The rescue of Lucky the Elephant

“Diana! Mindy! Get off of the truck!” We hear Lek yell from the ground below at us, as we sit huddled under a wooden bench in the bed of a truck beginning to fill up with water. We are soaked. And, the elephant standing mere feet from us on the truck, doesn’t look too thrilled that we’ve come to a stop.

She wants to keep moving as bad as we do.

It’s just after 6 a.m. and Mindy and I have been riding with Lucky, the elephant, since 1 a.m. But, we’ve been traveling even longer.

My adventure to be a part of the rescue of Lucky began a day earlier, at 6 p.m. On Thursday, Jan. 31, to be exact. Lek, myself, two other staff members, two drivers and four volunteers boarded our van and headed deep into the Surin province of Thailand to meet and take Lucky  to her new home, Elephant Nature Park.

The drive is easy, compared to the rough roads we hit in Cambodia during my first elephant rescue. But the traveling is not.

Crowded into a van, Lek and I share a three-seat bench, and drive off into the night. I alternate between sleep and ache, trying to always keep in mind the bigger picture: I am a part of an elephant rescue. My comfort is second to what we are doing.

At 7 a.m., when we stop for coffee, stretching is blissful. Then, it is back into the van and a quick stopover in Cambodia to have two staff head to the foundation’s newest project, Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia.

We continue driving, and from time-to-time I am able to close my eyes and let sleep take over. It is never long-lasting. It is never comfortable. But, I don’t care.

We finally arrive to Surin around 2 p.m. I’m off the van quickly, heading over to see Lucky.

Mindy is already there (she arrived a day earlier) and she sits with Lucky, who is chained and rocking back and forth.

Lucky from Elephant Nature Park

She is gorgeous.

And has a full head of hair, something I have never seen before on an elephant.

Elephant Nature Park Lucky Close Up

Elephant Nature Park Hook

I don’t dare touch her — she has had enough stress for the day. Instead, I take her in. One eye is milky white, the other slightly cloudy. Blinded by the spotlights from a lifetime of being a famous circus elephant.

You will be free soon. You won’t ever have to perform again.

I wish she could understand the magnitude of what is about to happen in her life.

Elephant Nature Park Truck1

The truck where Lucky, staff and volunteers will use to drive up to Elephant Nature Park.

Elephant Nature Park Truck Lucky

Elephant Nature Park Walk

An hour later, when she walks onto the truck with no hesitation, I think for a moment that maybe she does.

Less than 24 hours after leaving Chiang Mai, we board the van and head back. Volunteers take shifts riding with her. And, at 1 a.m. when the last two decide they want to be back on the van, Mindy and I decide to climb up the truck and spend the night with her.

It is even less comfortable than the van, but there is something incredibly magical at being able to sit with an elephant being brought to freedom. Wrapped in a blanket, hood pulled tightly over my head, I sit and stare at her.

Even in the dark, her beauty touches me. Against the night sky and the waning moon, the light pink freckles dotting her trunk and ears glow silver.

I stare at her for a long time, eventually falling asleep slumped on the wooden plank near the top of the truck. Finally, I curl into a tight ball and lean my head against makeshift pillows and let my exhausted body relax. I wake over every bump and stop, but that sleep is some of the most peaceful I have had. I know it is because Lucky is there and knowing what Lek has done is so important.

I wake up at 4 a.m. and look at my clock.

“We’ve only been up here three hours?” I ask Mindy. “Oh god … time is going so slow.”

I close my eyes for another hour and then wake up for good when one of the mahouts sleeping on a hammock below tickles my foot.

The black night is giving way to a cloudy and gray morning far before the sun even pokes above the horizon. I stand up on the bench and peer over the top of the truck, looking into the distance.

It looks ominous. 

During the night, we’ve headed into the lush mountains … and storm clouds. Ahead, I see a flash of sheet lightening.

Crap.

I gesture to the mahout that thunder, lightening and rain are coming and he looks ahead.

“Down?” He asks me.

I turn to Mindy. Do we want to get caught in a storm sitting on top of the truck? Driving through the mountains of Thailand? Next to an elephant?

Absolutely, we do.

“Mai pen rai,” I say to him. (No worries.)

He smiles, laughs and begins to prepare for the downpour.

It starts slow, just a few drops plunking down on us. Then, the sky opens. The four of us jump down under the bench and situate ourselves near Lucky, on top of a spare tire.

When we stop, Lek calls for us, telling us to come back to the van.

I’ve never been more soaked in my life. I scramble down the ladder and grab some dry clothes and head into the bathroom of the quarantine office we’ve stopped at.

