To Walk with an Elephant, Thailand

August 26, 2009

On Friday, six of us (volunteers), five elephants, and five staff went on an overnight trek up to a very special place that Lek calls elephant haven.  It’s a piece of property that she purchased where the elephants can spend time roaming free in their natural habitat – away from the park for a little while.

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It was a slow moving, pause to eat, stop to trumpet, meandering stroll along quiet roads and up hills covered with high grass.

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That’s a big, wrinkly butt!

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This big girl is what they call a white elephant.  Her skin is pink.

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Each elephant carried a bag of supplies that hung around their necks.

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Not heavy bags…

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They walked ahead of us at a slow, lumbering gate – setting their own pace.  You haven’t truly bonded with an elephant until you’ve been on the backside of one of their farts.  It seemed that the fresh air and the mountain trek got their insides going…  Only 10 times worst then the dog!

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While logging is outlawed, people still come to the forest to take down trees.  In order to preserve them, the shaman will bless strips of orange cloth and tie them around a tree.  The villagers will not cut down a tree that has been “blessed” and is protected by a cloth.


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At the haven, the elephants dropped their loads and promptly headed for the nearest mud pond – caked on a layer or two – then moved off into the forest where they remained until the next morning.

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Here’s mud in your eye! 🙂

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Our accommodations felt a little like a Robinson Crusoe tale – a wooden lodge set in the forest trees – a basic roof that covered only half of the structure – and wood boards for beds.

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The floor covered by the grass roof – bed. And for the record – no sleeping occurred that night – just a lot of tossing and turning. It’s all about the experience. I can sleep when I’m dead – right?

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At least we had mosquito nets

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Pom started cooking dinner as soon as we arrived

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Donna, Mira, me and Linda

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Fire pit — getting ready to light the fire for the evening

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There were so many jungle sounds all around us – it was soothing and nerve-wracking all at the same time.

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and the sounds of the forest and the singing of the mahouts lulled us to sleep.

The mahouts entertained us with their music and song before bedtime – really nice! The mahout is the elephant caregiver. Each elephant at the park has their own personal mahout who watches out for them and personally cares for them

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The next morning, we enjoyed a full breakfast, coffee, and a fire in the pit that made toast!

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Heading home was interesting. The elephants had been gone all night – doing their elephant thing – none of them were in camp when we packed up to leave – and no one was concerned. Off we went, walking through the trees and grass, downhill and occasionally, one of the mahouts would call out to the elephants. Eventually, each and every one of them appeared in the trees and fell into line heading down the mountain.

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They looked happy and relaxed – just chillin’

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Don’t let the word “grass” lead you to believe this looks anything like your backyard…

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It was a great trip! It was heartwarming to see the elephants so at ease and happy. I think the fact that they come back when called is a strong indicator of how much they enjoy Elephant Park and all the people who take care of them there.

We returned to camp and 15 minutes later – happiness arrived on four wheels – playing a tune! We didn’t know he was coming – but we heard the bell and the tune – and KNEW what it was – ICE CREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Another unexpected and unpleasant arrival

BAB – Big Ass Bug!

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Every night at dinner, we would come together to compare work stories, down a beer or four and talk about the elephants.  We played cards and got massages – 5 ladies were there every evening to give a massage to anyone who wanted one for $4. We talked about where we had been and where we were headed next and just generally had fun together.  Lights out at 10pm every night was just fine – we were exhausted!

On Wednesday night – four of us got the opportunity to sleep with the elephant babies and their mothers and nannies.  The elephant who had her foot blown off is also pregnant and so someone sleeps near her pen each night – usually Pom – and volunteers if they would like to.  We volunteered!  Dan, Linda, Donna and me.

I watched while the little girl as she tried to shimmy through the bars to the next pen. Thankfully, she didn’t fit.

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I couldn’t sleep for the first two hours and so just took pictures of the poor elephants who were very tolerant of me and my camera.  I used an infrared light to capture these pictures – not a white light.  While it wasn’t the most comfortable night – we were on pole platforms – it was pretty cool to be sleeping right next to them.  We could hear them snore through the night.  It was a sort of soft rumble that lulled you into a light doze – until they farted – which they did all night and those were a lot louder than the snores!

After feeding – the baby got her second and third wind. She kept walking over, under, around and generally all over both her mom and nanny.

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This is one pregnant soon-to-be-momma!

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Sunday rolled around way too quickly for all of us.  It felt like we were just settling into a good routine as well as really knowing each other.  But it was what it was – one week.  So, Sunday morning we got into vans and headed back into Chiang Mai where we all checked into different hotels – but – made plans to meet for dinner and drinks later.  It’s a strange thing that takes place between strangers put together into circumstances outside of their regular life. You connect and bond so quickly – and thanks to Facebook – you remain connected in a way. Everyone I met on my trip – this group included – is my FB friend. And every once in a while we congratulate each other on a new job, or a baby, or a wedding – or just a birthday. It’s a quick touch base – that as it happens – jogs a memory of our time together that wil never be completely understood by anyone but us.

So, I’ve never had a sober “last night” out and this was no exception!

It started with dinner and red wine.  That’s Linda, Donna, me and Robbie on the left.   Mira, James and their guide ???? on the right.

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Then a TukTuk ride to the first bar – which contained an excessive amount of black lights!

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I love black lights…so 60’s!  Now mind you…I’m the only one who actually experienced black lights IN the 60’s….


We sat on cushions on the floor…met every one in the bar…and had a great time!

Dan arrived a little after us…and came bearing gifts…if that’s what you call a bag of grasshoppers, worms and something else…  One man’s delicacy is another’s vomit inducing snack.

Again…I just wasn’t that brave…but Mira was…

Shot of the night market…from the bar.



I made it back to my hotel at 5 am the next morning.  Red wine at dinner, two shots of tequila, two marqarita’s and countless beers later…I was dancing up a storm with everyone else at some disco place.  I paid dearly for my night of fun…but it was worth every moment of pain.  I have been so lucky with the people that I’ve met during my volunteer experiences…people that I want to keep in touch with…who would have been friends at home…people that I just clicked with.  I guess that’s the only sad part about all of this…these friendships are so temporary…we all know that.  Everyone goes back to their “real” life at some point.  But I think that we’ve all impacted each other in some way that we’ll remember for a long time…at least I will.


Elephant Nature Park is the end of my official far east travels…the rest of it is just fun stuff…visiting with friends who I’m sure don’t want to see their faces and vacation plastered all over my blog…but I’ll ask them how they would feel about this before making the decision to write or not write about the next section of my travels.

I hope that you were OK with reading about the Thailand elephants.  While I know that it was pretty graphic…I think that if an animal is being abused in any way…that it’s our responsibility to at least accept the information if it’s given to us.  What you do about it…if anything…is up to you.  I felt that after I received this information, it was my responsibility to share it.  I have asked for and received a copy of one of the programs that particularly upset me and will probably send it off to one of our news organizations…60 Minutes or 20/20.  It’s up to them what they will choose to do with it.  Only by making people aware of what’s going on…will things ever change.

The elephants that I met here at the park are…despite everything they’ve been through…gentle, kind, curious, and happy animals.  I admit to tearing up quite a few times when I was with them.  They say that while an elephant will never forget…she will forgive.  I believe that every elephant in the park has forgiven.

An incredible place. A painful, yet heartwarming story.  A beautiful experience that I recommend to everyone.


See you in Europe!



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