Escape of the Week: Elephant Nature Park

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An hour outside of Chiang Mai is a sanctuary. A place where elephants from the elephant tourism and illegal logging industries go to live out their lives in peace. Here, there are no bullhooks. No one gets to ride on them. There are no tricks performed or paintings painted.

Here, at Elephant Nature Park, the elephants live in bliss.

Yesterday, that very bliss some of the elephants at the park are so fortunate to have, was threatened by Thailand’s Department of National Parks. Fortunately, people in this world still care, and hundreds of supporters of the park and the Asian elephant banned together to spread the word about what was going on.

No elephants were taken. (Sadly, last week, hundreds of animals were removed from the Wildlife Friends Foundation.)

Today, I want to show the world the beauty that exists at Elephant Nature Park. I want to highlight these elephants who live their days chomping on fruit, chatting with each other, engaging in relationships, taking dips in the river, and living their lives content and free from the chains of tourism.


Elephants are a lot like humans. They show emotions, have relationships … and have plenty of heart-warming photo opps like these:

Best friends showing affection with their trunks.

Mom and baby have a moment of cuddles.

Capable of eating tons of food a day, it seems as if these animals spend a lot of their time enjoying the fruits and veggies at the park. One of my favorite elephants to observe and feed during lunch was Jokia, the blind elephant.

Jokia rests her trunk, waiting for food.

The exploration for food begins for Jokia. She searches out food with her trunk.

The dog is clearly unphased by the roving trunk.

And when she grows tired of that, she simply reverts to opening her mouth for someone to place food within.

The elephants have strict feeding time, so she has to wait.

Finally, it’s time to eat.

Then, they get to enjoy the sweet rewards of their wait in the form of lots, and lots, and lots of food.

One cluster of bananas is clearly not enough for this gorgeous girl.

Under the watchful eye of a mahout, visitors place the fruit directly in the elephant’s mouth.

She just looks happy eating!

Another favorite time of day for me was when it was bathtime. Each afternoon, the park’s elephants make the walk from the fields down to the river and either get washed by volunteers or go in on their own.

One of the families begins their walk to bathe.

A lone elephant walks along the bank of the river en route to getting clean.

A mahout stands with Jungle Boy, one of the younger elephants at the park.

Best friends hang out together for a little cooling off in the hot afternoon.

But, there are so many other moments worth sharing. So, here are some of my other favorite photos (I took hundreds!).

A mahout and elephant hang out together by the river.


Mahouts have special relationships with their elephants.

A staff member bikes past an elephant … waiting for food.

The albino elephant at the park.

No more trekking for these feet.

I hope you enjoy these images as much as I enjoyed taking them. If you want to spend time with these amazing animals, there are opportunities to take day trips to the park from Chiang Mai, as well as one- and two-week volunteer stints. To learn more, visit Elephant Nature Park’s Web site.

For more information on what has gone on at the park, please read about the Thai Wildlife Raids (there are links within that take readers to other sites to help guide them on how to show their support of the park).

Show your support for ENP and WFF!

Sign this petition telling the DNP you do not support the capture of these animals from the sanctuaries. Help let Thailand know the world is watching and cares!


Photo Essay: Life at Elephant Nature Park

For about one week, I was a volunteer at Elephant Nature Park. During that time, I did everything from shoveling poo to being blessed by a shaman to becoming part of the heard and spending time with elephants up-close, to singing “Que Sera, Sera” as they fell asleep. There were tears of joy and tears of heartbreak.

And lots of photos.


The Park

Situated on 30 acres about an hour north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, Elephant Nature Park is a gorgeous enclave where elephants rescued from the tourism industry and illegal logging industries and more, are able to live their remaining lives in peace and free from abuse.

The lodging is not glamorous, but I loved my room in the primitive Palace structure.

Particularly the views that include elephants in the background …

And even those that don’t.

Beyond the lodging, the other areas where volunteers spend time are vibrant, rustic and beautiful, too.

There is also the stunning tropical land inhabited by the elephants to gaze at all day long.


The Elephant Kitchen

The elephant kitchen at the park is a huge structure, packed with shelves stocked with fruits that need constant rotation. Elephants can eat upwards of 700 pounds of vegetation each day. With more than 30 elephants in the park, that’s 21,000 pounds of food being moved from the kitchen and other areas to the searching trunks each day!

There kitchen includes bunches and bunches and bunches of bananas …

Melons …

… Sugarcane and more. Volunteers fill buckets for each elephant and then help deliver them to the feeding platforms and nearby shelters for mealtimes.

 For the elephants who can’t chew the fruit, volunteers roll banana balls.

