"When we got out for a minute to stretch our legs I suddenly froze. I saw a huge female elephant eating grass. I stared straight into her eyes, and suddenly I didn't care about a thing in the world. "
I have loved elephants all my life. That’s why over this Christmas holiday I got the best present of all. I got to go to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to see elephants. My family and I spent time at three different elephant sanctuaries. In my next three blogs I will tell you about each of them so if you decide to go to Thailand you will know where you would like to go. I have also included links to their websites in case you would like to know more or make a donation. (I will continue my series of blogs about dogs in Vietnam after I finish my elephant series.)
After a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride from Malaysia, where we spent Christmas, we arrived in Chiang Mai. Even at the immigration counter, I could tell that the people here liked elephants. There was a big poster telling people not to buy ivory, and there were statues and paintings of elephants everywhere. We went outside the airport, and for me it was like heaven. Everywhere I looked statues or something that looked like an elephant looked right back at me. We grabbed a taxi, which in Thailand is called a “tuk-tuk.” A tuk-tuk is a sort of half motorcycle, half car, where the driver sits in the motorcycle front and two or three passengers sit at the back in a covered cabin. It was the coolest taxi ride ever. They drove us right to our hotel, which, with no surprise, had lots of elephant stuff around it.
The first sanctuary we visited was the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, a government-run project that trains and looks after elephants of all ages. My whole family stayed there for three nights. The second was the Patara Elephant Farm, where only my mom and I went. At Patara you get to be an elephant caregiver for a day, and look after and bond with the elephant you are assigned. This is a farm mostly focused on breeding their elephants and raising the population. The last sanctuary is probably the best known out of the three of these. It’s called the Elephant Nature Park. They have rescued abused and hurt elephants and given them a safe place where they can heal and relax. Here we mainly just watched the elephants, and could not be too active with them because some of them had very sad pasts. Today I will tell you about my adventures with the elephants of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center.
The next day after breakfast, we went out to look at some Thai temples. There were more elephant monuments than I’ve ever seen in my life. In Thai culture elephants are very important. It is believed that the Buddha's mom dreamt of a white elephant when she was pregnant with the Buddha, which was a good omen. Also, apparently elephants helped to build the cities of Thailand. They are creatures of good luck and prosperity. There was one monument that was dedicated to elephants. All around the perimeter were statues of elephants. I spent about 45 minutes sitting sketching it.
Then finally the day came. We got a big taxi and headed off to Lampang, to stay for three days at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. We drove for about one hour. But once we reached the center, our taxi driver accidentally drove us to the elephant hospital instead of the center’s resort where we were staying. When we got out for a minute to stretch our legs I suddenly froze. I saw a huge female elephant eating grass. I stared straight into her eyes, and suddenly I didn't care about a thing in the world. I was just amazed. I didn’t want to leave, but we got back in the taxi. Then our taxi driver got lost again, and we ended up at the top of a steep hill. My mom my sister, and I decided to walk down the hill so the taxi could turn around more easily. But once the taxi driver got down the hill he just drove away with my dad and forgot to pick us up at the bottom of the hill. So the three of us ended up walking 1 ½ km to the resort, but I’m glad we did. On the way we passed by the elephant nursery. Four big wooden pens stood in a row, each with a mother elephant and her baby. Each of them had lots of open space and a big thatched section for shelter and shade. There was a bamboo stand in the middle of the four pens where the mahouts (elephant trainers) hung out. They were selling baskets of food for people to feed the elephants. I wanted to feed the elephants immediately, but my mom said we needed to check in at the resort first. But even on the walk on the concrete road we saw elephants in the forest roaming free down by the riverside. It was heaven.
