I have several friends who have traveled to Thailand. When any of them found out that I was going to be heading to the north of Thailand, specifically Chiang Mai, a visit to a jungle sanctuary was always at the top of their lists.
Elephants are used (and sometimes misused) a lot in Thailand. In addition to being used for work, they’re often used for tourist activities like elephant rides. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many travel sites warn against riding elephants as many of the elephants used by these companies aren’t well taken care of. I am not well-versed enough in the specifics of elephant husbandry in southeast Asia to know whether the recommendations not to ride elephants are based in fact or are the overzealous shrieks of animal rights activists, but being an animal lover myself, I decided not to risk it. Instead, I opted to visit a sanctuary dedicated to providing elephants rescued from untenable situations a home for the remainder of their lives.
I’m not naive enough not to recognize that the elephants at these sanctuaries are being used to make money, much in the same way that they are if being ridden. Elephant sanctuaries are big business in this part of Thailand. One glance around my destination of choice, though, the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary paints a pretty idyllic picture for these giant creates. The massive space, an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai in the mountains, is an idyllic spot of land.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary came to pick us up in one of the common songthaews used in the area. As a solo-traveller, I was the odd-man out, so I sat in the cab of the truck with the driver while the rest of the passengers sat on benches in the covered bed.
About halfway toward the sanctuary, we stopped at a little travel plaza along the way for a bathroom break and for people to purchase refreshments. I had been feeling a bit rumbly in the tumbly for most of the morning, so I was glad we were getting to a restroom. Unfortunately for me, this was one of the restrooms where toilet paper was not included as part of the package, and I had left mine at home. Also unfortunate was my aim when using the cleaning hose. I somehow missed and sprayed water directly into my underwear. So, for the next couple of hours, I had to walk around gingerly so my wet underwear didn’t come into contact with my shorts. There’s nothing sexy about a 40-year-old man who looked like he had peed himself. My kingdom for some T.P.
Eventually, we got to the sanctuary after jouncing and bouncing along a tiny, windy, single-lane, rutted dirt road that wound first, up, and then down a mountain valley. The instant we opened the truck door, you could hear the distant trumpet of elephants. The location was stunning. It was a narrow mountain valley, lush and green, with a wide open valley floor separated into massive camps, in each of which lived a single elephant family consisting of anywhere from a few to a dozen different elephants.
We started the excursion in Camp 7, one of 9 camps at the sanctuary. We got a briefing from the guide, got a rough-woven poncho-shirt thing, and a handful of Thai Bananas and a pocket full of sugar cane pieces, and we were led down to the elephants. For the next couple of hours, we fed three different families of elephants. The first family got our bananas and chunks of sugar cane. The second family got corn stalks with ears of corn still on them. The third family was given bamboo.
Being so close to the elephants was a truly amazing experience. They’re huge, of course, but so gentle. I’m sure these elephants had become inured to being around people. Nevertheless, they were happy to eat from our hands or let us put food in their mouths. We could pet them, or even scratch behind their ears.
The first family had two baby elephants, which were adorable and spunky. They, apparently, like to play, and aren’t in full control of their physical faculties, so they could get a bit rough. But on our day, they were docile as newborn lambs. There was also one pregnant mother elephant that I was drawn to. She was one year into her two year gestation period, and kind of stood away from the rest of the crowd. That’s probably why I was drawn to her. I have a think with anti-social animals. (See also: Luke the Dog™.)
After feeding the elephants, the group went back to the camp pavilion where we ate a simple meal and relaxed for a bit. Then we spend a bit of time making “medicine balls” for elephants. These mucky, sticky concoctions are made from raw brown rice, banana, and tamarind, mashed with a giant mortar and pestle until thoroughly combined. Then they’re formed into snowball-sized portions and fed to the elephants to help with their digestion and…um…pooping.
Finally, the entire group changed into swimsuits and walked down to the pasture where a giant mud pit sat, warming in the sun. The elephants tromped their way into the mud, and we followed, taking handfuls of the thick, black muck and spreading it on the elephant’s wrinkled skin. A sort of sunscreen, if you will. They seemed to enjoy the spa treatment, and a couple of elephants even flung a bit of mud around onto us. As did the guides, who slathered mud on the palest of us (read: me) and even used the mud to draw abs on my decidedly non-six-pack stomach.
At last, we all filed away from the mud bath, single file, toward the river and waterfall. The elephants were lead by the guides down a path and through a small, cold river, and we followed, dodging elephant patties along the way. (Or in my case, accidentally NOT avoiding them…in bare feet.)
Eventually, we came to a slow, deep spot in the river, where a small waterfall cascaded over giant rocks and formed a pool at the bottom. There, the elephants charged into the cool water and really went to town. Most of them submerged themselves entirely while we splashed water on them with bowls and cleaned off the mud. Several loaded their trunks with water and sprayed it on themselves or us. We all splashed and laughed and played with the elephants, finishing up the experience with a group photo or two.
The entire experience was incredible. Dozens of elephants, all gentle giants, interacting with people so seamlessly. Clearly semi-domesticated, these were still impressive creatures—far more dextrous, agile, and tranquil than their massive size might suggest.
Eventually, our long day came to an end. We showered and changed, hiked back to our Songthaew, and rode back into town, all the while exclaiming at the insane driving style that seemed typical of Thailand. (Seriously. Most of the trip, the center line of the highway was under the middle of the car.)
I bid farewell to the gang in my songthaew when we got back to the resort, took a shower, and then walked over to the restaurant next door to the resort. It was a combination Indian/Thai restaurant, with an amazing outdoor balcony overlooking the giant, gardened courtyard below, and with a spectacular view of the lantern-filled sky. As I enjoyed a couple of fruity cocktails and my Indian food, I rather basked in the calm peace that can come only after a full day of activity followed by a superb meal.
Finally, exhausted and content, I walked back to the resort, watched a few episodes of Adam Ruins Everything, and went to bed.