Life at the Park

Chores, like shoveling, are daily tasks at Elephant Nature Park. Volunteers shovel into a trailer and then a staff member removes the waste.

But, there are also other aspects of the park that should be mentioned, like the boards which honor the mahouts.

The mahouts and others at the park also lend their talents to the gift shop, where hand-carved renditions of the park’s elephants are prominently displayed.

Aside from the elephants at the park, water buffalo, cats, dogs and more call this place “home.”

It’s also home to larger than life insects!

Want to see elephants? Stay tuned!

Asia Blog Responsible Tourism Thailand

Tears of joy … and other last moments at Elephant Nature Park

Medo, one of the abused elephants at Elephant Nature Park, rests against a log. Despite her very apparent injuries from past abuses, she is able to live day-to-day at the park.

To say there are a lot of tears on the last day as volunteers at Elephant Nature Park is an understatement.

At least as it relates to me.

If there’s one thing I have noticed during my week as a volunteer at Elephant Nature Park is that I cry. A lot. More than most people. Maybe it’s because my emotions are hard-wired to my tear ducts. And, combined with my love for animals and my admiration for these elephants, along with learning all of the awful things they are subject to in their pre-ENP lives, those tears just flow, flow, flow.

After seeing Mae Sai Roong stand following a day of heartbreak? Tears. Tears. And, more tears.

Dumping the last buckets of water over elephants in the river? More salty goodness down the face.

Saying “goodbye” to the first group of volunteers as they are ushered into the van and taken back to Chiang Mai? Yup. Stupid tears.

Of course, when Lucy and I decide to go spend the last remaining bits of time with “our” elephants on the gorgeous Sunday afternoon, it’s pretty much a recipe for watering of the eyes.

And yet, I do it anyway.

We have our plan: first, we’ll find Medo’s mahout and see if we can go down and see her, then it’s back to the front of the park to see Mae Sai Roong.

I want to see Jokia, too, but Jack says because she is blind, it’s not such a good idea to go and hang out with her. [If you want to read her story, visit the Park’s Web site.]

After we’ve dumped the last bucked of water over the gigantic elephant heads, she and I head to the deck where some of the mahouts are sitting, their elephants below them.

Medo’s mahout sits on a bench above her, watching her as she idly chomps on fruit.

“Can we see her?” I ask him, gesturing down to the elephant, who is easily recognizable by injuries that have left a lasting mark on her body. I had a good look at the remnants of abuse on her body earlier in the week when I got up-close with the elephants.

He nods, stands up and walks with us down the wooden stairs to the creature.

I’ve loved Medo since the moment I saw her and heard her story.

She and I walk towards each other, her flapping her ears, me with a huge smile on my face.

I like to think both of us are smiling at our time together.

I look to her mahout, arm raised, about to reach up to her giant leathery gray and pink speckled face. “Can I?

He nods his head.

I place my hand on her face, behind her eye, and scratch.

She closes her eyes.

Tears well up in mine.

I’m truly moved by this beautiful animal … her pain and struggles over as she lives the rest of her life here, at a place that within a week has touched me so deeply.

I whisper softly to her, telling her how lucky she is, that I love her. She presses the front of her face into a post and leans in, towards my hand as I scratch more.

I stand with her, filled to the brim with admiration and gratitude, for about 10 minutes. When it’s time to leave, I gently pat her cheek and promise to see her again one day.

Then, it’s off to Mae Sai Roong for Lucy.

The makeshift bed for Mae Sai Roong is abandoned after a long 24 hours.

Only remnants from a fire and medical supplies remain from the previous emergency.

When we get there, both of us freeze.

Mae Sai Roong stands up after nearly passing away the day before.

“I can’t believe it,” Lucy says as a smile breaks out across her face. “This morning, I didn’t think she’d make it. And now, look!”

Hooked up to an IV, and with an appetite, Mae Sai Roong has come along way.

What a difference 24 hours make.

She’s standing. Flapping her ears. Chomping on fruit.

Tears of happy bubble up in my eyes.

Lucy smiles as she visits with the recovering elephant.

We reach our hands into a bucket and produce pieces of melon for her to eat. The elephant, who could barely muster the strength to swallow bananas the day before, sticks her trunk out through the fence and wraps it around our offerings, then shoves the fruit into her mouth.

We smile to each other.

Then, it’s time to go.

Time to leave the world of elephants.

I’m not even sure how to say a proper goodbye.

Lek is at the main compound when we begin to gather our things.

I walk up to her and hug her. This time, the tears choke me. I can barely muster a “thank you” to her. After all, how can I possibly convey my experiences in the form of “good bye.”

Instead, I hug her tightly, promise her I will share my stories.

