(insert "life is a journey" cliché here)
Playing tourist in Chiang Mai, you can’t help but notice the large numbers of companies touting elephant encounters. After observing the larger African elephant while in – well, Africa – checking out their Indian cousins had appeal, yet I didn’t want to participate in tourism that treats elephants harshly. (Thanks to Intrepid Travel for bringing awareness to the plight of elephants and no longer offering riding on any of their trips) I researched numerous brochures and Trip Advisor, and the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary stood out from the crowd. They promised no riding, ethical eco-tourism, and the chance to help care for local elephants.
Bypassing muddy river beds where less fortunate elephants lurched along with tourists perched on their backs, our 4WD entered jungle and descended deeply to a secluded valley floor, where we all clattered onto a bamboo platform for a pre-encounter briefing. We were encouraged not to be afraid. Still, it was somewhat intimidating being down on the field holding bunches of bananas, with a group of six elephants heading enthusiastically in our direction, baby in front and Grandma bringing up the rear. Our Thai tour leaders yelling ‘Elephant, so cute!’ to help us overcome nerves.
We were to shout ‘Bon bon!’ which alerts the elephant to raise it trunk, allowing a person to place a single banana directly in its mouth. But exploratory trunks went straight to our hands and snaked behind our backs to find bunches hidden there. It was exciting and stimulating being surrounded by these huge creatures, and nervousness evaporated as it became clear that they were quiet and calm in temperament. We next fetched large bundles of leafy corn stalks, which the elephants got stuck into for quite some time. Fascinating to watch the dexterous trunk twisting and snapping stalks, wrapping leaves, conveying them to the mouth which was already packed with a wad of greenery.
After a Thai lunch on our platform, and a chance to chat while our Thai staffers had a short siesta, we were asked to don our swim wear, and to assist in making herbal ‘medicine balls’ (bananas mashed with a grain and other ingredients I’ve forgotten) for the elephants. Meanwhile, the creatures had been up a high embankment grazing on some leafage, as these big vegetarians have to eat so constantly. Now picture 15 people standing in a row in their togs, holding a sticky banana ball in each hand, while a family of elephants slips and slides down a bank then jogs over to take the offerings. A little nervousness had returned, I think!
After this, the elephants knew what time it was, with Grandma leading the way to the mud pools nearby. Here, three of the six lay down and let us slap thick grey mud onto their backs and heads, which is good for their skin. Frankly, it was hard to stay upright in the calf-deep mud, and the staffers took delight in smearing mud on our backs as well. But all good, as we were now going for a wash at the waterfall. Our large grey friends led the way.
It’s a sight that will stay with me. Clearly elephants love water, and this small but deep pool accommodated all six, as their combined bulk disappeared under the gush of the fall. Lolling around, they dived, slapped the water with their trunks, and reclined to let us scrub the mud off their backs with scrubbing brushes (while also washing ourselves off). Quite an experience, probably the best of my holiday. As one chap said to his wife as we slopped back to camp, “Well, that was something a bit different.”
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary’s six camps house elephants that have been bought or raised by the local Karen people to save them from a life of harsh training, painful riding chairs, and being chained up. The EJS elephants are free to roam in their family groups, but their owners feed them daily to keep them in the area and prevent them from entering the rice paddies nearby. The owners love their elephants – you can clearly hear this in the voice of the young men talking to us. They teach them basic commands for a natural daily routine, and have peaceful people-tolerant animals. It’s all part of a cycle that works: the Karen owners couldn’t afford the vast amount of bananas, foliage and corn needed each day, if it weren’t for tourist dollars. We pay to come and help look after them and fund the food and ethical mission of EJS.
It’s a misconception that such a large animal must surely be able to support a human’s weight without harm. Read ‘Why not to ride an elephant’ on this page to find out more. If you visit Thailand, please don’t ride elephants for your fun. Taking part in their welfare is a much better buzz.