Hello friends, and welcome to the highlands of Chiang Mai. We arrived here via our longest Thai rail journey yet, which we elected to experience in second class (air conditioned) comfort. We alternately watched the farms and the mountains of the Thai countryside roll by, and viewed the underrated, ambitious film Cloud Atlas on the iPad.
I got up on the morning of the next day and went for a run on the streets of Chiang Mai, taking in one long, continuous stretch of markets and shops that went on for miles. This town is a major stop for backpackers in Thailand, and offers a few western delicacies that I have been missing. Bex acquiesced to my craving, and we grabbed a pizza for lunch. It was no Two Boots, but it hit the spot.
The city of Chiang Mai is located 700 kilometers north of Bangkok, among the highest mountains in the country (although it exists at an elevation of a mere 310 meters). The city sits astride the Ping River, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya River. Chiang Mai means “new city” and was so-named because it became the new capital of the Lanna kingdom when it was founded in 1296, succeeding Chiang Rai, the former capital founded in 1262.
Temples were in our near future. We visited a few of the old temples of the city, and got to see a Buddhist monk blessing (perhaps baptizing) a Thai baby. This is done by prayer, followed by the flicking of blessed water at the baby from a broom-like device that is held by the monk. In our wanderings we also saw a different monk at a different temple performing a similar ceremony on a trio of giggling blonde girls.
The temples of Chiang Mai feature a lot of dragons and a higher-than-average number of elephants, along with the customary barrel-o-Buddhas.
Sometimes the temples contain many, many statues of Buddha, and each of them has a different meaning. The central statue here, with Buddha standing and his right hand out flat in front of him, making a “stop” motion, signifies the need to maintain peace. Literally, “stop your fighting”.
We are both feeling the effects of a summer cold, so we rested for a while before going out for a coupla pints and a pub quiz match at the expat-friendly U.N. Irish Pub, conveniently located two blocks from our hostel. We decided to throw in our lot with another team, comprised of a Brit and three Canadians who all live in Chiang Mai. Bex saved their asses and mine in round 3 (literature) and round 5 (anagrams related to the upcoming Oscars). Our team…Music City Miracle…went 12 for 12 in round 5…the only competing team to do so. Our team ultimately finished the quiz a respectable sixth out of 14 or 15 competitors. Decent, but alas, not in the money. A good time was had, however, as well as a good steak and Guinness pie.
The most important part of this journal installment began early the next morning. Knowing that I love elephants, Becci had researched a number of elephant tourism attractions in the vicinity of Chiang Mai, and she selected a winner. We had plans to visit the Elephant Nature Park, located about an hour away from the city.
The majestic elephant is one of the national symbols of Thailand, and elephants have long been employed in the northern highlands as workers, in both the logging and tourist trades. Logging was banned in Thailand 1989, due to increased flooding due to over-logging. The country is now in a recovery phase in terms of its forestation. While this logging ban has been a boon to the forests themselves, and while it is almost certainly the best long-term ecological move for Thailand and all of its animal inhabitants, there have been negative consequences for some elephants. Former employers, no longer able to feed and care of these big animals, abandoned many working elephants in the aftermath of the logging ban. Some of those animals died, some were sold to logging operations in neighboring countries, and some became street performers, begging for food and otherwise performing for tourists in the streets of Bangkok and other Thai tourist cities.
It is the belief of many animal behaviorists that elephants, who are thoughtful, intelligent, and sensitive creatures, are not well suited for city life. The noise, visual stimulation, and and vibration (which they feel with their feet and to which they are highly attuned) of the city are overwhelming and frightening to elephants. Additionally, elephants are sometimes injured or killed by motorists on the busy, crowded Thai streets where they are made to work. And the elephants struggle to find adequate food and water in this environment, leading to malnourishment and disease.
Thank the gods then for Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, lifelong studier of elephants, fighter for elephant rights, and the owner of the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. Lek founded the Elephant Heaven Nature Park in 1996, in an attempt to provide a sanctuary where elephants might live in a peaceful natural environment. This location was closed in 2003 as the Elephant Nature Park opened. We were fortunate to be able to visit this place.
Although we didn’t get to meet Lek in person, we did watch a couple of short films about her and her work in elephant rescue. The Elephant Nature Park is the home currently for 42 elephants, all of whom have been rescued in one way or another. Some are orphans that are too immature to survive in the wild, but most are adults who have been rescued from unfortunate and often horrible circumstances. These circumstances include mental trauma and physical injury from street performing; injury from operational land mines that continue to exist near the Thai-Burmese border; injury from brutal handlers in logging and other work-oriented operations; and injury from forced-breeding operations.
