With an extra day to spend in the northern Thailand city of Chang Mai last week, I explored some tourist sites in search of a diversion. And certainly I had one.
I couldn’t have done better than my choice of the Elephant Nature Park charitable organization. Six of us had the pleasure of spending a day with elephants who essentially had been tortured in the past to carry passengers, lug logs or perform in circuses or venues such as zoos.
Two or three among the 44 retired pachyderms who ramble in the woods and across the organization’s meadows, albeit in highly controlled conditions, are totally blind. One lost her vision from being stabbed by an angry mahout (handler), and a second elephant had suffered too much time in the spotlights of a circus.
I have acquired new contempt for rival facilities that offer rides to tourists or entertain them with tricks including having elephants create paintings. Fun for those who witness and ride, not so much for the abused noble creatures.
As costly as the day ran us on the tour, each of us strongly agreed that it was worth every one of the 177 dollars we spent. The photos undoubtedly demonstrate how exhilarating it was getting really, really close to the tuskers, whose patience, intelligence and distinct personalities delighted us.
After pickup at our various hotels, our day began with a nearly 90-minute ride in a handsome van. Then came a watermelon orgy for the four-legged beasts, giving any of our anxiety a chance to wane as we let them gorge on fruit safely on the other side of a modest barrier.
We then headed to a trail through the woods accompanied by two of the elephants. They ambled behind us, enjoying lengths of sugar cane and handfuls of bamboo leaves that we offered them. Our guide and two mahouts made sure that we could be plenty close without getting into accidental trouble and that the elephants did not become too distracted by stands of bamboo off trail in their endless foraging for tender leaves.
How amazing to be perambulating blithely through the woods with elephants close behind. The only dangers involved keeping sufficiently ahead of the lumbering animals and avoiding anything sprayed from their trunks — water or dirt, both of which they use to protect their skin.
Lunch for us bipeds also was a vegetarian feast, which consisted in part of spring rolls, individual papaya salads that we made ourselves with our guide’s help, pad Thai, fresh pineapple and sticky rice with mango, among still other dishes visible in the above photo.
One of several unexpected things we were encouraged to do was at least a symbolic effort to help save the forest in which teak trees have been logged against the law. We were instructed to tie orange lengths of cloth around the trunks of surviving trees to encourage bad karma for those unafraid to cut them down.
There followed a slide several meters down a smooth-channeled rock face into a pool of water — fun that contrasted with our next-to-last activity, wandering among numerous mature and baby elephants on a grassy field.
We ended the day at the park by wading into a shallow river, where we helped the elephants bathe, throwing water on them, scrubbing them and ultimately engaging in water fights with each other and passing river rafters. I felt like a five-year-old kid, though the truth is my memory of that age is rather dim.
If you think the experience was unforgettable, you’ve got it. If you don’t happen to recall the reference to water in the headline, there’s a little help in the link. And if you would like to learn more about elephants, as I am doing from the truly entertaining and elegantly written book, Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II, you’ll be well rewarded for your curiosity.
Finally, I hope you enjoy the photos below. . .