Once we’re in dry clothes, we continue on, stopping for food for us and Lucky before we begin the final trek from Lampang to the park.

Elephant Nature Park Lek Lucky

Mindy, Lek and I climb back up with Lucky for the last three hours of the journey. Lek sits below with the elephant so she can learn her voice and grow comfortable with us.

When we arrive to Elephant Nature Park, the emotions from the past day hit me when I see the crowd of people gathered to witness Lucky’s first taste of freedom.

Elephant Nature Park Visitors

Along the feeding platform are about 50 people, all cheering and taking photos. Then, at the medical center, there are even more, filming, photographing, being a part of this elephant’s first moments in her new life.

Elephant Nature Park Lucky ENP

Lucky walks off of the truck with no problem. I wait until she is off and no one can see the tears which are running down my face. While I was just there to document the experience, being able to witness this rescue, the third now in my life, never gets old. And, my emotions always are the same: I’ve witnessed this elephant get a new lease on life.

And, THAT is a powerful thing.

Asia Blog Thailand

To rescue elephants

It is pitch black when Lek knocks on the door of my room at the guest house.

“Ok, we go,” she says softly through the wood. “The elephants are ready.”

I’m up.

Today — this morning — we are on a mission: to rescue two female elephants from their lives of work and deliver them to freedom at Save Elephant Foundation’s newest project, Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia.

I’ve only slept for a couple of hours, and the travel to get here has been exhausting. But, I don’t care. The tired vanishes from my body as I pull on my clothes and head downstairs.

At 4:30 a.m., our group loads into the van and begins our journey.

“They loaded the first elephants at 3:30,” Lek reports. “She was a bit difficult, but the other girl went on the truck easily.”

Kham Lin's first bath time after being captive

The “other girl” is Kham Lin, the younger of the two elephants. Her previous life was in a small village which used to have 100 elephants. She is the last one. Because of inadequate (read: non-existent) veterinary care, each elephant has been chained up when they have gotten sick and left to die. Her time in the village, thanks to Lek, is now finished.

The villagers walk with the elephant the day before the rescue

The day earlier, we watched as she took her last steps as a captive elephant, flanked by children from the village. Without hesitation, she walked onto the truck. Immediately, my heart fluttered and tears filled my eyes.

This life of work is done for you, Kham Lin.

As we head out of town with the sun just beginning to crack the horizon, I feel that warm feeling move through my body again. I know I am a part of something incredibly special … at least to the two elephants who are being rescued.

Our first glimpse of the trucks with the elephants being rescued

Our first glimpse of the trucks with the elephants being rescued

We pull over on the side of the road a little outside of town and wait for the two elephant trucks to drive by. As they move down the hill, I see our team on the trucks, balanced on wooden boards affixed to the top, covered in blankets to fight the nippy Cambodian morning. They wave to us on the road below.

We drive a little longer and Lek asks me if I want to ride on top of one of the trucks.

My parents would definitely not approve of this.

I agree in an instant, even though I’ve inspected the trucks. The one I want to ride one, the one with Kham Lin, is especially scary for me. The ladder to the top doesn’t even start until above the massive front wheel, and then there is a gap where you have to hoist yourself onto the roof of the cab, and then a step onto the top of the back of the truck.

I’m petrified.

Lauren, a volunteer with us, climbs up first.

“Come on, D, you can do it,” she says, looking down at me from the bench she is sitting on.

I can’t not get on the truck, I can’t not ride with the elephant because I am scared of falling down a ladder.

I muster my little courage and climb up, with the help of two people — one on the ground and one pulling my onto the top of the cab.

Heart racing, I finally make it to the bench and look behind me.

Kham Lin stands in the truck calmly.

After the barge, Kham Lin, one of the elephant rescues, waits for the next leg of the journey

I wish she could understand how much her life is about to change.

Then, we begin our journey to the Mekong.

It’s chilly. Bugs slap my face. Dust settles on every inch of my body. And, I don’t care. Being on top of the truck, seeing Cambodia pass me by like this … there is no place I would rather be.

We drive for two hours down a two-lane, paved road. Around us is eerily quiet at this hour, as the sun begins to cast its golden light onto the (depleted) countryside.

It’s magical and sad at the same time, driving through tiny villages of homes on wooden stilts and tiny shacks which sell goods to the people on the road.

We arrive to the Mekong mid-morning. There is no bridge to take us across the river, only a barge. The three trucks load onto the barge and we begin the 30-minute ride across the river.