As we drive down the dirt road, I wipe the tears from my eyes.

I have a new mission as we head back to Chiang Mai: to do whatever I can to help save more of these elephants and to educate others about Elephant Nature Park, the dark side of the elephant tourism industry, and what we all can do to give back and make a change in their lives.

But first, I have five more days in Thailand and some exploring of Chiang Mai to do.

Asia Blog Thailand

Heartbreak and healing at Elephant Nature Park

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Mae Sai Roong lays on the ground. She looks so little compared to the throngs of people around here — the Elephant Nature Park volunteers, the vets, the mahouts, Lek — all scrambling to make sure she doesn’t give up on life just yet.

Every now and then, the old girl swings her heavy head up from the mound of dirt she’s resting it on. Swings her trunk to power her torso up, off the ground. Somehow, she manages to find the strength to do it. She looks around at all of us for a moment. Sits. Blinks.

We stand, frozen. Our hearts race. We pray she can stand. Fists clench. Hopes high.

Then, she gives up. Laying back down into the dirt.

The sigh from the entire group is audible. It echoes in the piles of dirt around us.

More scrambling ensues as people try to adjust the sand bags, the tires, the dirt, to contour to her body so she is comfortable, so her legs don’t lose circulation. So she doesn’t die in front of us.

Volunteers rush to move dirt to keep the elephant comfortable.

Me? I can barely watch this scene.

I had heard there was a sick elephant. But, I never imagined … this. This beautiful girl, her six tons so tiny on the ground. Her body nearly lifeless except for a few short whisps of air going through her trunk when she breathes deep.

After a lifetime of being in the logging and elephant trekking (giving rides to people like us) industries, they have taken their toll on this beautiful animal.

My last full day at the park isn’t supposed to be like this. It isn’t supposed to be sad. It isn’t supposed to be a reminder of the repercussions of what happens to these elephants who spend their lives delighting tourists who don’t know any better.

And yet, it is.

My day started out so promising. So happy.

Still glowing from the afternoon before and my time with Lek’s soft singing of “Que Sera Sera” to one of the park’s baby elephants, the sun finally came out Saturday morning, casting the entire park in that warm golden hue that sends little sparks of happy to the soul.

The sunny view over breakfast.

Over a breakfast of pancakes, Lucy, Katy, Adele, Marie and I sit, looking out at the park and the elephants making their way out on the grounds.

We all say the same thing. “They’re so beautiful.” “This week has been so amazing.” “I am so glad we learned about these elephants.” “I can’t wait to start spreading the word about why people shouldn’t ride them.”

We are all so happy.

Even after a morning of scooping, a few of us gather on the ledge of the medical shelter, simply taking pleasure in watching as the elephants stroll along with their mahouts nearby. As the water buffalo graze. As the visitors to the park explore the grounds for the first time with pure delight at what they were seeing.

I had my plan for the morning: to grab my camera, a soda, and go to the feeding platform and watch the elephants eat their buckets of fruit.

It sounded like the perfect way to spend two hours before lunch.

It never happened.

Instead, just as I am about to sit down to watch the blind elephant, Jokia, open her mouth in anticipation of food, Jack finds me.

“We need your help. There’s a sick elephant and we need to go fill sand bags. Can you come?”

Of course, I oblige.

Of all of the days for the sun to be out and strong, today is the worst for it.

Under the scorching sun and humid air, a group of 10 of us shovel dirt from the same mound that the elephants had rolled in two days prior when I had toured the park and gotten to be up-close with elephants.

Dripping sweat, we are quickly covered in a coating of flour from the bags, along with a layer of red dirt.

When the truck fills, some volunteers get in to go and take the bags to where the sick elephant is.

I opt to stay.

Then, after a few minutes cooling off under a tree, taking a breather from the summer sun, we’re back out, filling bags again. Only, when the truck fills up this time, we are all instructed to climb in and head to the elephant’s location.

I already know I don’t want to see it.

When we arrive, my heart breaks.

Jumping down from the back of the truck and seeing what was in front of me is something I will remember for the rest of my life. My own, personal reminder of why I will never ride an elephant or go to a circus or buy an elephant painting.

The image is burned into my brain.

So, this is what a dying elephant looks like.

Mae Sai Roong doesn’t move much. She lays silently, half watching as we form an assembly line and pass out sand bags, stacking them around her legs, trying to get her to re-position herself so she doesn’t cut off circulation in her back leg she is laying on.

Someone wraps a thick woven band under her belly.They are going to try to pull her up to a standing position with a crane.

Lek counts off, and the truck powers on, the crane begins to lift. Slowly, the Asian elephant’s body begins to elevate, but she fights it. She begins to fall sideways, looking horribly distressed as her eyes snap wide open.