We found the resort, which was just a few simple wooden cabins on a small hill. We walked down to the nursery about half an hour later. For the next three days, I would spend most of my time at the elephant nursery, but the Elephant Conservation Center has various other attractions. One of the things they have is their mahout training course. There are 1-, 2-, 3-, 10-, and 30-day trainings. You get to be the mahout, sleep in the mahout village, and take care of your elephant. Next year I will return and do the course with my mom. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center also has a hospital just for the elephants. It is Thailand’s first and only elephant hospital, so if an elephant in another park is hurt or sickened, they get to go there. Feeding elephants is very difficult, so the park has made a plantation center where they grow all the elephant food. But even that whole garden could not feed all the elephants, so they buy fruits and veggies for the elephants. One day when I was there I saw a huge truck, all full of bananas. There must have been over a ton! And that was just for the eight elephants in the nursery! Outside the resort was a small elephant herb garden, used to make medicine for the elephants I suppose.
There is a visitor center about a kilometer from where we were, where most people go. There you can do much more touristy stuff. I preferred the gentle peace and quiet of the nursery than the noisy sounds of people. At the center the most popular attraction is the elephant show. The elephants demonstrate logging techniques, paint pictures, make music, and display agility. This is how the center makes most of its money so they can afford to keep the elephants. But we didn’t really like the idea of the show, so we did not go and see it. At the center you can also take an elephant ride on a traditional saddle called a “howdah” in English and a yaeng in Thai. We did not do this either, because we didn’t like the thought of the elephants having to carry the heavy howdah, which might hurt their back, feet, and tail
One thing I found very fun at the visitor center was watching the elephants bathe with their mahouts. The elephants would spray themselves with water, and go under water, only sticking their trucks above. One of the elephants looked like he was especially having a good time, swinging his head up and down in the water and splashing it all over himself. The mahouts were quite agile. They could stand on the elephants’ submerged bodies without getting wet above their ankles. And when it was time to get out, some of the elephants who did not enjoy bath time ran out and shook their bodies, while the others tried to stay in, and would even spray their backs with water after they got out. After the all the elephants left and visitors were gone, a man on a little raft came with a net and scooped up all the elephant poo from the water.
As I said earlier, I spent most of my time at the elephant nursery, where all the moms and babies lived in their wooden pens. I would wake up every morning, go down to the nursery and be with the elephants, feed them, draw them, and talk to them. I got to know the mahouts and met the dogs that hung around the pens. Balloon was a very cute, chubby lab-beagle mix who belonged to one of the mahouts. He did not mind the elephants at all. He would walk into the pens and play with the babies.
The first pen had a mom and her baby, Wassana and Malini. Compared to the other elephants Wassana was a small mother. She was only about 7 feet tall, and she was very dusty. Her baby named Malini was a sweet elephant. She was 1 year and 11 months, the same age as most of the other babies, but she really bonded with us, especially with my mom and me. Malini would reach her trunk out through her pen and kiss my mom’s hand.
The second pen contained another mom and a two-year-old baby, Poompuang and Khai Wan. Poompuang had a very interesting past. She has had two daughters, two sons, one stepdaughter, and right now is looking after her stepson, Khai Wan. Khai Wan was by far the most greedy of all the elephants when it came to food. Of course, when I walked by the elephants with any kind of food they all looked over at me, but Khai Wan would stop his mom from getting any food just to feed himself. He would try to climb up over the pen so could grab the food first. None of the elephants ever got full, especially one time when we gave them sunflower seeds. That was these elephants’ favorite food.
The third pen also contained another mom and baby, Poun and Poun San. Poun was often swaying back and forth, an elephant’s sign of distress, because she had an eye infection. Apparently she had thrown a lot of dirt in her eye, which was causing it be very runny, and she appeared to be crying. I stayed next to her every day and talked to her to help her feel better. I petted her right on the forehead, even though she got lots of elephant snot on my leg. She was a sweet old elephant. Her daughter, Poun San, loved food too, but she was very feisty. One time I was feeding her food, but there was nothing left in the basket. To make sure, she pulled the basket away from me. And she was really strong! She was only two years old and she was already stronger than my dad. She grabbed the basket away from me and when she realized there was no food inside, she crushed the basket with her foot. Her mahout had to run into the pen and take the basket away from her.
