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Walking with elephants in Chiang Mai…

by capetowndiva

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times South Africa in December 2015

“I hate elephants”, said no one, ever. Of all the world’s wild creatures, I think elephants must be the most loved by people and I’m no exception to that number. My recent experience walking with them in Chiang Mai was a highlight of my life and few of my travel experiences thus far have equaled it.
A few years ago, on my first trip to Thailand, before I knew better, I rode an elephant. At the time I wasn’t aware of what it took to make the animal ‘rider-friendly’, but I shall leave that subject there and let you do your own research on the topic.  This story is more about sharing the deep contentment of being up close and personal with one of the planets most incredible and endearing animals, in a unique and unforgettable way.
The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a unique project in Chiang Mai province in Northern Thailand, that is home to around 64 elephants (as well as cats, dogs and buffaloes) that have been rescued from distressful situations all over the country as well in Cambodia and Myanmar. In their previous lives they have endured many types of abuse, be it through trekking camps, illegal logging, street begging or performing. At the sanctuary, they are patiently nursed back to health, rehabilitated and able to recover physically and mentally and to thrive once again, in their natural habitat.  The person behind this extraordinary refuge is ENP Founder Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert. A remarkable woman, she has championed the cause of elephants in adverse circumstances since the 90’s, and has PhD’s in Sustainability and Conservation and Veterinary Science. She also established the Save the Elephant Foundation that does superb work across South East Asia. 
The Elephant Nature Park lies 60km outside Chiang Mai, the’ Rose of the North’, a city of around 400 000 people, dating back to the 1200’s, that lies in the mountainous region of the country, close to Laos. As you edge closer to the north, the geography starts to morph beautifully – this was the Chiang Mai of which I heard so much. Rain forest and jungle territory, much of it depleted but still, green and lush, and literally a breath of fresh air after the heat and buzz of the city we’d left behind.
Arriving at the camp, I could see ‘our’ elephants in the distance and couldn’t wait to meet them. Each tour group walks with four elephants and their mahouts, who direct and coerce them with voice commands, never with hooks. Although I was one of nine other tourists, I never felt crowded out, as everyone spreads out and moves along at their own pace, so you almost feel as if you have the whole rainforest to yourself. The elephants and me. Bliss.
Smaller than its African counterpart, an Asian elephant stands at a height of about 2.7m.  It’s what I call a pretty elephant, with delicate frayed flapping ears, gentle eyes with long lashes and a calm aura that’s so synonymous with the species. Being so close to the animal enables one to really get a sense of it and it’s everything you’d expect. On my first close encounter with one elephant, I was able to softly place my hand flat on the top of his trunk, an appendage that is loaded with 40,000 muscles that’s a nose, an arm, a hand, a voice, a straw, and a hose, all in one. The skin is coarse and prickly, and the eye I looked into seemed so kind and understanding. I felt ashamed then, knowing what he had suffered before his rescue at the hands of humans. I know, from reading the incredibly moving book ‘The Elephant Whisperer’ by that legend of a man Lawrence Anthony, just how deeply sensitive elephants are and I have no doubt that in that brief moment I’d been observed, summed up, and I’d made a connection. I’d never have had this experience if I’d been riding on his back. That’s an incentive right there, to walk not ride.
One of the most appealing things about this tour was that it was slow. You take your time. Touring can be such a drag- a mad rush as people try cram in as much sightseeing as possible in a few hours and so often lose the chance to linger and truly absorb the surroundings. This wasn’t the case at the ENP…it’s a leisurely stop-and-start amble, hanging out with the elephants so to speak. It’s as if you’re privy to their world for day, accompanying them while they do their thing, instead of the other way around.
Looking for bananas…

Baby Navaan and his nanny…

Our first stop was in the shade of a few trees where the mahouts ran water onto the ground to make a small mud puddle for the elephants. Before long all four of them had gathered around and with their huge disc shaped feet, started scuffing and dislodging the soil, stirring it up, and then squirting it over and under their bodies, and anyone else’s who happened to be in close proximity! Caked with dust and dirt, which is a type of sunscreen for elephants, they finished off with a good scratch against the tree trunks, an elephant having a spa treatment of sorts in the wild.
The path we took saw us cross wide open fields, encountering a random herd of cows and their herders on the way, as well as a few of the rescued dogs that live at the ENP. Our trek took us under tree canopies, across a fast flowing river (remember to wear walking shoes suited to this), and along and up dusty mountain paths. I’m a Cape Town girl so very spoilt by the nature that surrounds me back home, and the more I walked the more I loved what I saw – I was getting my earth fix. It felt like I was in my own universe, with the deep green of surrounding tropical rain forest and the soft-footed grey giants plodding along quietly behind and beside me. Every now and then a trunk would slide over my shoulder or slip under my arm, the ‘finger’ nudging my hand and poking around for the bananas I was carrying in a sling bag provided by the guide.
Lunch was an experience all of its own. Thai food is incredible and when we climbed up the steps of the elevated wooden deck, what awaited us was a spread of deliciousness – noodles, chicken satay, watermelon, rice and vegetables, laid out on the floor in big banana leaves, and a traditional old cast iron kettle giving off a wisp of steam in the corner. The scene was set for good conversation with like-minded eco tourists from all over the planet and the view before us overlooking the river and hills, was stunning.
On the way back to the camp, we stopped at the river and doused the elephants, tossing buckets of water over them, and everyone else, while they feasted on fruits and carried on as if we weren’t actually even there. At the main park itself, it was incredible to see the Park’s youngest baby elephant, Navann, swim underwater, totally submerged.  Elephants are VERY strong swimmers and need to be able to bathe daily and they get to do this at ENP.
Prickly, rough skin & the longest lashes…some blue…
The finale of our trip was a 30-minute rafting trip down the river. I think I screamed from start to finish – it was an amazing end to a memorable day.
Awareness of the global plight of elephants has never been greater. This tour gave me the chance to contribute in a small way to the rescue efforts underway daily at this sanctuary, one of a few doing good work in the region.  Discovering this sanctuary in Thailand gave me hope for the Asian elephant’s rehabilitation in Thailand. So next time you’re there, consider walking with elephants… you’ll thank me afterwards.
Side Bar:
Elephant Nature Park, Pamper a Pachyderm package: THB 6,000: www.elephantnaturepark.org
Accommodation: The Meridien www.lemeridianchiangmai.com
Transport: Air Asia from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Currency: 1 ZAR = 2,75 THB

Best Chiang Mai city transport: red pic up vans: from 30 THB for a 20 minute ride (beware overpriced Tuk Tuks).

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