“Stop! Stop!” People scream.

She is slowly lowered back down.

They wait a few minutes, and then, repeat the process. She again fights it. Her front legs coming out in front of her.

I choke on a sob and pull the neck of my dirtied T-shirt over half of my face so no one can see it is now covered with streaks of tears.

This time, when they begin to lower her back down, I turn around. I can’t watch this.

For a moment, she looks as if she might stand on her own.

As staff continue to work on the elephant and readjust dirt, tires and sand bags, Lek tells us to head back to the main building to get lunch, and then return with all of the volunteers when we are done.

The few of us still there race back to the group, find everyone else, and tell them what has happened.

I eat lunch quickly, filled with dread at having to return to Mae Sai Roong. I want to help. I just don’t want to see her suffering like this.

We head back after lunch and are immediately put to work digging. We need to move dirt from one spot to another and form it around her  body.

Mae Sai Roong hasn’t changed much. She still lays there, only the efforts to get her to adjust her weight have ceased.

Bananas go uneaten in the elephant’s mouth.

People try in vain to get her to eat. She doesn’t. Instead, she takes the cluster of bananas wrapped in a coil of her trunk and just leaves them hanging in her mouth.

A vet hooks her up to an IV. Someone else takes a mister and hovers over her body, letting the light wash of water cool her hot skin down.

Then, I hear singing.

“Que sera, sera …”

I spin around from where I am standing behind the elephant and see Lucy, Katy, Pam, Evelyn, Sarah, Marie and Adele, all splayed out on the mound of dirt behind Mae Sai Roong. They lay there, scooping up handfuls of earth and rubbing it on her back. All the while, they sing to her softly.

“Whatever will be, will be …”

I crawl up on the mound with them and take my hand in the dirt, rubbing it into her tough skin, scratching. I try to join in, but I’m overcome with sadness and instead of singing, sob.

Singing to comfort Mae Sai Roong.

“We all need somebody to lean on … lean on me …”

Singing more songs to her …

Each song takes on meaning as we lay there, not caring about being filthy, not caring about being eaten by ants. All we care about in that moment is comforting a creature in her last moments. In letting her know she is not alone.

We spend nearly the entire afternoon with Mae Sai Roong, and then head to another shelter to make a bed of dirt for another elephant who needs a little help getting up from sleeping.

The next day, the outline is evident from the elephant who used the dirt as a bed.

Even though our last night is special, and the park creates a feast of Northern Thai food for us, the mood is somber. Our group of girls go from happy to sad, smiles to tears, quickly.

After dinner, Lucy, Adele, Marie and I decide we want to return to Mae Sai Roong to see her. To likely say goodbye.

I know I can’t do it alone. It’s too sad. Too heart-breaking. Especially after the week I have had, the things I have learned about the plight of the Asian elephants.

As we walk down the dark path towards the sick elephant, we all grab each other’s hands for comfort, and united, walk up to her.

Now, a fire burns and only a few park staff are there. They will sleep with her, making sure she is comfortable the entire evening.

When we get there, she looks even smaller than she did earlier. Her mahout has moved the bags of sand, helped her re-adjust.

Around her, in the dark, I can hear elephants in a nearby shelter moving about.

“Do they know she’s sick?” I ask one of the staff members.

“They don’t care,” she says. “She doesn’t have any friends.”

Except for humans.

The four of us sit together on the gravel, silently. I let myself cry. Not just for Mae Sai Roong, but for all of the elephants whose fate is the same as hers. For all of the elephants who went through the Phajaan. The abuse. The treks.

We get up after a few minutes and whisper our goodbyes to the sweet girl, and then head to the river.

It’s Saturday night, and loud Thai music from another camp wafts down to us. We sit in darkness, watching the strobe-light fireflies blink past us. We cry.

The girls decide to return to Mae Sai Roong in the morning before breakfast, but I pass.

The memory I have of her is enough for me.

I fall asleep that night listening to the music. Thinking about Mae Sai Roong.

In the morning, the girls visit her.

A volunteer comforts Mae Sai Roong in the morning.

“She doesn’t look good,” Lucy reports as soon as I find her at breakfast. “I don’t think she will make it.”

I’m glad I didn’t go.

We all sit together at breakfast, quiet.

This is our experience. Together. And, as sad as it is, I cannot be more thankful I am experiencing it. I feel like this was meant to happen so I can truly understand what happens to these elephants and then come home and tell everyone.

We split off into groups on our last morning with an air of sadness lingering. We’ve all been through this tragic experience together and no one wants to talk about it.

Until …

“Do you see over there?” Jack asks, pointing his finger towards a blue tarp in the distance.

