Why I’m grateful for Chiang Mai

Why I'm grateful for Chiang Mai
Three years ago, if you would have asked me about a future in Chiang Mai, I may have gone all glassy-eyed and distant. Chiang Mai was a dream to me three years ago. The elephants were a dream to me then, too. I lived in a world where I was not satisfied with my existence. I lived in a world, three years ago, where despite my (mediocre) efforts, I had fallen unhappily back into a world I didn’t want to be in.

Nearly fresh off my career break/solo travel through Europe, there I was, sitting at my parent’s home in Maryland, waxing melancholy at my choices and desperately trying to sort out how to rearrange my life to make it one I was grateful for again. (Note: I wasn’t not grateful for my life, it just wasn’t what I wanted).

I dreamed of Thailand travel. A world exploring Chiang Mai. Bangkok. Being surrounded by elephants and fighting for their well-being.

And then, just like that, those dreams came to life with a single e-mail from Lek Chailert, the founder of Save Elephant Foundation, the rescue organization I longed to work for.

Come to Thailand, she had written.

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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.

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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. 

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A room at the (primitive) Palace

I don’t expect much when Jack hands me the key to my room, a hut in the Palace complex.

On the Elephant Nature Park’s Web site, it states the toilets are squat and the showers are Thai (meaning buckets to rinse, no shower heads), so when I walk the few feet to my lodging for the week, I am not getting my hopes up.

The walk from the main area to my room isn’t far. In fact, aside from the staff quarters, my hut is probably the closest. I stroll down the dirt road, paying careful attention to my surroundings. To my right is the gate to the elephant’s habitat. Then, there’s one of the shelters that houses two of the elephant families with babies. Then, some jungle foliage and … the Palace complex.

Yes, it’s called The Palace.

It’s a fairly basic structure, two wooden huts on a platform. I walk up the creaky stairs to my hut. And that’s when I hear it: elephant chirping. I peer around the massive tree on the side of my front porch, and there they are — the elephants.


Key in hand, I unlock the padlock on my door and step inside.

It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.

The room is bare, save for a queen-sized bed flanked in mosquito netting. It’s all very primitive.

There are three sets of windows, a fan and one little light.

My palace for the week at Elephant Nature Park

I’m not staying here for the accomodation. I’m staying here for the elephants.

I drop my bag down next to my bed and take a pre-cursory sit on it. It’s pretty comfortable. I run my hands over the warm blanket. Soft. I grab a pillow and squeeze it to me. Perfect.

Then, I stand up and go to each of my windows, throwing open the wooden shutters.

Even though rain threatens us, light floods the room. I walk to the set of windows that opens to the elephants.

They are right outside of my window.

Elephants. I am sleeping nearly next to elephants.

A tinge of “holy shit” runs through my veins.

The view from the porch of my palace

I have a few minutes to unwind before I have to go back to the group to watch a documentary on Asian elephants.

I do a quick investigation, walking down a wooden walkway between my room and the other, to the bathrooms and showers.

I am greeted with a western toilet and a western shower. With hot water. (Apparently, the Palace is the only complex with hot water, so I lucked out, even if it was too hot outside to enjoy hot showers.)

I head back to my room for a few and crawl onto my bed and lay on my side, just staring out at the spectacular scene in front of me.

A view from my room

Outside of my window, there are beautiful trees with glistening leaves. In the distance, emerald green mountains loom, with a fine layer of mist cutting across.

And there, right there, out my window, are elephants.


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Floating elephant poo and other awesomeness

“Ele poo! Look out, ele poo!” Jack screams as we wade into the rushing water, elephants at our side.

Sure enough, there are huge balls of elephant poo floating by our legs.

It’s like the elephants just hold it until they hit their own, big rushing river toilet.

Before we get into the water, we are given little black buckets and told how to wash the elephants. Basically, stick the bucket into the river water, fill it up, then throw the water on them.

And, that is exactly what we do.

An elephant heads down to take a bath

I’m standing next to one of the elephants … really close, and filling up the bucket of water and tossing it over her head. Onto her back.

There’s water coming at me from all sides. Not only is our volunteer group bathing these girls, but the visitors to the park are in the water, too. Groups of about five or 10 concentrate on an elephant. Within a minute of getting into the water, I am properly drenched.

I watch as the elephant I’m helping bathe blinks each time the water splashes into her face. Then, she sticks her trunk into the river and sucks up water, flings her trunk over her head, and shoots it onto her back.

Bath time!

Clearly, these elephants are able to clean themselves, but they stand there and patiently let us get our time with them. What makes me even happier? I swear, the elephants look like they are smiling huge smiles that rival ours.

