We flew out of Cambodia and into the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai via Bangkok. It was immediately evident from the Bangkok airport that Thailand is the most Westernized of the countries we have been in yet. Some people have criticized Thailand as being too open to foreigners, and it is a little surreal at times... Bangkok airport looked like it could have been Heathrow, and we had to resist stopping in the Dunkin' Donuts!
After this brief glimpse into the industrialized world, we headed in the opposite direction while we volunteered under more rustic conditions for a week at Elephant Nature Park (or ENP, www.elephantnaturepark.org), a sanctuary for Asiatic elephants about 60 km outside of Chiang Mai. The elephants at ENP were rescued from a variety of abusive situations.
It was a fantastic experience even though the day-to-day life initially may not sound so exciting. The morning chores mostly revolved around elephant upkeep like preparing their food, and of course, picking up poo! Afternoon chores and other jobs involved taking care of the park itself like weeding and planting... hmmm, that sounds an awful lot like what I would be doing anyway this time of the year. In the process, we managed to pick up mad machete skills cutting grass (looked exactly like maize, just as tall, but without the ears... and very satisfying to take down) as well as learn more about tropical agriculture with jobs like preparing and planting sugarcane cuttings. We also spent one morning at the local school, doing a horrible job trying to get Thai kids to practice their English.
Of course, our favorite part of the whole ENP experience was getting up close and personal with the elephants. Every day it was a whole lot of fun getting into the river and bathing the elephants in the morning and afternoon! Feeding was also twice daily, and we "got" an elephant to present to the day visitors during these times. Our elephant was Lilly, who was rescued from a family who worked her day and night by feeding her speed. It took Lek (the founder) almost 2 years to wean her off the amphetamines. Lek was just as amazing as her reputation, too... we saw her sing lullabies to the baby elephant while sitting underneath it, care for orphaned birds that needed feeding every fifteen minutes, and even cook lunch for over 50 people!
The real stars were the baby elephants... every time. Faa Mai (the girl) and Chang Yim (the boy) are about a year old and painfully cute. Despite most of the elephants being unrelated, they have re-formed family groups. Volunteer contact with the families with the little ones was limited (since the herd gets very protective, and even the babies weigh over 300 kg). However, we did get to feed the babies a couple of times and helped prepare their mud bath with a citronella and lemongrass solution (night time bug spray).
Our last afternoon we spent trekking to Elephant Haven, where Lek originally started rescuing elephants is more jungle than the open plain of ENP. The way was very steep, but the elephant family we were taking up there (Jungle Boy's) stopped to eat every 10 feet or so, making it a pretty easy stroll. Most of the way there the last elephant in the line had a flatulence problem, and we all found it challenging to not erupt into giggles every time it let one rip! The human overnight accommodation at Elephant Haven itself was stripped down with termites doing their fair share on the meager platforms. At night, the mahouts treated us to their version of STOMP!, playing songs using PVC pipe flutes, a trash can drum, and the best - a tambourine of kitchen utensils in a plastic laundry basket. Their odd repertoire included a couple of Christmas Carols and Auld Lang Syne, which funnily enough, we also heard randomly at a concert in Vietnam. In the morning, we had to look for the elephants, who were allowed to roam in the night, and Rich and I learned a mahout trick to call to them by making a firecracker sound with your hand and a leaf. We also were given monk robes to tie onto trees, which would protect them from being cut down by illegal loggers since most Thais would respect the Buddhist blessing.
The stay at ENP was educational and fun, and doing manual labor for a good cause was refreshing. It really gave us food for thought, making us consider the use of elephants in industries, including elephant trekking, use in entertainment shows, and logging operations. This was especially poignant knowing the elephants we helped take care of came from these situations.