“What?” We ask.

“Mae Sai Roong,” he says. “She’s standing.”

Suddenly, the sadness is replaced with elation. She’s alive. She’s standing.

We all smile, grateful to have gone through hell in order to be a part of this momentary bliss.

And, deep down, I’m warmed thinking our love and support had something to do with the elephant’s little victory for the day.

[Editor’s Note: Mae Sai Roong passed away a few weeks later. To read about her life, her death and more about how you can ensure other elephants don’t face the same fate, please  read “Speaking for the elephants.” And, check out “A Brief Education: The dark side of the elephant tourism industry.” For even more information and reasons why you should never ride an elephant, read “Why elephant riding should be removed from your bucket list.” It is up to each of us to help spread the word about the plight of the Asian elephants and how we can make an impact and send a message to not only the tourism industry, but to other travelers who want to spend time with these magnificent creatures. And, special thanks to Gabrielle Esi Aw, Julie-Anne O’Neill, Lucy Tallis and Pam Brace for photos.]

Asia Blog Responsible Tourism Thailand

Que Sera Sera

Lek accepts a playful smooch from Faa Mai's trunk.

“Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be. The future is ours, you’ll see, que sera sera,” Lek sings softly to the baby elephant, Faa Mai, as she sits on the dirt between the animal’s front legs.

I watch, silently, in awe.

Lek singing to her is a beautiful moment between friends. To me, someone who has spent nearly a week as a volunteer with elephants at Elephant Nature Park, it’s poetic and serves to further illustrate the struggles of the elephant in Thailand and Lek’s role in saving their future.

I smile to myself as she sits on the soft ground, gently stroking the gray legs of Faa Mai.

After a moment, Lek’s not alone on the ground anymore. In front of her, under the trunk of the baby, is one of the volutneers. An eight-year-old boy who’s been noticeably absent from most of the volunteer tasks but extremely present in this moment.

He looks petrified, even though Lek’s reassuring arm is wrapped tightly around him, as she watches the family that has now gathered around them under the thatched roof shelter.

It’s Faa Mai’s naptime, and when Lek is at the park and able to, she heads to the family shelter to spend time with the baby, singing her softly to sleep.

The previous day, she treated all of the volunteers to a special moment with her and the baby, ushering each of us, one-by-one, to sit with her on the ground as she sang.

Today, it’s different.

Today, it’s the boy, his dad, and somehow, me.

I came across the three of them en route to my room after spending time with the vet.

The family shelter is just next to my modest quarters, and as I walk past the shelter, I spot the three of them inside the roofed area. The boy’s dad stands off to the side as Lek and his son sit together, surrounded by elephants.

I stand on the other side of the knobby wooden bars, resting my head against one of them, mesmerized by the founder’s connection with this elephant.

No matter how many times I watch her interact with these creatures, I can’t help but marvel at the bond she has with them.

It’s special. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing.

“D, you can come in, too,” she says, gesturing with her free arm to come into the shelter and hang out with the three of them … and a handful of elephants.

I hang to the side at first, letting the boy and Lek have time together.

I feel so fortunate for the time I had the previous day, I don’t dare impose on this moment they are sharing.

The dad and I watch as the elephants gather around the baby and the two humans on the ground.

It’s intimidating. Huge legs, capable of shattering bones, all around. And yet, they don’t even get near the people. They keep their distance, as if they know their own power.

I get a sense that so long as Lek is in the shelter with us, we won’t be harmed. They know and trust Lek.

“You can come here,” she says to me, once again motioning for me to come closer. This time, it’s to sit on the ground next to the baby.

Of course, I oblige.

Then, it’s the three of us. The child under the trunk of the elephant, me stationed at Faa Mai’s side, and Lek under the front legs. She signs softly again and then speaks to her in Thai, reaching out to touch the leathery trunk and pushing it towards her mom who stands in front of us.

“She needs to nurse,” Lek explains as Faa Mai’s trunk searches for Mae Bua Tong’s teat.

Faa Mai nurses.

For a few minutes, the two-year-old nurses as we sit and observe.

Then, I spot Evelyn, another volunteer, who has come up to watch. She stands like I did, on the other side of the fence, watching us.

“Come, come,” Lek says to her, and then the blonde Austrian girl comes and sits with us, too.

When Faa Mai finishes nursing, Evelyn takes the boy’s place under the massive head of the baby and Lek begins to sing, once again.

Sitting with Faa Mai as she sleeps.

“Put your hand out so she can rest her trunk in it when she sleeps,” Lek instructs Evelyn.

