Lorna and Kev's slightly extended holiday
I wanted to do a separate entry for our day visiting the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary mostly due to it probably being the most interesting and emotional day of my life so far, and i expect to gush a little, you have been warned! We had put a lot of thought into which elephant sanctuary we wanted to go to, that might sound like a strange thing but there are so many not just in Chiang Mai but all over Thailand, not all share the same values. We chose the Elephant Nature Park about 60km outside the city. It is run as a sanctuary not as an entertainment park as many of them are, no riding or animals chained up until needed here. By chance they have an office at the end of our soi that took us a good few days to notice. It became pretty obvious that it wasn't just elephants they look after as their office has almost a dozen dogs (most asleep on the sofa's, 3 of which were the cutest puppies i've ever seen) and a good few cats two were even in quarantine saved from the floods in the back office. At 2500 baht (£50) it wasn't cheap, not by backpacker standards anyway but worth it we felt. Just so you can understand the perspective i'm writing this from, anyone who knows me knows i'm an animal person and yes i admit to caring more for some animals welfare than most people so you can see how this is a big deal for not just me but for both of us, i'm might be rubbing off a little on Kev. Anyway a few facts, not easy ones i'm afraid. The elephant is the national animal of Thailand and there are many Thai's who believe they are sacred and need to be respected unfortunately that is not always the case. Elephants have been used for manual work and more recently logging for many years throughout Thailand and Burma. As these practices became more commercial and even illegal elephants and their mahouts either resorted to begging on the busy city streets, causing obvious stress and harm to these gentle giants as they're feet and trunks are very sensitive to vibrations, with all the traffic and hundreds of people it inevitably causes sensory overload and serious damage especially to the babies who were are most often used. The alternative is even worse, illegal logging is a big problem in parts of Thailand and more so in Burma, and these owners are not the caring type, working the elephants in the most unbearable ways with some horrific injuries, many purposely inflicted to make handling 'easier' i can't even bring myself to write specifics down. However, some of the lucky ones are found by Lek. She has made it her life's work to adopt as many elephants as she is able and has built a wonderful home for them. We were picked up just after 8am for the 90min ride to the park. I might point out at this point that Kev being the sharing type felt i needed to experience his cold, breathing is over rated anyway. The bubbly girl with the clipboard called Mee (cue rush hour 3 jokes, anyone who has listened to kev for 5 minutes will understand his Mee / Yu obsession. don't think i have ever seen him happier) was to be our guide for the day. During the ride we were shown a tape made by National Geographic about 5 years ago about the elephants of Chiang Mai and Lek's work, within 15 minutes i was sobbing, not pleasant or discrete with a cold! As we started through the windy jungle roads you get glimpses of some of the other elephant parks in the area even passing some on the road, a sure sign that we were nearly there. We were both getting pretty giddy it was the first time either of us has been somewhere like this and didn't quite know what to expect. Pulling into the camp we drove along side the herd with the baby elephants playing and running around the way only a 2 ton baby can! We stopped a little way in to say hello to the black asian bear snoozing in the tree, and couldn't help wonder how that branch was holding his furry weight. Finally we all piled out of the mini bus and into the raised seating area with open walls and a small wooden barrier. After going through the do's and don'ts we were suddenly greeted by our first elephant 2 ft away reaching out its trunk hoping for something yummy. Grinning like idiots all i could manage was 'look it's an elephant!!!', i know idiot right. Mee asked us all to follow and with complete surprise headed down on to the field as more elephants started passing us arriving ready for a snack. We obediently followed into a bamboo hut set out like huge horse stables and were given further instructions on how best to feed. As the elephants are so intelligent you have to almost treat them like a person, don't let them steal from each other as they will try, and end up squabbling, and keep the food coming as they are easily bored, showing them the basket once empty as they have a habit of running off with it. Our group were feeding a small family herd auntie, mum, and baby. We were amazed at how gentle their huge trunks were as they adjusted the food to suit them. Baby struggled a little with this, deciding it was much more fun to be cheeky and run out to play causing two mahouts to chase him, which for him was even more fun eventually hiding behind mum when he realised that he had to stay put for his lunch. Back on the deck two more herds had arrived. A group of three they had nick named 'Charlies Angels' as it was the only all female adult group were happily munching through huge baskets of pumpkin, pineapple, and watermelon. Each elephant has it's own basket that it knows and is full of its favourite foods. After all that feeding we were starving, huge lines of buffet food appeared to feed us and all the volunteer workers that were living there. Suitably stuffed with yummy food we heading up to a high walkway to get a better view of the park. The setting was beautiful, nestled into a valley with a river flowing round the outskirts i couldn't imagine a more stunning place. We got chance to catch up with Laura and Gavin as they were in a different group, they were enjoying it just as much as we were. Eventually we made our way down to the river to do the traditional chuck water on them and hope they are in the mood, ours wasn't particularly but a branch of banana's kept him happy enough to stand there for a while. After the snacks ran dry for the ones in the river some of the elephants that still enjoyed a bit of performing were around to entertain. One of the babies had previously been taught that a kiss got her a banana so more that happy to oblige one by one people posed for a sloppy banana flavoured kiss. After the bath came the inevitable recovering with mud. They had made a giant mudpit for the herd to use, they all waited around until each member was present 4 adults including the largest and oldest lady who kept watch over the rest, and a pair of twin babies. At first they were reluctant to get muddy so soon, but once the twins were having fun pushing each other around they joined it. We have some video's but they take forever to put on here that we will wait until we get back. For the last hour or two of the day there is a video that most people sat and watched, me and Laura decided to skip it as we hear there are some not so lovely scenes in it. Can not tell you how lucky that decision was. Standing on the long balcony watching the the elephants roaming around we saw a small lady accompanied by a friend carrying a puppy looking very sorry for its self (to be fair i'd have the same look if i had a bucket on my head and my leg in plaster too, turned out he'd been hit by a car and the lady was nursing him back to health... awwww). The guide we were talking to said that the small lady was Lek the owner. Suddenly noticing everyone else on the balcony descending towards her Laura shoved me down the stairs whispering 'quick follow them!!' Slightly unsure but hopeful something would come out of power walking over a soggy field in flip flops we followed the small group past the hut buildings making our way out to the open area. Until this point i was unaware you could be snuck up upon by an elephant but that was exactly what happened. I'm not sure what it was either her voice or scent or maybe they just knew she was there, all the elephants from every direction just flocked to Lek. First to make it was one of the babies, his ears flapped and his tail swished in excitement curling his trunk round her neck. She took a seat on the floor underneath him and rubbed his belly just a the rest of the herd arrived. Within minutes we were completely surrounded, Lek asked everyone to sit down with her and Laura very bravely stood behind me while one of the smaller females came to investigate, being speechless is not something that happens often to me but just then i could couldn't think of a single word to say. After they all getting to say hello to someone they clearly adored we walked them down to a larger part of the river where they had a proper bath throwing water around and rolling over with their mahouts joining in the fun. After an amazing hour we were covered in mud and grinning from ear to ear we wandered back to the main building to find kev and gav, who it turned out had fallen asleep watching the video. None of us wanted to leave but as always these things have to end, feeling very jealous of the people that got to do this every day.