August 24, 2011

Is that your trunk or are you just happy to see me?

Today is my last day in Chiang Mai, something that I am rather sad about.  This is truly my Asia happy place (so far).  Yesterday I had an absolute ball spending the day at the Elephant Nature Park just 60 km north of Chiang Mai.  Elephants are a central part of the culture and religion in Thailand, but the unfortunate truth is that their numbers are dwindling quickly.  Elephants have traditionally been domesticated here (by very unfriendly methods, to put it lightly) for hard work purposes such as logging, and later on for entertainment.  The use of elephants for logging was made illegal a few years back, so all the elephants that were used for that purpose were suddenly out on the streets - some of them, quite literally.  It is not unknown for elephants to be seen with their keepers out on the streets begging or doing small tricks for money.  On top of that, domesticated elephants are considered to be livestock and have no legal protection whatsoever.  Enter Elephant Nature Park - the woman that began the park wanted to save at least some of these elephants from a nasty fate, so she began taking in used and abused elephants.  Some of them have truly tragic stories.  A couple of the younger ones were resuced as babies, having lost their mothers before they could fend for themselves.  The park does not provide elephant rides, nor do they allow the elephants to perform tricks.  The elephants are simply allowed to be as free as they can be.  In order to sustain the park, the owner opened it up for ecotourism.  For as little as a single day, people can come in small groups to help feed and bathe the elephants, which is what I did.  I had heard rave reviews about this park and the day-long experience, so I went for it.

I was a tad worried that I might not have the same incredible experience as some other people since I've done safaris and seen elephants in the wild before.  Those worries were completely unfounded.  I had a blast!  First of all, the park's setting in the mountains and on a river was just stunning.  But getting hands-on experience with these elephants was nothing short of wonderful.  As we watched them, fed them, and helped douse them with water for a bath in the river, all of us there got to learn their individual personalities and more about how elephants in general interact and behave.  We also got to watch a short documentary that taught us more about the park, the owner's ambition and love for these animals, and more about their history within Thailand.  The experience was a bit pricey for Thailand, but it was worth every baht.  And at the end, I even got a kiss from one of the babies.  I am so sold on this place!

You dirty beast, you.

I'm going to love him and squeeze him and call him George.

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