Within moments, Faa Mai (along with us), is under the spell of Lek’s lullaby, and has relaxed. Her big-lashed eyes flutter closed and her trunk hangs, curling at the bottom in Evelyn’s hand. Ever now and then, she puffs.

She’s sleeping. Standing up. As we sit at her feet.

I rest my head on her trunk, running my hand down the length of it, taking in the moment. The baby elephant sleeping at my side. Lek’s soft, sweet song quietly goes on in the background as I stare at Faa Mai.

It’s like a dream.

Every now and then, Faa Mai opens her eyes and looks around, and then closes them again.

I can’t believe it.

I’m sitting here with the elephant family towering over me. They let us sit with the baby of the family without pause.

“This is one of the most amazing moments of my life,” I whisper to no one in particular. I just want it put out into the world. In fact, the past 24-hours I have spent at Elephant Nature Park, have been possibly the most amazing experience of my life.

First, being a part of the herd and spending an afternoon with Lek. Now, sitting with Lek and keeping company with the baby as she drifts in and out of sleep.

It’s beautiful.

When Faa Mai wakes up a few minutes later, she’s playful, opening her mouth and carefully placing Lek’s head in it.

Lek laughs and tells her “no” as her hat almost dislodges. Then, she sticks a finger in the roof of Faa Mai’s mouth and tickles it.

If Faa Mai could giggle, I’m pretty sure she would. Her eyes sparkle as she stands there, letting Lek get a good scratch in.

Then, it’s time to go.

I walk back to my room, to the shower, giddy. Humming “Que Sera Sera” on repeat the entire evening.

I’m on Cloud Nine until the next morning, when all of the elation from the previous day is eclipsed. And, my heart, which had thumped so happily, now nearly breaks thanks to the truth of why we’re here — to care for elephants who have been a part of the elephant tourism industry and now have a chance to live the rest of their lives free from abuse.

There’s a sick elephant. A very sick elephant.

Asia Blog Thailand

Volunteers and a vet: an afternoon of healing elephants

I stand, along with three other volunteers, watching one of the Elephant Nature Park’s veterinarian’s squirt antiseptic into the mangled foot of Sri Prae.

It is purple, covered in medicine to keep it from getting infected. And, it’s disfigured, partially blown off after accidentally stepping on a land mine years back when she was in the illegal logging industry in the Tak province of Thailand.

The results from stepping on a land mine in Tak province of Thailand.

The first time I saw her foot, I winced. But now, after a few days of staring at it, the sight of the purple and the bit missing don’t bother me anymore.

Today, on our second-to-last full day at the park, four of us are shadowing one of the park’s vets, a young Thai, who not only cares for the injured and sick elephants, but also all of the park’s other animals, including a rabbit with a skin condition thanks to the humidity and rain, a horse who was hit by a car and now has a prosthetic leg, and other creatures.

After a morning mushing overly ripe bananas and fashioning banana balls for the senior elephants, re-organizing some of the tons of ready-to-eat bananas and delivering food to the feeding platforms, it’s time to spend a couple of hours with the vet.

We meet at the green medical hit to gather vet supplies before we embark on the rounds.

The hut is where the two victims of land mine explosions — Sri Prae and Malai Tong —  spend the rainy season. The two can’t risk infection on the soppy, overly saturated ground so the shelter is their home during the wet days.

The happy Sri Prae.

Sri Prae stands calmly, flapping her ears and lightly swinging her truck around looking for food.

Malai Tong doesn’t put weight on her injured foot.

Malai Tong is the opposite. She’s missing a portion of her back foot and it dangles as she shifts her weight from front foot to front foot. She sways,  looking agitated.

These two girls are fortunate elephants — although their feet are no longer whole from the blasts, they have come out relatively unscathed.

Sadly, a couple of hours away, at the Elephant Hospital in Lampang, there is a male elephant who isn’t as lucky. He’s fighting for his life after stepping on a mine when he crossed the border into Burma/Mynamar the week before.

One of the volunteers journeyed to the hospital earlier in the week to see how his treatment was going. When she returned and I spoke with her, she was visibly shaken and reported heart-breaking stories of the injured elephant.

We start our rounds with Mae Tee, the first elephant I met at when I arrived at Elephant Nature Park.

Armed with a bucket filled with gauze, antiseptic and other necessary instruments, the vet crouches down low, next to her foot.

The vet cares for Mae Tee.

It has an ongoing abscess from her days trekking, and it needs to be cleaned. He sticks a giant swab of cotton into the wound, and then pulls it out the other end.

Normally, I can’t handle watching something like that. Yet, today, when he moves the cotton up and back in the wound, pulling it through the two openings in the abscess, my eyes are glued.

She stands there quiet, not moving.

I guess she’s used to being cared for.

