Sunday, April 6, 2008

A great day (near) Chiang Mai

Well, I made it to Chiang Mai, a small city in northern Thailand, and the first thing I did was book a day trip to the Elephant Nature Park. I was scheduled to begin my volunteer week in 4 days, but I couldn't wait! So after bluffing my way into an already-full tour for the next day, I did a bit of exploring the town, which is like a much smaller Bangkok, complete with night markets, tuk-tuks, temples and all the rest. The core is surrounded by a square of canals, but of course now it's sprawled out many times that size now.
In the hotel lobby a duet plays beautiful music on traditional Thai instruments. But I was here to see elephants. So the next morning the shuttle picked me up and took some other tourists & I to a fruit market to pick up a truckload of produce for the elephants, then to the Park, situated far out into the countryside in a beautiful wooded valley, where we were given a brief safety talk (don't get too close to the elephants, basically). Then came the fun part: we got to feed them, standing on a raised platform, lest they got too greedy. It was uneccessary; they were so gentle that when some inattentive parents let their little girl get much closer to them then she should have, the elephants never did a thing. They were sweet and patient, carefully taking each clump of bananas or section of watermelon in their trunk tips and curling them back into their mouths. It's a great setup-- it teaches them to like people (in spite of their past injuries), and gives tourists a great chance to interact with them. I should note that all of these elephants have been rescued from abusive situations, some with horrible injuries-- all except a few babies who were born at the Park and will never know cruelty!
By then it was time for us to eat too, and what a lunch they gave us! About 10 different kinds of rice or noodle mixtures, spring rolls, all kinds of veggies and salads and fruits. It reminded me of that island resort in Fiji. Then it was elephant bath time, my favorite! About 10 out of the 31 elephants there were brought to the nearby river where we were all invited to get in with them and throw buckets of water on them. They loved it! If you stopped, they would hose themselves with their trunks, indicating that they wanted you to keep going! Once in a while one would lay down in the water, allowing us to scrub their backs. I probably could have climbed on them if I was allowed to. I also caught a great shot of a mahout (trainer) on his elephant. They are all learning new, humane techniques of handling elephants; none of them use bullhooks, chains or ropes-- just quiet words.
Afterwards we had the honor of meeting Lek, the founder of the Park and a champion of elephant welfare in a country that still lags behind the world in any kind of animal rights. It was great to meet her, and ask questions about her experiences. Afterwards this hardworking little lady walked down with her dogs to a wallowing hole (pictured below) to spend some time with a young water-buffalo calf who showed obvious delight in her visit, greeting her with happy squeals. She even rescues those along with over 40 dogs and a couple dozen cats which are also loved and cared for at the Park; it is truly an animal sanctuary. Several of the dogs are fiercely loyal to her and stay close, which is good; she's received more than one death threat because of her "radical" ideas.
After watching a video about the Park and elephant exploitation in Thailand, we got to bathe some other elephants in the river again, then all too soon it was time to go. But not before spotting Lek, who asked me, "Are you wet?" Having just come from the river, I said yes, but after a minute of conversation it was apparent she thought I was a vet, and I had misunderstood her accent! I cleared up the misunderstanding and had a brief chat with her. If I'm lucky I'll get to talk with her again next week, and I want to get her to sign her book I bought today. It's a simple picture book filled with photos of happy, playful elephants, and I love it. The whole ride home a little girl (one of the ones who got too close to the elephants) slept on me. She was precious.
The next two days back in Chiang Mai were just taking care of chores (getting a haircut, etc.), swimming in the hotel pool and waiting to get back to the Park. Tonight, the last night, I wandered the HUGE sunday night street market until I was in a daze. Everything you can imagine is for sale, including fried insects. The only animals I saw "for sale" were tiny birds that a lady had in baskets, murmuring something about "good luck to let them go". Right. There were also some rather skinny (and skittish) dogs wandering around, but not a cat to be seen.
There's no internet at the Elephant Park, so you'll have to wait for a week to hear about that. But don't worry, there'll be lots to tell about it, and LOTS of pictures. See you then!
P.S. One interesting difference here: the Thais have a very endearing way of greeting you, with palms pressed together in the "prayer" position and a little bow. I would have thought it was a lost tradition, but it's very much alive here, and kinda sweet.


Anonymous said...

Wow Davey, this is so beautiful. It is so touching to see how calm and loving the Elephants are. I am so jealous!!!!

Anonymous said...

Dave, It does my heart good to see wonderful care for those great animals! Love the photos - wish I was there, Betsy

chuck fulton said...

Cuz, I, too, am so envious! I would love to be there with you to meet all those elephants.

MozzarElla said...

Wow-- what an unforgettable experience that must have been! I haven't yet shown Ella the pics, but I am sure she will wish that she were the little girl napping on your lap, after a day of elephant loving.

Elephant sized hugs from us!
C.A., Ella, and Michael
P.S. Hi, Betsy!