Getting ready to cross the Mekong with the elephants

When we are delivered to the opposite side, the world is entirely different. Instead of pavement, it is dirt. Instead of buildings, there are wooden huts. And, the military which greet us and stop us, inspecting our documents and looking through a book Lek has brought which shows photos from Elephant Nature Park and the happy lives of the elephants there. That is her dream for the sanctuary in Cambodia: to give the elephants happy lives.

Military stop and examine documents as we rescue elephants

The military thumb through the book, pointing and smiling at the photos, and then wave us on our way.

That’s when the journey gets more difficult.

One of the elephants being rescued in Cambodia

The road isn’t good. In fact, the bumps and dips make for a difficult time a top the truck. I haven’t gotten comfortable yet, so my feet attempt to brace my body against the back of the cab, and I have a death grip on the wooden bench I’m sitting on. As we drive across Cambodia, my heart begins to quietly break.

Villagers working on the road in Cambodia

All around me is extreme poverty. Animals living under homes that will be meals. Children running with tattered clothing and smeared in dirt. Yet, each little village we drive through, we are greeted with excitement.

An elephant! In a truck!

For most, it is the first time they have seen an elephants  — because today, there are so few left in the wild in Cambodia.

The children run up to the side of the road and wave up to us on top of the truck. They point and smile at the elephants as we zoom by their world.

I wish we could bring these people with us, too.

Before the dust picks up, the view still is desolate

The interior of Cambodia is desolate. Graveyards of forests surround the dirt road. It reminds me a lot of the Las Vegas desert, only there is little life here, thanks to the burning of the jungle.

The remains of a jungle in Cambodia, a result of slash and burn

There are places where the stench of burn sits thick in the air.

The smoke from the fires permeates the air in Cambodia

And then there are places where the fires are so strong, I can feel the heat from them as we drive by. I can hear the crackling of the fires around us.

Sadly, there is little jungle left.

We drive for 16 hours, racing through dangerous areas as we get closer to Siem Reap and closer to the sanctuary. At one point, we get pulled over by police. But, since we’re doing everything above board, the only thing they ask is for $2 from us. I shake my head at this. Two. Dollars. That is nothing, but to them …

Finally, as the sky turns pink, I decide to get back into the truck. I can’t take anymore of the smoke, which has grown even worse.

The last two hours, we trail the elephants in the van and I stare intently on them. Filled with happy that they are going to their new home.

It is well into the night when we get to the sanctuary and there is one last part of the rescue which needs to be executed: the elephants getting off of the truck and taking their first steps into their new home.

The first girl, the one who had trouble getting onto the truck, turns to us and gently kneels down and steps off of the truck.

A small cheer and claps break out from the people who have stopped to watch this scene unfold on the side of the road. Immediately, I feel myself glow, I feel the tears begin to sting my eyes.

We did it.

Then, Kham Lin steps off the truck.

The first steps of freedom for the rescued Kham Lin

Our team leads them into the park as we trail behind, watching them as they take their first steps to the rest of their lives.

“This is just amazing,” I say to Lauren.

“Yeah … I mean … well … you get it … you’re here,” she says.

I know exactly what she means.

We’ve been a part of something so magical. So special. A month earlier, I visited Cambodia with Lek to see these elephants and to learn about them before they were rescued. To know I was a tiny part of something that gave these two gorgeous creatures a better life fills me with such warmth and takes me away from my selfish human needs and allows me to look at the bigger picture.

It’s actions like this that can change the world and change the thinking of people. And, I am so glad to be a part of this momentous occasion. To witness these elephants be brought to a new life. To be at the start of something new with the sanctuary.

In this moment, I could not be happier.

Want more on the elephant rescue? Check out The Diary of an Elephant Rescue.

Asia Blog Cambodia

Giving thanks

Maryland

I’m sitting in the kitchen of the house where I grew up. Around me, I can hear the happy chatter of my mom, dad and brother. I hear the jingle of metal from the tag on Barkley, our old and gorgeous springer spaniel’s collar. I look outside at the naked trees against the bright blue sky.

I’m home. And so grateful to be here, in this beautiful moment.

Only, this isn’t my home anymore. In fact, my home is thousands and thousands of miles away. On the other side of the world, actually.

This Thanksgiving is the last one at my childhood home. It is the last Thanksgiving in Maryland. Next year, my house will be in Delaware. In rooms with no history. No ghosts of my former self to wrap their arms around my memories. This Thanksgiving is also the last with Barkley. He’s been around since 1998. Truthfully, I never expected him to last this long. He’s a good boy, and I know his next life will be even more awesome than this one.

