Today was Elephant Nature Park (ENP), really a highlight of the entire trip (other links here and here). This place is simply amazing. First off, it is very different from many of the other elephant camps. The elephants are not there to be ridden or to do stupid tricks. The whole purpose of the camp is conservation and education. The founder, a woman named Sangduen "Lek" Chailert, has dedicated her life to helping elephants and to education people about the plight of the Asian elephant in Thailand. The park takes in abused and injured elephants, and allows them to live like elephants. They are allowed to roam at will, form their own family groups, etc. There are not tricks and no riding. These things are bad, as the howdahs used in riding can injure an elephant, particularly one that is pregnant. They do not make them do tricks because the methods used to get them to do tricks are brutal. You watch a film where they show the process of breaking an elephant, and it is hard to watch. They put it in a thing called a 'press' which is about what it sounds like, and basically torture it for 4 to 7 days. It is not nice. Many, although not all, of the elephants at ENP have gone through this process.
However, the issue is not as cut and dried as it appears at first glance, and the people at ENP acknowledge that. Since the logging industry in Thailand is no longer in (legal, at least) operation, elephants no longer have any work. There is also almost no real habitat left for them. I get the sense that they were not completely opposed to the types of elephant camps where you ride, etc. They just want to educate people about them, and insure that the elephants working there are treated as well as possible. They provide medical services to many of these places, and also take in elephants that can no longer work. They do single out for special scorn those who bring elephants into bug cities, such as Bangkok, to use in getting money for tourists. This is bad for everyone, aside from the owners making the money off of them. We never saw anyone in BKK begging with an elephant, which was good.
Anyway, it's an amazing place, and I would like to go back there and volunteer for a week. There were many people there doing just that, for periods of up to a month or more.
OK, enough of the unpleasant parts, on to the fun pictures.
First you are picked up in the ENP van at your hotel. You then go to a market and load up the vans and trucks with a lot of fruit. And I mean a lot. I have never seen so many bags of watermelons, which are apparently a favorite.
After loading the trucks, you ride up to the park, which is about an hour north of Chiang Mai. It is actually a pleasant ride, as you get to see some of the countryside, which was lush and beautiful.
After arriving at the park, everyone gets the safety talk. This is very important, and these are, in fact, dangerous animals. There are very specific rules about how to feed them, about never going down to the grounds alone, watching out for the babies, etc. Apparently the babies like to 'bowl with humans', in which we are the pins and they are they bowling balls. We were taught how to deal with this should it happen. As you may know, the females in an elephant group are generally all related, and all of the 'aunties' and they called them will help in the raising of the young. They are, like most animals, very protective of them. In short, leave the babies alone. We were also informed about a couple of elephants that we were not to go near, mainly the alpha male, named BK, and also another male, who killed his last mahout before coming to ENP. Really, it's hard to imagine anything like ENP in the US because of the liability issues. I mean, we can't even have lawn darts, for crying out loud.
While we were getting the safety lecture, the mahouts were preparing the food for the elephants. Each one has favorites, and so each has a laundry basket filled with his or her favorite fruits and veggies. When all is ready, everyone goes down to the feeding platform and feeds the elephants.
Here is the central area of the feeding platform.
Our elephant was named Lily. She had been force fed amphetamines by her previous owner so that she could work almost all the time. She was still feeling the effects of coming down off of them, almost a year later. As a result, she ate really slowly. Her basket consisted of watermelon and squash.
After feeding the elephants it was time to feed the people. There was a huge buffet lunch for everyone. To be honest, I kind of expected it to be not very good. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually really, really good. There were probably 15 dishes, and every one that I tried was uniformly excellent. There were two places to sit while eating, and it seems like we ended up eating with the volunteers. There was a really nice eating area.
After lunch, it was time to take the elephants down to the river for a bath. This was really fun. The mahouts lead the elephants into the river, where they lie down. We then get our buckets and our scrub brushes and go to work on the elephants. The elephants seem to enjoy this as much as the humans. The funny part was dodging the frequent chinks of elephant poop floating down the river. I didn't care about it, but it seemed to bother a couple of people. Whatever.
After the bath, the elephants immediately head into their mud bath. This functions as both a natural sunscreen and insect repellent.
After the first river bath, you have a couple of hours to just hang out at the feeding platform and watch the elephants. This is a very pleasant time, and the elephants just kind of wander around doing their thing.
After a while, you go down for a second bath before leaving. This one is a little shorter. Afterwards, the mahout had one of the elephants demonstrate blowing water from his trunk.
The same elephant also gave people 'kisses'. This felt really weird, like having a vacuum cleaner attached to your face. This elephant was named Hope, and he is the most gentle of them. He was raised from a baby by Lek, and has never been through the brutal breaking process. Because of this, he is much more trusting of people. He is a case study by Lek and the mahouts demonstrating that elephants can also be trained and tamed using positive reenforcement, not punishment.
In addition to 31 elephants, there are also a lot of dogs (somewhere around 50 I think) and a few cats at ENP, not to mention some cows and water buffalo. Lek is obviously a real animal lover and can not resist helping any creature that needs it.
Funny thing, too. The dogs are obviously fond of sleeping on the feeding platform, like these.
More than once, I saw an elephant come up and just make the dogs move for no reason. It was really funny. The dogs weren't real happy about it but what are they going to do? Elephant beats dog.
Here are a couple of videos.
First, the elephants in the mud bath. WARNING: This video contains extreme levels of animal cuteness. You have been warned.
Next, Eric feeding Lily.
After the second bath, we loaded up for the ride back to the hotel. All in all, L and I agreed that this was one of the funnest things we have ever done on vacation. For me it was right at the top of the list with Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast bus ride that I have told some of you about. If you are ever in Thailand, I strongly recommend you go to Elephant Nature Park. If you are concerned about the plight of the Asian elephant in Thailand, I urge you to send them a donation. They are doing good work and could use your support.
Tomorrow, A Lot of Thai cooking class.