical attention she could ever need.
The view at the Elephant Nature park was something I’ve only ever witnesses through nature documentaries. A grass field with a few trees, paths and enclosures scattered here and there take up the valley, stretching right out to the base of the mountains where the jungle begins. Clean mist covers the mountain tops and fades into the rainclouds above. But despite the rain, it is still bright and the surrounding greens are more vivid than anything I’ve ever seen before. Dense greenery surrounds every path and every building. Rescued elephants, dogs and cats wander freely around the park so you’re always surrounded by nature.
One elephant had earned herself the nickname “Drama Queen”. She was one of the few elephants we weren’t allowed to approach as she can be quite unpredictable. We were told she had been rescued from a circus where, because of the abuse they put her through, she had tried to kill five of her past mahouts. At the sanctuary, she has finally found a mahout who looks after her and eventually learnt to trust him. The bonds formed between an elephant and their mahout really stood out to me. These men spend all their time simple trailing behind their elephant to keep an eye on them.
This cheeky baby elephant stuck close to her mother at all times, which is very common as elephants have some of the highest levels of maternal care seen in the animal kingdom. At one point, she got a hold of some bamboo and started waving it around. Ignoring all her mahout’s demands telling her to stop and giving the volunteers a good laugh.
During my time in Chiang Man I got the opportunity to visit a small, remote school, nearby the sanctuary. Here, alongside traditional subjects such as math and English, students are taught trades that would help them find jobs in the tourism industry. Braiding bracelets with visitors, dance performances, Thai massages, serving food and even candle making (shown in the pictures) are all part of their education that allows them to make a little cash whilst learning. They had set up all these activities for us in the playground. During this time, a lot of students were running around playing. I watched intently as I tried to figure out the rules of their made-up games.
One of my days at the park was spent planting grass. Creating new fields for wild animals to browse on to keep them away from farmers and local populations so no harm will be done to them. Our guides made the work look as effortless as planting a little herb garden in your back yard. As it turns out, it’s not that simple. It’s fidgety and tiring work, especially in the rainy-season’s humidity. Luckily there were some dogs running around to provide a bit of entertainment and to keep our spirits up.
Those are just a few of my favourite memories from solo-travelling through Thailand! Let me know if you enjoyed this and I might share some more.
Have you ever been to Thailand? Would you want to? What are some of your favourite travel memories? We’d love to hear in the comment below!
More Thailand posts:
A Perfect Day: Scared and Alone in Chiang Mai City
A Night in Chiang Mai City