The next elephant did the same thing, but she was fully grown and did not succeed in pulling it away from me. Her name was Boon Mi. She was a huge mother elephant, but like Poompuang she was an adoptive mother. She was looking after a two-and-a half-month-old baby elephant named Sri Kham.
Sri Kham was born in the wild the middle of October, and her mom died about two months later from snakebite. We saw her about ten days after her mom died. Sri Kham was not
allowed to be fed by visitors because she was so young and was very sensitive after losing her mother. Elephant babies stay with their mothers for at least three years, and if an infant loses its mother, it’s not likely it will live for a week. If it does, it is very lucky. Boon Mi was very loving and protective, and the mahouts were constantly playing with Sri Kham and trying to cheer her up. I could tell she loved the mahouts. All of the elephants did. The mahouts were family to them, and they did everything together. The mahouts hugged, kissed, and loved the elephants like their own children. After a few days we could see that Sri Kham was very happy. This was good because I could draw pictures all of the elephants being happy. See the slideshow below.
Each of these eight elephants loved food, but some of them were very picky. For starters, the two-month-old only drank milk. The formula was made by the mahouts, since her adoptive mother couldn’t produce enough milk. Most of the elephants loved sugar cane, because it’s like a candy for them. When they bite down on the cane, it makes a huge crunching sound. But because the younger elephants have small or no teeth, it’s hard for them to chew, although greedy Khai Wan loved it. He put the sugar cane under his feet to break off the husk, then sucked the sweet gooey inside. Khai Wan’s mom hated corn, because whenever I handed it to her she threw it on the ground. Khai Wan would then reach his trunk out to grab the discarded corn. He is the greediest elephant I’ve ever met. One time in an attempt to get some food, he stuck his head out though the fence. We thought he was stuck, but his mahout said he did it all the time. When he finally got his head out, it was about ten minutes before he did it again.
We even spent New Year’s Eve with the elephants. We came down at 11:50 p.m. from our cabin and watched the elephants sleeping. Elephants sleep for four hours, from 11 pm to 3 am. While we were walking by, three of the dogs started barking and then came running to greet us. We ended up waking up Poompuang. As the clock turned to 12:01, we whispered “happy new year,” waved bye to Poompuang, and went back to our cabin.
On the last day we were there, I gave them one of these elephants their favorite food, sunflower seeds. I asked the mahouts how much these elephants eat, and they said 590 pounds of vegetation a day. They drink 50 gallons a day, and the mahouts give the water in a really cool way. The elephant holds its trunk out and the mahout turns on the hose. Then they pour the water down the elephant’s nostrils, and wait for the elephant to bring its trunk to their mouth and spray. It’s so cool! The mahouts let me do it myself, and when the elephant sprayed the water in its mouth the water sprayed everywhere, including on me.
It was finally the day for us to leave the elephants. We only left at 2 o’clock on January 1st, so I had some time to be with the elephants. I bought all the elephants some food, and I especially spent a lot of time with Malini and Wassana. Usually visitors aren’t allowed to go under the rope surrounding the elephant pens, but that day the mahouts let me go in so I could play with the elephants. I got to give Malini and Wassana big hugs, quench their thirst, and spray them with water. Wassana loved being scratched being her big, big ears. She leaned over to the fence to give me a type of nuzzle. I had to pull my hand away or not it would have been squashed between an elephant and the fence. I spent lots of time brushing dirt, rocks, and hay off of Malini’s back. She loved to put all these things on her back, but she loved it even more when it came off. It was sad when I had to say goodbye, but I was happy that there is such a place where the elephants were so happy. And I also knew would get to go to two more elephant sanctuaries. I will tell you about my other two adventures next time. But for now, ciao!