Thursday, August 17, 2017

Elephants in the Wild

Greetings from a small mountain village in Thailand!  I've been in the country about 4 days now and have already had a lifetime full of experiences.  While I started in Bangkok, I was only there for one night and didn't get to see much.  My real experiences began once I arrived in Chiang Mai, which is in northern Thailand.  This small city had a really interesting history as they were once under Burmese control, but fought to secede and eventually joined Siam(Thailand).  The city itself was quite lovely.  There was a nice night market just a block from my hotel.  In the night market I was able to find some great items to add to a new project for my classroom: an international prize box.  I figured rather than filling my prize box with junk that gets lost or thrown away, I'll get little things from my travels that the kids can choose from instead.  Something meaningful that they can hold on to.  The items in the markets in Asia are so cheap, so I've found some great items.  I got these elephant keychains from the market near my hotel.

Speaking of elephants, they are the reason most people visit Chiang Mai.  This region is known for the elephant sanctuaries that are peppered throughout the province.  I was fortunate enough to find an amazing sanctuary and get a reservation with them - something that can be quite difficult depending on the time of year.  The Elephant Nature Park is a renowned preserve in Thailand.  The creator of the park was even named Time Magazine's Asian person of the year for his work with the elephants.  I learned a lot about elephants during my excursion and why not all elephant parks are created equal. There is a long tradition in Thailand of using elephants for labor and entertainment.  We have all seen videos of elephants performing tricks or painting, but there is a lot of unnatural work that must be taught to the elephants, usually through inhumane methods.  The elephants also have a history working in the logging industry.  Their powerful bodies made them a good option for hauling logs around.  This of course is not what elephants were meant to do and forced them to stay in unsatisfactory, undernourished conditions, which often times led to the death of the elephants.  These were the types of elephants I had the privilege of meeting.  Elephant Nature Park went into a small mountain village to educate the people about elephants and their needs.  In exchange for agreement to stop mistreating the elephants, the nature park offered all food and medical services needed to keep the elephants healthy.  Being a great deal, the people agreed.  

This elephant experience was incredible.  After a long 40 minute ride along a mud “road” in the back of a pickup truck up a mountain and into a jungle, we finally approached the small village. There was absolutely nothing around except a few small huts built from bamboo overlooking the hillside.  

In the distance were four elephants.  A small family.  Mom and three kids.  Dad was not present because the male leaves once the kids are born.  We changed into traditional clothing and our experience began!  The elephants have complete free range in the jungle.  There was a person, called  a mahout, assigned to each one to follow her wherever she went to be sure she was safe.  The people with them were able to guide the elephants in certain directions through verbal commands.  What was really wonderful was that the elephants were in charge.  That became quite clear as we began our journey.  After a short lecture on the dangers of the jungle (staying with the group, looking out for tigers) we followed the elephants into the forest.  We let the elephants take the lead.  We followed them where they went.  Each of us was given a bag of food containing bananas and corn to give them as we walked.  Their personalities really came out once they saw the food!  They were just like a dog trying to grab a treat from you.

I was amazed at how docile and friendly they were.  They allowed us to come up and pet and touch with no reaction at all.  It was quite surreal walking with an unrestrained animal that contained so much power.  Once we ran out of food on our walk, they began going rogue.  Trees started toppling over as the elephants bent them to eat the leaves at the top.  Even roots were pulled from the ground using their powerful trunks.  It was hilarious and amazing at the same time.

After a delicious lunch, during which one person in our group found a wild TARANTULA crawling on his shirt, we got ready for a mud bath.  The elephants like to stay cool in the afternoons, so their mahouts led them to the mud pit where we had the chance to get in the pit and help the elephants spread mud all over their bodies.  It was so messy and there were snakes in the water, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my trip so far!

After the mud bath it was time for a real bath!!  We followed the elephants as they made their way to a nearby river on their own.  They had so much fun rolling around in the water as we splashed them to help get the mud off every inch of their wrinkly skin.  There were even a few times where they sprayed water from their trunks! Of course this turned into a big water fight between me, the other visitors, and the mahouts.  

The experience of seeing these beautiful creatures interact with nature around them, as they are intended to, was the experience of a lifetime.  To add even more to the experience, the people who lived in the village were Karen immigrants from Burma!  Karen people are, of course, near and dear to my heart since that is the ethic group Sunday comes from.  I  was able to show off some of the Karen phrases Sunday has taught me over the years.  The villagers were amazed that I knew phrases from their language.  One woman literally did a double take when I said thank you in her language.  They even taught me a new word, which sounds like ‘go cha’.  It, of course, means elephant.

Thailand has been a truly magical place so far.  I love it here.  Tomorrow I head to what is known as the Golden Triangle - a point where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet.  It will be the closest I get to Burma until next summer when I visit, hopefully :)

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