Then, we return to the medical hut to clean up Sri Prae and Malai Tong’s feet. Today is their last day under the shelter, tomorrow they are free to leave. For Malai Tong, that’s great since she has a little family that has been created. Sri Prae hasn’t made any friends yet, so there’s hope she will begin to at least make a girlfriend once she is released from treatment.

Smooching the leathery trunk of Sri Prae.

As the vet cleans her foot, the four of us stand in front of her, stroking her trunk, scratching the side of her face, feeding her fruit. I even sneak a kiss on her trunk.

Then, it is on to Malai Tong.

Nearly on cue, she crouches down and lifts up her back foot so the vet can clean it out.

Malai Tong doesn’t need much coaxing to kneel down so her wound can be cleaned.

“Do you want to try?” he asks us, handing off what used to be a part of a Super Soaker but is now a used to clean wounds.

One-by-one, we dip the plastic squirter into the bucket and then release the liquid onto her foot. She sits perfectly still, letting each of us care for her as she dips her trunk into a bucket of food in front of her.

Food solves all.

A volunteer helps clean Malai Tong’s foot.

It amazes me how willing she is to be cared for, even if she is being bribed with whole bananas and watermelon halves.

When we finish with her, we all gather together and help the vet fold gauze, then it’s time to go.

Walking back towards the compound in the mid-afternoon, the sun’s rays creep out from behind the gray for the first time since I’ve been here. I turn around and survey the scene. Everything is glistening, light bouncing off of the rain-soaked blades of grass.

I smile to myself, thankful for every moment I’ve had thus far at Elephant Nature Park. 

Asia Blog Thailand

Up-close with elephants: a photo essay of life with a herd

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

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Thick, leathery gray legs covered with a layer of thick, wet, chocolate-colored dirt, surround me.

At first, I am apprehensive.

On all sides of me are six-ton elephants. Capable of plowing me over.

I look over to Lek, the founder of Elephant Nature Park, with my eyebrows raised.

We’ve learned we’re not supposed to be in the path of these giants, and here I am. Not only keeping step with them, but flanked by them.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” Lek assures Pam and I as we keep our eyes fixed on the animals around us. “We are a part of the herd right now. They won’t hurt us.”

In normal, volunteer park life, we are not part of the herd. But, this afternoon is special. Lek has invited Pam and I to walk with her through the elephant’s habitat, an experience most don’t have while here.

We’re shadowing Lek as she makes her afternoon rounds with the main elephant families. Two babies, loads of aunties, nanas and moms.

The afternoon happened on a whim.

“Do you want to come with me on my walk?” Lek asks Pam and me following a presentation she has given to our group about the atrocities of training elephants to pain. The two of us have hung back, discussing our frustrations with the tourists down the road riding elephants as we speak and trying to figure out how we can help educate visitors to Thailand set on enjoying these magnificent creatures.

I look at Pam and our eyes light up.

How in the world could we ever say no to such an opportunity to walk the park with Lek?

My mind drifts back to the first time I saw Lek, earlier in the week.

Under a thin mist of rain, she had walked out into the field and kept step with the Faa Mai, the pudgy baby elephant she’s bonded with.

The two look like an odd-coupling, but behave like old friends out for an afternoon stroll.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

Lek and Faa Mai, the first baby to be born from the Elephant Nature Park herd.

Lek walks with her hands on her hips, dwarfed by the baby, who reaches around to touch her with her trunk.

Today, I get to witness the beauty of Lek’s friendship with these elephants first-hand.

As we begin our journey into the elephant’s habitat, we’re trailed by about 10 dogs who are Lek’s shadows. It’s clear — these adopted dogs love Lek as much as the elephants love her. I follow after Lek the same way they do — hanging at her heels. My heart is full of admiration for a woman who is nearly single-handedly taking on the elephant tourism industry in a country where it is one of the biggest selling points.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

The families hang out under a tree, waiting for fruit.

The three of us head out into the elephant’s habitat — a grassy field with thick brown puddles from the rainy season that is causing flooding in other parts of the country. We quietly stroll up to the family, which is snacking on fruit a mahout shakes from a tree. None of them are related, except mommies and children, but an entire make-shift family has blossomed.

The beauty of elephants embracing the inherent structure of family and adapting to create their own.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

Chang Yim and mom, Dok Ngern

Pam and I stand back at first, unsure of what to do or how to behave. Jack’s warnings of standing in front of them echo in my mind, so I try to sidestep their bodies. But, with so many of them, it’s nearly impossible not to stand in front of one of them.

