The drive from Chiang Mai to the Elephant Nature Park is nothing short of surreal: from urban to highway to jungle in about an hour. And from cars and tuk tuks to elephants and ox on the side of the road.
We start our first day as volunteers, 23 of us ranging in age from 8 to retired, at the park’s office in Chiang Mai. There, we sign papers, get volunteer T-shirts and water bottles, and begin to mingle with the group who would become our family in the next week.
Jack is the first person I meet, our volunteer coordinator with a dry (and endearing) sense of humor. Example: “I’m Thai. But, my name is Jack.”
Over tea and fresh muffins, I make my first volunteer friends: Sarah, Lucy, Katy, Pam and Steven. Sarah, from the UK, is like me — a solo traveler. This stint marks nearly the end of her long-term travel. Talking to her brings me instantly back to my travel-travel days. Lucy and Katy, also from the UK, are fresh off of volunteering for an NGO in Cambodia. And, Pam and Steven, a couple from Vancouver, are at the beginning of a sublime month-long holiday taking them to various parts of Southeast Asia.
Together, we sit on couches, sharing space with three-legged dogs and other animals, doing the obligatory Travel Talk, until Jack hustles us back into vans to begin the trip up to the park.
En route, I begin to shoot questions at him, all about the elephants. Would we ride them? What’s the situation with the park? What’s the deal with the elephants?
Fortunately, there is a video for us to watch on the way up that answers most of my questions.
My primer to the plight of Thailand’s elephants.
We learn quickly about the logging industry that became illegal, which prompted elephant mahouts (owners) to seek ways to make money with their animals a different way.
Enter elephant tourism.
With people coming in droves to Thailand to see these revered creatures, the elephant tourism industry quickly snapped up the elephants and mahouts once they found tourists would pay money to feed their street-begging elephants bananas. And, found tourists would pay to take an uncomfortable ride on their backs, because who doesn’t want to say they have ridden an elephant? Or, they would sit and giggle as the big, adorable creatures balanced their bodies on one foot or played a game or something cutesy like that. They even found people would pay to see them paint.
Sadly, we learn that to introduce elephants to this world, there is a great deal of suffering that goes into the training process. (For more details, check out this post I wrote a few weeks ago)
The video we watch hits me as soon as the camera zooms in on the vacant look in the elephant’s eyes as it stands, feet in pain, in front of a store, begging for food, mahout next to it, doling out fruits to people to place in the creature’s trunk.
Tears well up in my eyes, and Pam, who is next to me, shoots me a sympathetic glance as I try to cover up the fact that I am getting upset.
In that moment, I know Pam and I will be friends.
Once the video concludes, we are nearly to the park. The highway has given way to pothole spattered jungle roads.
That’s when I see my first elephant.
She’s huge. Walking slowly on the side of the road. And, there is a bench tied around her. With people on it.
“Jack, do we get to ride an elephant while we are at the park?”
He looks at me and instantly I regret those words. Hadn’t I just watched a video that basically makes it known the elephant tourism industry is riddled with abuse?
“No.” He states, then looks out the window at the elephant. I look, too. “It isn’t good for them to be ridden on like that. They aren’t made to take riders on their backs. The only place they should be ridden is a spot on their head, and they shouldn’t go on treks like that with tourists.”
I feel bad as I hear his words, and again, tears fill my eyes as I look back out at the elephant and the tourists riding her who don’t know any better. Just that brief amount of information Jack presented was enough to convince me I don’t ever need to ride an elephant.
I realize something in that moment: this week isn’t going to be easy.
We continue on the road to the park, passing more elephants than I ever would have liked to see walking alongside the road, competing for space with our van, red cabs, trucks and more. We drive by the camps where we can plainly see the elephants, standing under shelters, feet chained and rocking back and forth in discomfort. We see ox with huge wooden carts strapped to them, giving people rides (often times, tour operators offer package deals — elephant trekking, ox cart rides and then river rafting).
And then, I see a sign announcing we are entering the Elephant Nature Park.
In the next moment, I see her, in the distance, standing in a field of grass with huge jungle hills in the background. The sky is overcast. And she is beautiful. A dark grey with brown.
My first rescued elephant.
It feels very Jurassic Park-like, elephants wandering freely as we are brought up in a van to the park.
I am instantly in love as we pull up to my new home for the week.
When we get out of the car and are greeted by an onslaught of saved dogs (there’s more than 100), and head up to the main park structure –essentially a huge covered deck with three feeding platforms, a kitchen, plenty of seating, a conference room and a sky walk — the views take my breath away.
Bright green hills shrouded in clouds. A rushing river. And elephants. As far as the eye can see.
For more information about Elephant Nature Park and the Elephant Nature Foundation, visit it’s Web site.
For more information about the elephant tourism industry in Thailand, click here.