Elephants have been an integral part of Thai culture for thousands of years. Not only do the creatures play an essential role in the Buddhist faith, the dominant faith of the country, but they were used as tools in the teak logging industry as well as war machines in the ancient Thai army. These creatures, although revered, were largely domesticated throughout Thailand, and most of East Asia for that matter, and are now an endangered species mainly used for purposes of tourism throughout the country.
A very popular activity for tourists in the land of smiles is taking a day trip to one of the many elephant sanctuaries located in northern Thailand. Here one can not only see these ‘whales of the land’ in action, but also participate in feeding them or possibly taking a ride on one through the Thai jungle. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been a fan of zoos or aquariums and the idea of domesticating or enclosing a wild animal used to the wide open plateaus of whatever land it may have come from has always seemed wrong to me. Elephant domestication for the sole purpose of placating tourists and teaching the giant animals to paint and do tricks to please a large crowd, that too seems morally cruel. Sadly. many of the so called ‘elephant sanctuaries’ open to tourists do just this and are more focused on providing an entertainment service than a caring and nurturing space for the animals they are meant to protect.
While I was interested in photographing and spending a day with an elephant I was a little wary of just walking into any so called sanctuary that was open to the general public. I wanted to find the right place, a genuine place, maybe one where the elephants were not only for show but were part of the local’s daily lives, were well treated and respected So when the chance arose to visit a village in the mountains of northern Chiang Mai where the giant mammals were treated just like this I immediately cleared my schedule and arranged a pickup for the next day.
At 8:45 the next morning I was standing in front of my teak bungalow waiting for my ride. A couple from Lithuania who were renting a bungalow just across from mine had signed up as well and as we stood chatting in the cool morning air a dusty tan colored pickup pulled up in front of us. The young Thai man that hopped out of the driver’s seat was wearing a traditional knit parka and a dusty pair of jeans. He greeted us with a wide smile and hearty “suwadee cup!” while opening the pickup’s side doors. We crammed in behind the two front seats, one occupied by Ken, the young man, and the other by his wife who bowed her head and smiled as we entered the small cab. In the middle seat sat a bag of deep fried bananas which we were told to “eat eat” the minute Ken revved the engine. If you’ve been to Thailand you are already accustomed to the kind and friendly attitude of the Thai people. You will always feel welcomed and at ease when visiting a Thai village or even the bigger cities. There is a feeling of universal respect that flows from their mannerisms and customs that you can’t help but adopt when visiting this beautiful country. As he drove, Ken explained our itinerary in excited broken English. It would take us an hour to drive up to the village, from where we would take a short hike through the jungle to the elephants. There was then a rushed description of what we would do with the elephants that seemed to include feeding, bathing, walking, and something about mud.
The Lithuanians and I began asking questions about the village and the elephants. Ken told us that we would see three elephants that day. Two pregnant females and a baby male. There was a father as well but he was helping with village work. “How do they help in the village I asked?” “With the building and the farming” Ken answered. Apparently, the elephants did all the heavy lifting and bow-dosing that the villagers couldn’t do, but other than that they were mostly kept as pets for the villagers out of respect for the ancient traditions of the village. “How pregnant are the two females?” asked one of my companions. “She has been pregnant for over one year,” Ken answered, “Elephants are pregnant for two years and three months.” Every female in the car seemed to sit stunned for half a second then collect their breath once again. Can you imagine that? Pregnant for over two years! I was amazed as well as slightly horrified.
As we made our way up into the mountains we passed small tribal villages and large expanses of rice farms. The higher we climbed the more spectacular the views. Huge stretches of broken cliffs that gave way to sheer drops into the misty valleys below. Climbing up the sides of these steep mountains I saw tangles of vines and banyan trees, all growing out of the earth like limbs of some great beast that had been buried underneath the mountain itself. The jungle hummed with life on either side of the road. Cicadas and birds chirped and cooed in the branches of the great trees over head as a humid breeze entered through the car’s windows and whipped my long hair into my face.
Our car was one of the few on the road that morning and in 45 minutes we had made it up the mountain to our destination, a desolate shoulder on a long deserted road with jungle sprouting on either side. Ken pointed to a small, barely visible path to the side of the road and said, “We Hike!” Our small party of five began gingerly picking our way down the path into the heart of the jungle. There was in fact a well worn path that wove its way around the large twisted tree roots that rose from the red dirt, but to our guides it didn’t seem to matter. Both of them quickly made their way through the undergrowth as if it were nothing. “How often do you come here?” I asked Ken while hopping over a large boulder that stood in the path’s way. “We come here two-three times a day,” He replied, “This is the only way to the village.” That meant that every time they needed to get something from town or pick up tourists they had to go down this path then make their way home once they had returned from their outing. This multiple times a day trek was made even more difficult by the fact that halfway down the path you encountered a large river with a rushing waterfall that could only be crossed by climbing over a crudely made bridge built out of three three trunks that had been lashed together using rope, and believe it or not, vines!
