“N” and I are lying on the benches at the end of the skywalk. There’s an occasional rustle as the breeze shifts the thatched roof above us. And as we rest before dinner, for the first time today, it has now cooled down enough for the sun to feel comfortable. It helps that the air is filled with a combination of the dry season’s dust and smoke from distant slopes (that are being burned in preparation for coming rains).
The sky is also filled with the soft flutter of thousands of small florescent-yellow wings. We were told this is the week the butterflies have all come to life. It seems Buddha’s grace has followed us here.
(I’m reading a novel right now that takes place in Thailand is laced with Buddist teachings. In this space, it’s hard not to acknowledge how right it feels.)
Nate is reading and I’m just trying to soak in this moment.
In the distance, elephants are grazing. No, really. Elephants. Great, big, powerful, beautiful elephants.
We’re at The Elephant Nature Park – a rehab centre and sanctuary for injured, abused and neglected domesticated elephants. It’s a safe space that does some very powerful and emotional work. And we’ve just spent the day interacting with, feeding and observing these giants – gentle creatures who have finally found a space where they’re safe and looked after.
Each of the 38 elephants has come with a story. Two of them have particularly captured my heart.
Medo shows her past with every limping step she takes. And she was rescued from a logging camp – one of the many.
Logging is tough business for an elephant. Rough terrain, long hours and some heavy-handed prodding to make it happen. And it affects both their physical and emotional treatment: one elephant here was even an addict on arrival…with an owner who fed the elephants ya ba (a mix of methamphetamine and caffeine) to keep them working harder and faster.
Medo broke her ankle on the job. And her usefulness was hampered. So, to continue to make money off her, her owner tried to use her for breeding instead.
Her four legs were shackled to keep her still. And the male in heat was released to do his part of the job. Full of testosterone (if that’s what it is in elephants, I’m not sure), his aggression and sheer power took over. He mounted her and beat her. And, shackled and unable to defend herself or escape, her leg was broken and hip displaced.
She stands crooked now. And there’s a painful looking lumber as she slowly moves. But she’s made friends here: she and two other female elephants spend their days together. And the staff and volunteers who run this centre do everything they can to minimize her pain and reduce the distance she needs to roam.
Mae Jokia’s story is one that would break the heart of any mother.
Jokia was also rescued from a logging camp. But when she first started there, she was already pregnant. With no break from the work, she was forced to deliver on the side of a hill. And, upon a rough entry into the world, her baby rolled down the side of the mountain, and Jokia was not allowed to follow – not allowed to either try to save it or even check to see if it was alive.
We have learned that elephants are very human in their emotion. At one point even warned that if one of the elephants approached us, we should not turn away from her. She would feel like we were ignoring her and become sad. And, given the memory they have, she would hold on to that sadness.
Well, for Jokia, you can imagine what that kind of trauma might have on an emotional creature. She became depressed. She would not eat and did not want to work. Trained in the practice of making these animals respond by force, in a fit of frustration, her mahout shot one of her eyes out with a sling shot. The other he stabbed out with a knife.
In another show of the humanity these animals hold, an older female at the park saw Jokia’s needs. Mae Perm befriended Jokia and is now her greatest ally and protector. She leads Jokia to food and water, guiding her through every portion of their joined lives. The two are inseparable. And they’re inspiring.
Throughout the night we were awoken to the sounds of this space. Dogs in the distant kennels and the occasional majestic trumpet of one of the giants sleeping 100 metres from our bathroom window. (This rescue centre looks after a wide range of creatures: almost 400 dogs, 50’ish cats, and herds of water buffalo.)
In the morning the air is finally cleared of the faint smell of smoke. While we played cards and sipped cold bottles of Chang last night, we had watched the neighbouring climbs glow red. Locals are trying to clear space to farm…but they’re destabilizing the slopes and slowly encroaching on this safe space. There is even a trekking outfit that has chained animals within hundreds of meters of the ENP property line…and it puts the amazing work of this centre is doing in really clear contrast. It makes the importance of the work all that much clearer.
The morning was set aside for feeding and a walk. Our new guide – Sunshine – leads us through a wonderful day.
We start by pulling steamed pumpkin out of a basket and feed it to one of the oldest elephants. She’s lost her teeth and now relies on the steaming and peeled watermelons to keep her going. (There’s an amazing army of volunteers and staff who keep the enclosures clean and spend hours prepping and individualizing food for each of the animals.)
Then, on to a walk, where we meet a rambunctious one and a half year old boy. He wants to play, but we’re warned he doesn’t know his own strength yet. So we keep our distance but enjoy watching him splash in the water of a hose and try to break into a sack full of corn.
We visit Jokia and Mae Perm as they enjoy a corner of their own – as always, inseparable.
The water buffalo get herded away by the dogs who have joined our walk. And we get to see the two enclosures they’re building to help reduce the human contact a few of the elephants have…as they have hopes of they might be able to prep some of the younger ones for release back into the wild.
Then comes the moment. The one I don’t want to ever forget the feeling of.
We’ve come across a new herd. And I stand back and off to the side a bit to try and take a few photos. Through my lens, I notice one of them approaching – lumbering in a way that only something that large can do. I drop the camera down and try and stand still, remembering the warning to not insult them by turning away or retreating. I certainly don’t want to be the source of an elephant’s sadness.
Suddenly I am within a foot of this huge, beautiful giant. She has stopped short and seems to invite me to reach out. So I pet the sensitive spot behind her ears and rub her trunk, just watching her as I’m amazed. And as that happens, she lowered her head a little and closes the distance of that last foot…nuzzling her powerful head into my body and flapping her ears in a moment of greeting and comfort. I can feel the weight and force of her huge body. But she never pushes me off balance: she seems aware of the power of the contact and our relationship in that moment. It feels like a tender moment of friendship. And her flapping ears seem to reflect the joy she has given me.
My heart has been broken and re-built eighteen times over here. And I think that might be pretty normal. I have learned so much about these gorgeous creatures – about the abuses they’ve faced and the strength that’s let them heal. I’ve been blown away by the stories of the one woman who has created this sacred and beautiful space. I’m touched by the personal generosity and hard work that makes these efforts possible.
We paid a bit more to go to this centre than others around here. We never rode an elephant (like some offer to do). But after all I’ve learned and experienced here, I’m so immensely glad to have had this be part of our experience away. I just wouldn’t want to do it another way.
So, to anybody travelling to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I can’t recommend enough going here as part of your trip. Whether it’s for a day trip, the overnight we did, or volunteering for a week (as we saw many doing), your soul will feel better for it.