For 10 minutes, I dunk, toss and repeat. It never gets old. Each time, I give myself a reality check between dodging the floating poo.

Standing in a river. In Thailand. With elephants.

“OK, you need to get out of the water now, Hope is coming with his girlfriend,” Jack warns us, ushering us out of the murky brown, poo-filled water and onto the bank of the river. “Go upstairs and watch from the sky deck.”

The volunteers have heard about Hope. He’s been with Lek and the park since he was a baby and his mother died. Lek has spent a lot of time with the boy, who the staff refers to as “naughty” since he is going through musth and all about the lady elephants these days.

He’s also a part of the future of the park. Hope, who used to have a bell around his neck so people would know when the mishcevious little boy was around, is being trained using positive reinforcement. He is fortunate enough to never have been put through the crush. Instead, he learns tricks by being rewarded with heaps of fruit.

We all stand at the deck as Hope and his girlfriend make their way into the water.

The two walk together into the middle of the river, their huge bodies barely noticing the rushing water. Then, Hope dunks himself, rolling onto his side.

The group of volunteers, the day-trippers, we all let out giggles and “ooohs” and “aaahhhhs” as the two elephants spend five minutes dunking and rolling around in the water.

On cue, the two emerge from the water and its time for Hope to show off his tricks. With mahout at his side, he walks up to little buckets placed strategically below the sky deck. He sticks his trunk into the water, sucks it up, and then shoots it up at us.

Squeals of delight.

He eagerly takes the bananas from his mahout’s hand and shoves them into his mouth.

Then, he kicks his legs to the side and is rewarded with more bananas.

It’s heart-warming. And inspiring.

Once Hope heads back to graze, the large elephant family comes down to meet visitors. They stand in the grass, munching on bananas and other fruits, and one-by-one, people get their photo taken with one of the baby elephants who has learned to give trunk kisses in exchange for food.

A person stands next to her, then the long trunk snakes its way to the face, landing somewhere — anywhere on the face — and leaving little dirt marks. Then, the trunk finds its way into the caregiver’s hands and bounty of fruits.

We stand watching for a few minutes, until Jack once again, herds us inside.

“It’s time to get your rooms!” He announces.

At first, I don’t want to leave them. I could watch them eat, fling dirt on their backs to cool off, rub against the wooden posts scratching themselves, dip into the water, stand around doing nothing, all day. Then, I remember I am here a week. And, this is just my first few moments with them.

Baths, feeding, caring for them … it all awaits and will unfold in the next six days.

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The Thailand Foodgasm: The ultimate Thai buffet

The lunch bell rings at Elephant Nature Park at noon.

Had we really already been there a few hours?

The time so far has flown by.

And, while I love that the experiences were that supremely amazing thus far, I don’t want the week to fly by. I want to savor every single moment and feel every single second. Especially those times I was with the elephants.

I’ve been there a short time and I already never want to leave.

We approached the main area and that’s when I see the food.

Just outside of the massive kitchen are two long tables. And, on top of those tables are pan after pan after pan of home-cooked Thai food.

Before coming to the park, I had read about the food from other people. It had received nothing but rave reviews, and now, displayed on two tables are more Thai dishes than I can ever imagine.

Massive, epic buffet. Photo: Sarah Bird

Massive, epic buffet. The other table. Photo: Sarah Bird

There’s Pad Thai. Three types of curry. Tofu prepared 10 different ways. Taro chips. Salads. Lychee. Rice. Soup. And more.

My eyes bulge and I realize I’m really hungry.

I load up my plate with a little bit of everything and head to one of the long wooden tables that looks out onto the park. In the distance, I see two elephants in a green shelter. The medical shelter. Further out, there are more. And water buffalo. About 100 of them, grazing in the long grass and sloshing in the puddles.

Everyone in the volunteer group are instantly friends. Lucy, Katy and I talk about re-entry. By the end of our first lunch, I feel like this group of people, this experience with this group of people, will be one of the most memorable experiences in my life.

We finish eating, then Jack tells us its time for our next activity: bathing the elephants.

He reminds us to respect Thai culture and not walk around in our swimsuits, but instead put them on underneath of our clothes.

I run to my backpack (we would get our room assignments later), grab a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, my bathing suit and my water shoes, and quickly change.

Bathing elephants! Being able to stand next to these creatures in a river and dump water on them! Excitement pounds through my veins as we make our way down to the river bank and the elephants, wading in the rushing water.

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Tuk tuks, red cabs … and elephants: arriving to Elephant Nature Park

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.

The first photo of an elephant I have ever taken. Can you spot her?

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.

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