The injuries that we witnessed are devastating. We saw an elephant whose leg had been partially amputated by an exploding land mine. This injury and repair (a number of orthopedic surgeries have been performed) was thoroughly, graphically documented by before and after pictures. We met an elephant who had been intentionally blinded by her handlers in a logging camp after she stopped working. Her refusal to work had been caused by depression over the loss of her infant calf, who was killed when he rolled down a steep embankment immediately after his birth at the logging site. There was not a dry eye in the place during the segment of video telling that story. And we got to meet in person that lovely lady at the park, which was a surprisingly emotional, but ultimately joyous meeting. There is a redemption which overwhelms all of this horror, and that redemption is Lek Chailert, her hard-working volunteers, and her amazing collection of happy pachyderms.
The Elephant Nature Park is full of heartbreaking stories but is a joyous and wonderful place. For starters, its full of elephants and people who care for and respect deeply these animals. It’s also full, every day, of visitors who are there to learn about and experience the elephants. We enjoyed a lot of contact with the elephants. Once we were briefed on elephant do’s and dont’s (e.g., don’t tease them…just give them the food; don’t stand directly in front of or behind them; don’t put your hands in their mouths), we were allowed to feed them some fruit.
Elephants are herbivores, and they eat a lot. Asian elephants, somewhat smaller than the African variety, can weigh between 2.7 and 4.1 tons. Each will eat approximately 10% of her body weight per day in fruits, vegetables, and vegetation. We were allowed to feed them, and I learned that they strongly prefer bananas and watermelons over pumpkins. Bananas are eaten in bunches, with the skins on, although who knows what would happen if elephants had opposable thumbs (or had fingers, for that matter). If you give an elephant a single banana, he will grab it with the end of his trunk and toss it into his mouth cavalierly, like you might toss back a single cocktail peanut.
Working out the math…10% of a 3.5 ton elephant is 700 pounds of food per day. Per elephant. The food bill alone at the Elephant Nature Park is over a quarter of a million dollars per year. 700 pounds of fruits and vegetables, times 42, is a hell of a lot. We saw volunteers unloading a huge truck full of produce. I wonder how many of those get unloaded every day.
The elephant reaching forward is a resident who was badly injured during her time in a forced elephant breeding operation. Amongst her injuries was a broken hip, which you can see if you look at her back right hip; it’s in the shadows in this photo. We saw this ole gal make a slow and painful-looking trip across the water and up an embankment before she visited with us.
Feeding these giants gives you a sense of their capability and their power. An elephant can use his trunk to grasp gently a small item, like a single banana, or it can use it to lift heavy items. I saw elephant handlers lifted up via elephant trunks. The elephants would sometimes place items, such as small watermelons and pumpkins, into their mouths whole, and then crush them between large molars using their powerful jaws. And of course, elephants are big and heavy and strong; if they so desired, they could crush your bones to powder without really trying.
However, the elephants we experienced on this day were gentle. We petted their trunks, faces, ears, and shoulders as we fed them and as they stood nearby. They were not bothered by our presence, and seemed even to enjoy the attention. We were told that they will work hard to please their handlers. They would reach out occasionally during our visit for a gentle touch with their trunks.
As we toured the park with our guide, we were told stories about each of the elephants that we encountered. Although all of the adults looked the same to most of us, our guide recognized and greeted each animal, and she knew each one’s story: how she came to be there; how long he had lived in the park; his age; her life before the park; what elephant family she now associates with.
This last bit turns out to be the most fascinating. These elephants, like elephants in the wild, form family groups. Unlike elephants in the wild, where most elephant family groups are related by bloodline, these elephant groups are mostly social. For example, we met one group of elephants that consisted of a mother, a baby, and three other adult females that travel and feed together. They bathe together. All four adult females are involved in the training, care, and protection of the immature male. We saw one of the females walking with the young male elephant a short distance from the rest of the group, and our guide told us the story of that female. Unlike most of the elephants, this one had remained independent, joining no family group during her first seven years at the park. Once this young male was born, she changed her mind, joining his family group. “She love the boy”, our guide said quietly as they walked past.
“She love the boy”. Not her boy. That idea hit me very, very hard. I see that these animals do love one another; I did not expect that. They know and remember and care for each other in a way that is more than mere instinct. Even in my very short day observing and interacting with these animals, I could see that they are acting and interacting with each other in ways that resemble human families. We heard story after story from our guide about newly-arriving residents being taken in and nurtured by other elephants.
We had an opportunity to assist in the elephant’s daily bathing ritual, so we jumped into the river and grabbed buckets. Hello Leptospirosis! Washing our elephant was sorta like washing an RV. We learned that elephants bathe themselves or get bathed daily. I suppose that they like to maintain a clean, fresh appearance.