Upon reaching this bridge my two companions and I paused with shared glances of uncertainty, but after seeing Ken bound across without a second thought we bravely followed, slowly clinging to the logs below. The path took us a little farther into the jungle and up the other side of a small ravine. We then entered a sunny field, Ken leading the pack. “Dinosaur dinosaur!” We heard him cry, and then we saw our first elephant.
Dinosaur wasn’t necessarily a bad description. The huge gray creature was standing next to a bin of freshly picked bananas. Two more elephants stood not too far away, also chowing down on a mixture of bananas and sugarcane. After a moment of awe and silence watching we approached the animals ourselves to take a turn at feeding them.
Hesitant at first we began reaching into the huge basket and holding out the treats to the giant creatures. Patiently the elephant waited until we placed the bananas in its trunk, then it would wrap its strong trunk around the tiny yellow twig and place it in its mouth. It would wait until its trunk was holding five or six bananas then mash them all into a ball and toss it playfully into its gaping jaw. The motion reminded me of the constricting of a snake, yet there was something more controlled and gentle about the movement the elephant made. Maybe it was my bias as a fellow mammal, but the familiarity I found in the creatures’ soft eyes and thoughtful movements made me feel like it was almost another human… a wise intelligent animal that was conscious of my being there as well as my own ability to process the moment at hand.
The elephant we were feeding was one of the pregnant females named Boon. Boon was the oldest female and when I reached my hand out to stroke her long trunk she willingly bowed her head and welcomed my approach. We were told that Boon ate over 125 lbs of food a day, all fruits and veggies (elephants are herbivores), but if she lived in the wild she would eat around 300 lbs of food per day. Given the language barrier I wasn’t able to get a straight answer for why this difference existed but luckily grandma google answered all the questions that my guides could not
After a little research I discovered that elephants that grow up domesticated often don’t exude as much energy as they would in the wild. There is no need for them to hunt food or find shelter because that is all provided for them. This coupled with the fact that 300lbs of food for an elephant is very expensive for families or villages to provide daily so usually this amount is cut in half which causes many domesticated elephants to not reach there full size when fully matured.
After our little feeding frenzy it was time to take the elephants on their after-lunch walk. Walking with these land whales through the jungle truly allowed you to imagine what it would be like for them to roam free. While there was a path that we people stuck too, the three elephants happily meandered off into the bushes on either side of the path. No tree or shrub stood in their way. Their heavy, methodical footsteps shook the ground a little each time they lifted a leg. While each elephant had a trainer it seemed more like the elephant was in control than the tiny man that danced around the creatures back legs trying to avoid being stomped on. Being able to walk freely next to Boon’s head I had time to really focus on her big brown eyes. They reminded me of my dog’s eyes, the golden orange caramel color that seems both warming yet quizzical, like she knows exactly what you’re thinking and is trying to guide you through everything that’s going on inside your head. Our slow walk ended in a deep pit of mud that each elephant happily climbed into. “We bathe the elephant!” said Ken as he threw off his shirt and jumped into the sludge next to the younger elephant. I excitedly jumped at the chance to have a mud fight with an elephant and that exactly what we did. After scrubbing the elephants down in a thick layer of grimmy mud we began chucking clumps of mud at one another. Covered in muck and dripping from head to toe we walked a little further down the path, the elephants in the lead, towards a massive waterfall and a rushing river. The elephants marched right in, sucked water into their long trunks and spouted it like a shower over our heads. Slowly each one sat, then lay down in the river, allowing all the mud and guck to wash off their bodies. We were told to climb onto the elephants backs and scrub them off with large stones. “Thai massage for elephant!” Ken said as we scrubbed at their leathery hide.
Having the chance to spend a day with an elephant in an environment where the creature is relatively free is an indescribable experience. Sanctuaries and villages like the one I visited are not only unique but rare to find. What makes it special is that you do not feel like the creatures are kept captive or unhappy. They appear content. There is no false sense that the humans are those in power and instead you feel very much like a guest in the elephant’s’ home. You are free to walk beside them and around them and truly respect their size and the power of their movements. You feel comfortable around the creatures while also respecting that in a second you could be the thing getting squished under their feet. Sadly, there aren’t any truly wild asian elephants left in Thailand. Almost all of the 4000 elephants left in the country are domesticated or living on wildlife reserves and are closely monitored by rangers. The Asian elephant population has dropped drastically from the nearly 100,000 elephants documented in the early 1900’s to the 4000 left in Thailand today. This is mostly due to the ivory trade and elephant poaching which is now illegal and heavily sanctioned. Many elephants in Thailand have fallen salve to the tourism industry and are malnourished as well as generally mistreated. While I think that anyone visiting Thailand should take the opportunity to visit an elephant sanctuary, I highly recommend and encourage you to find one that is truly wholesome and whose main purpose is to care for and protect this incredible species.