It’s all so hard to comprehend. At times it feels as if the life I have in Chiang Mai is this sweet, sweet dream and any moment I will be awakened and back in America, going through the mundane motions of my previous life. I have two very different realities — my American and my Thai — and sometimes they are hard to separate.

I miss my family when I’m not around them. But, I don’t miss my old life. At all.

My life has changed so much in the past year. From working as the director of communications for a Las Vegas restaurant group to coping with major depression to quitting said job, to uprooting my life and heading to the jungle in Thailand to be an expat. It’s been a wild ride and I am so thankful for every single moment.

Chiang Mai apartment

Not every moment has been easy. There were times when I doubted myself. Times when I missed home and realized that being an expat wasn’t what I thought it would be. But, for the most part, life has been a dream.

So, this Thanksgiving, I want to give thanks to the people in my life. The readers of d travels ’round. You’ve been on quite the journey with me this past year. And, I want to give thanks to the people who have supported me: my family, my friends, the amazing Lek Chailert and the entire staff at Save Elephant Foundation.

I want to give thanks to that damn rooster that caws every morning just before sunrise. And to the tuk tuks that putter down the street in the middle of the night and tell me my baht isn’t enough for the quick ride to my apartment. And to my amazing friends in Chiang Mai who keep me company on those humid nights at old wooden picnic tables and make me laugh. I want to give thanks to the animals — especially Mr. Lucky and my favorite elephants, Medo and Navann. Life is even more fulfilling when there are animals to love, who love you back (even if Mr. Lucky likes to clench my nose between his sharp little teeth).

Finally, I’d like to give thanks to my parents. I know my decision to live abroad isn’t easy. And, Thailand is not close. But, they have always loved me and supported me and encouraged me to follow my dreams.

At the end of the day, I know this one truth above all else: I am incredibly lucky. And, I wake up every morning and go to sleep every night knowing this truth.

So. Thankful.

Asia Blog Expat Life Thailand

In memory of Rajah Gajah

The day I arrive to Chiang Mai, I am greeted with beautiful news:

Elephant Nature Park has a newborn baby boy.

Instantly, I feel my heart flutter at the idea of meeting a baby elephant and spending time with him, getting to know him.

Rajah Gajah surrounded by volunteers just after his arrival

The first time I head back to the elephants, I stand outside his large pen as he lays there, in desperate need of his mother’s milk. A few volunteers stand and sit around him, his tiny body laying nearly still on the dirt. They fan him, keeping the bugs away so they do not penetrate his very weak immune system.

His mother has rejected the little boy, trying to kill him once he was born. Immediately, he was removed from her side and taken to the park so he could have a chance at life.

But, his life is in jeopardy. Mom is nearly half-a-day away, and even though she is en route with the goal of getting milk from her, his chances are slim.

I stand at a distance, looking at the tiny boy, with his little pink mouth open, sleeping.

A few days later, I return to the park. This time, I am allowed in to pen to see him.

Lek Chailert consoles baby Rajah Gajah

Lek is with him, legs intertwined with his, singing Que Sera Sera to him. When a truck whirs by, he stirs and Lek leans over his body, covering his gray ears. I stand, fingers gripping the chain link fence, in silence.

He deserves his best shot at life. And, his best shot at life is most definitely here.

Lek and volunteers fan the baby elephant, keeping him free from bugs

Lek leans protectively over Rajah Gajah

Elephant and human feet mingle

Eventually, he teeters to his feet, tottering around in search of his milk bottle as he waves his short trunk awkwardly through the air.

The baby elephant, Rajah Gajah, tries a bottle from Lek.

Of course, I fight back tears as I watch this nearly helpless creature as he fumbles towards food.

He’s just so little. So at our mercy.

Rajah smells his mom's scent on Lek and tries to get milk

Rajah stands between a volunteer's legs, which mimic how he would be with his mother, and drinks a bottle

When I return a week later to the park, concern stretches deep over Lek’s face.

“He won’t eat and he has diarrhea,” she says softly from the wooden bench overlooking the vast land where the rest of her elephants roam freely. Lek just looks exhausted. She breathes heavy and sighs. “I am so worried he won’t make it.”

I try not to let that thought cross my mind.

There’s no way the team here will let the little guy slip away from us.

But, he does.

Only two weeks after he arrives at the park, five months premature, the baby, who takes on the name Rajah Gajah, slips into a coma and passes away. It is no one’s fault. He had round-the-clock care from vets, volunteers, staff, and Lek. He just wasn’t meant to be in this world. And, while the loss is heart-breaking, it reassures me to know that while he was on this earth, he was loved more than most animals could dream.

Asia Blog Thailand