We also wandered downstream for a look at some elephants washing themselves in the river. In addition to the bathing, they did a fair bit of playing while they were in there. They rolled around on their backs and even dunked each other. They seemed to enjoy the partial weightlessness. I kept waiting hopefully to get blasted with a trunkful of water, but that didn’t happen. Maybe next time.
During all of the river horseplay, an unexpected thing happened. I watched, and I thought I was observing an unreciprocated mating attempt. But our guide explained to us what we were actually seeing, and it was a little more unusual than what I thought.
While playing in the water, one of the females in the group was attempting to mount one of the other females. The mount-ee was the mother of the immature male. The little one kept getting underfoot. I thought this was just an accident; that he was simply playing near his mother and was awkwardly always in between the two adults. Our guide suggested that he was actually upset, and was deliberately trying to break things up. Interestingly, this whole situation, which we watched for several minutes, got resolved when the “grandmother” of the group (not GM by blood, but an older female, who is that matriarch of the family unit) stepped in. Although blind, she had been listening to all of this activity from the shore, and could tell that something was amiss and that the baby was alarmed. She finally heard enough. Trumpeting loudly (yes, it sounded exactly like you expect, but louder), she galloped toward the water. Everyone literally got out of the pool. Immediately.
Later, we approached this same family group and took some more photos. Initially, all of the adults encircled the resting baby boy, who was lying down. Eventually, he perked up. He got up, and he played a lot, occasionally wandering away from the adults. One time he even approached me and touched me with his trunk. It was awesome, although I remained concerned about playing with the baby in the presence of his four large caretakers. I considered and then decided against jumping on his back and going for a ride.
We were also present at the moment that another elephant family approached the one that we had been watching. That also was a revealing moment. There was a young male in each of the groups, and they trotted toward each other and touched trunks in greeting. Then the young male from the first group approached one of the adults in the second party, and they also exchanged greetings. Several of the adults in both parties made sounds and noises for a minute or two. There is no question in mind that they were not only greeting one another; they were communicating.
One of the short documentary films that we watched earlier in the day contained a segment about how elephants are trained in Thailand and other southeastern Asian countries. The elephant training practice, known as crushing, is traditional and centuries old. It is cruel and disgusting to watch.
The “kraal” or “training crush” method involves an elephant being placed in a strong, large stall or cage, and tied with ropes to keep the elephant from moving. Once tied in, the elephant cannot kick, nor raise or swing its head. This method is designed to crush the elephant’s spirit. Proponents argue that this allows the elephant properly and safely to learn basic commands, and enable it to adapt to its new environment.
Nails and sticks stabbed into the ears and feet of an elephant are part of the crushing process, as are beatings with sticks, chains, or bullhooks; sleep-deprivation; hunger; and thirst. These techniques break the elephant and make him submissive to his owners. This process goes on for three to seven days.
Zoos, including those in the USA, used corporal punishment and negative reinforcement to train elephants until the mid-1970s. A new technique, called protected contact or non-dominance is now used in modern zoos. The new training uses rewards, not punishment, to modify the behavior of the animal to the target behavior.
We watched graphic video of the crushing process. It’s hard for me to convey how upsetting it is for me to witness intentional cruelty to animals. I become angry, possibly irrationally so. Watching the elephant crush film made me want to perform the same crush on the man leading the process that we were viewing. Payback’s a bitch, bitch. I hope you get what’s coming to you.
As I thought about the horror of subjecting these wonderful creatures to the crush, I was reminded of a different film we had seen that morning during the van ride into the park from Chiang Mai. In this film, Lek Chailert told the story of Hope, a young elephant calf that she rescued after his mother died of disease. Hope was very young when rescued, and Lek was advised that it was not possible that a calf of his age to survive without his mother.
Lek Chailert is not the sort of individual who thinks much about what she can’t do. She took in the young calf, feeding him milk and medicine. She named him Hope. She worked with him personally, but he was rebellious and did not take well to his new surroundings. He acted out toward her and others, and he destroyed things. Determined to help him, Lek decided to spend every moment with him, intending to overcome his resistance with an abundance of love. She stayed with him all day, every day. She fed him. She slept near him. She befriended him and was kind to Hope. She was determined to train him to sociability and compliance using compassion rather than force and domination.
One morning, having literally passed out from exhaustion at Hope’s side, she woke up and found the young elephant watching over her and stroking her with his trunk.
Hope is today one of the 42 happy residents at the Elephant Nature Park. Although they say he still has a mischievous streak, he is a good citizen. He loves his caretakers and he loves Lek.
Eventually we had to leave the elephants and leave this place. But I hope this place won’t leave me. It was a good trip folks. Maybe a life-changing trip.