We are standing waist deep in a muddy river between two elephants. It’s September in Thailand, monsoon season, and the rain is just starting to let up. A mahout (the word used for an elephant keeper) hands us each a bucket and a scrub brush. It’s bath time. We begin scraping the dirt off our new elephant friends, scrubbing their backs, and foreheads and behind their ears.
I rub my hand across the cheek of one of the elephants. Her skin is wrinkled and firm, and filled with little bristles of hair. These creatures are huge, literally elephantine in size, but so gentle you feel like you can lean against their leg and take nap.
Suddenly, a torrent of water hits my back. I turn around. The mahout is standing behind me grinning, a bucket poised over his head. The mahout doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Thai, but, when a water fight’s initiated, language barriers don’t really come into play.
Pretty soon, we are all throwing buckets of water at each other — us, the mahout and the two Brits who are part of our tour group — right there in a muddy river, somewhere in the mountains of northern Thailand, standing between two elephants.
When we began planning our trip to South East Asia, we knew we wanted elephants to be involved. We quickly learned from reading, though, that riding elephants should be placed on a strict “no, no” list. We looked for alternatives and discovered the Elephant Nature Park, a conservation and rescue center for elephants, located in the Mae Taeng valley, just outside the city of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.
The park was co-founded in 1996 by a petite woman, named Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. At 52, she is at the forefront of rescuing elephants from the logging and tourism industry.
Our park guide’s name is Hit. He’s a handsome and soft spoken man who several times gets teary eyed talking about his past as an elephant rider. He tells us you can often determine what industry an elephant comes from, based on their injuries. “See those divots in his back,” Hit asks pointing to an elephant, “he got those from the chair that’s used for riding.”
The use of elephants for logging is already illegal (though it still happens), but removing elephants from the world of tourism is complicated. There are still many people and communities who depend on elephants for their livelihood. But Lek seems to have developed a workable alternative. Her park generates revenue and employment by pampering elephants, instead of using them in ways that are ultimately harmful.
Our day at the Elephant Nature Park was the most expensive activity we did on our trip ($172USD/person) and one-thousand times worth it. There are numerous packages to choose from. Some are day-long, some overnight, some week-long. You can even volunteer at the park for several months. We went with the package, called “Pamper a Pachyderm.” It was a day-long trip. Here’s how we spend it:
A van comes to pick us up from the guesthouse where we are staying in Chaing Mai at 8am. We luck out with a small tour group. The only other people on the bus with us are two Brits. One of them, a guy in his 20s, is a parole officer back home. This is his fourth time volunteering at the park, and he was just hired by Lek to help open the newest preserve in Myanmar. He waves goodbye to England and Western amenities in two months.
The drive to the mountains takes about an hour. For the first leg of the journey, we watch a sobering video about the elephant trade.
When we arrive at the park, we are taken to a small hut by the river and given coffee and tea. We are handed bags laden with slices of watermelon and butternut squash and taken to the summit of a trail where two elephants are awaiting our arrival… but mostly our bags of food. We trek through the mountains with these two trundling beasts for an hour and a half. We feed them squash and quickly become adept at fending off rogue elephant trunks from sneaking their way into our bags of food.
When we arrive at a steep and muddy descent, the mahout hands us each a walking stick (he collected four along the way), and we bid a temporary farewell to the elephants. When we make it safely to the bottom, we wash our hands at a little spigot. There is another riverside hut, and we sit down at a picnic table for lunch. That’s when the rain starts. Big, huge torrential droplets.
Across the river, a man uses a long bamboo stick and pushes himself our way on a skinny bamboo raft. The gondola of the jungle. He ducks into our hut and shelters himself till the rain lets up. When it does, we head over to a little corral to feed the elephants some more food -- elephants Elephants can eat upward of 300 lbs of food per day. We’re handed machetes, and we start chopping watermelon into fourths. After the elephants have had their fill, we follow them into the river for their bath and our impromptu water fight.
It’s time now to go back to the main park. And how else to do that but in style. We’re handed helmets, and we white water raft our way back. At the helm of our inflatable boat is a man, who calls himself Captain Jack Sparrow and yells out directions to us -- up, down, left!, each time we hit a rapid.
Back on dry land, our guide, Hit, gives us a tour of the park grounds. Elephants are everywhere, approximately 200 have been rescued since 1996. For each elephant there is a mahout whose soul job it is to tend to that elephant.
In addition to the elephants, the park is home to cats, dogs, birds and waterbuffalo. Many of them were rescued after the 2005 tsunami.
And with that, we wave goodbye to the Elephant Nature Park and head back to our guesthouse in the city for a nap.