Sunday, March 6, 2016

Jurassic Park with elephants

Culminating my nine days in Thailand was a magical, mammoth experience: visiting an elephant sanctuary.

Elephants have been an integral part of Thai culture for centuries, but tragically, they are regularly mistreated in the name of commerce (tourist rides, street begging, circuses, logging). At Elephant Nature Park, rescued elephants are respected for the majestic creatures they are.

There is a glut of elephant-themed places to visit, and at first glance, it's hard to tell them apart. But this one came specially recommended in more ways than one, and it earned those endorsements. Even on the drive there we passed other elephant camps that did not look as humane—elephants penned in small enclosures right by the road.

You walk into ENP and it immediately seems like Jurassic Park with elephants. They roam free on the expansive and glorious grounds, gently and unobtrusively tended to by the staff of about 70. (But none of the elephants tried to eat us.)

I chose the "short day" package, which ending up feeling full in the best way. My group departed the office in Chiang Mai at 9 a.m., was driven by van for about an hour to the sanctuary in the countryside, and enjoyed it (including a bountiful lunch) till the 2 p.m. departure. When I made my last-minute booking two nights before, the site said "only 11 slots left." Funnily, my group was only 12, suggesting I was actually the first to book. I was also the oldest in my group by more than 10 years. Mostly twenty-something backpackers, newlyweds, or European vacationers. The only other Americans were a brother and sister from Boston.

At ENP, the ones running things are the elephants. There is no riding, there are no shows, and there are no sticks in the hands of the mahouts, or men (has to be men) who train elephants. An elephant is assigned one mahout, often when the mahout is young, and the two stay together for the duration. In other places throughout Asia, mahouts use a sharp metal hook to control their elephants, and despite what the tourists are told, getting jabbed with it does hurt the animal. But at ENP, it's all positive reinforcement. Nothing sharp in sight.

Most elephants there are rescues. The humanitarian founder of the park buys them out of abusive situations. In one case, the cost was $2,000. In some of the elephants, heartbreaking tics linger; one swings his trunk and rocks when standing. It looks sweet till you learn the reason. To quote our sweet host/guide, Narissa (at least that's how it sounded), at ENP "elephants learn to become elephants again." She told us some of the elephants might cry when we receive them.

Almost a third of the 30 or so elephants there are blind by human means. People who come to ENP already have some spiritual or primal connection to these animals and hearing of these horrific examples of man's cruelty only intensifies that empathy. I found myself continuously thanking a higher power the whole time I was there that there was a there.

At least one elephant was older than my parents—born in the early 1940s. Narissa called some of them "grandma."

Most of the elephants in the park have formed small families—it seems like five or six animals apiece. One, however, has kept to herself in a particular spot—for nine years. While not social with her kind, she does let humans approach—some of the time. Here she is with Narissa, our guide.

The mahouts live at the park in these structures:

In the water, the adults surround the baby both to protect him and to play with him. He spent most of his river time rolling around underwater. See his trunk sticking out?

At ENP, humans follow the elephants' leads:

This is one of at least two elephants who stepped on a landmine near the Cambodian border, which you can see in his mangled front left foot. Narissa said they are lucky to be alive.

The only elephant who accessorized:

The day was so uplifting, emotionally draining, and hot that most of us fell asleep on the way home:

If you ever visit Thailand—or anywhere in Asia—get yourself to ENP. You might even consider planning a trip for this alone.

Thailand footnote: over my nine days, I ate pad see ewmy favorite dish (not just favorite Thai dish, but favorite of all dishes)seven times:

  • 2/25/16 lunch—local place my driver knew
  • 2/25/16 dinner—Boat Lagoon Resort (my first Phuket hotel)
  • 2/27/16 dinner—BLR
  • 2/28/16 dinner—BLR
  • 3/2/16 dinner—restaurant delivery to Bike Resort (my second Phuket hotel)
  • 3/3/16 lunch—Golden Bell (my Chiang Mai hotel)
  • 3/4/16 dinner—Anoma Boutique House (a small hotel cafĂ© in Chiang Mai old town)

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