Lek produces a bag of bread, and suddenly, we’re surrounded. Trunks come from every angle as they grapple for a piece of the fluffy snack. Talking to them softly and scratching their searching speckled trunks one-at-a-time, she delivers the pieces  to them.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

Baby elephant Faa Mai and her family surround Lek.

This is unreal.

When the bread is gone, the three of us sit among the long blades of grass for awhile as Lek talks about the park. Then, we hear commotion from a mahout.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

The baby elephant, Faa Mai, waddles away from her mahout, wrapped in the garden hose.

One of the baby elephants is tangled in a green hose, as if she has taken it and spun in a circle, lacing it around her legs. She waddles with it for a moment, playing, and then her trunk wraps around the part still attached to the house and pulls it from the spout, causing a slow trickle of water to hit the ground.

I can only imagine, this is how a delighted and happy elephant looks as she speeds away from her owner.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

She waddles around for a moment, hose wrapped around her pudgy legs, before the mahout can sneak in and remove it from her body.

Then, it’s bath time. The entire family heads to the banks of the rushing brown river.

This is the moment we become a part of the family.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

The family begins its walk to the river bank.

Looking around, in between legs, trunks swaying within centimeters of my hands, the gushes of wind from the flapping of the ears … it evokes this happiness I have never felt before.

I can’t help but realize how incredibly lucky I am to be keeping step with these creatures.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

One dirty (and cool) elephant.

In the moment, walking with the herd, I am incredibly fulfilled and it stretches from my toes to the tips of the hair on my head.

This is, quite possibly, one of the most amazing moments of my life.

Lek, Pam and I stand back a few feet as the family heads into the water to rinse off. Some of the elephants wade out a bit and just stand in the water, letting it rush over them. Others seem to enjoy it more, plunging their heads and then entire bodies under the water and letting the current carry them down stream a little bit.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

An elephant enjoys the refreshing bath.

And, of course, the babies play, splashing their trunks in the water.

 Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

It’s not just bath time, it’s play time!

Mommy and baby come out of the water, headed straight for us. Instinctively, Pam and I dart out of their path as they rumble past.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

A baby elephant plays as another leaves the water.

“Where are they going?” I ask.

As we turn to follow, their end point is obvious. The huge dirt hill a few feet away where a group of volunteers are digging and making sand bags for a sick elephant.

The baby walks up to the truck where the rust-colored dirt is first, flinging a boot into the back of it. Then, she grabs dirt and sprays it on her.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

Lek and volunteers look on as elephants enjoy dirtying up again.

Within minutes, the elephants are once again covered in dirt. They are laying in the pile. Rolling in it like dogs.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

Rolling in the mud keeps these elephants cool in the tropical heat and humidity.

It’s one of the most adorable displays of animals enjoying themselves I have ever seen.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

While one lays in the dirt, another elephant finds more to play with in the trailer.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

Rain doesn’t stop these elephants from enjoying the dirt pile.

I almost feel guilty when Pam and I head off with Lek again, leaving the other volunteers to continue shoveling.

But, as we walk with the herd, those feelings vanish and are replaced with one of the most exhilarating feelings of elation and bliss.

This trip to Thailand is life-changing, there is no doubt.

As we continue, and the elephants stop to scratch their now dirty bodies against posts and logs to get at itches.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

They find an old log to get those hard-to-scratch places.

They slide their enormous bodies against the wood, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, until they move on to the next post, where they once again rub and scratch.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

Elephants display satisfaction at quieting their itches.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

 As we make our way back to the family shelter where all of the volunteers will meet to sit with Faa Mai as Lek sings her lullabies to for her afternoon siesta, we encounter Medo, in her 20s, and her best friend.

She has been sadly disfigured from both logging and forced breeding injuries. At a young age, Medo was forced into illegal logging, and was the victim of a serious logging accident, breaking her right ankle badly. The bone was unable to set and today her ankle is enlarged and irregularly shaped.

After this injury, she was unable to work in the industry and sold to a new owner as a breeding elephant. She was chained to a tree and a bull in musth was chained next to her. According to Elephant Nature Park, under normal conditions he might not have taken an interest in her, but in this case, he attacked her and mounted her. Medo collapsed under his aggression and laid there for two days, until the bull was able to be removed.

But, the damage was already done.

The teenage elephant had a dislocated spine and broken pelvis.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

Medo has lasting effects from life before Elephant Nature Park. Photo: Pam Brace

Today, it is impossible to miss her gait and how she can hardly place weight on one of her legs.

Up-close with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park: photo and story from

But, she is beautiful.

As we walk by Medo, I can’t take my eyes off of her. Her history and abuse run through my mind, and I smile, comforted by her being so close to me, knowing she is no longer going to face any harm.

When we finish our walk, I return to my room, speechless, breathless.



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