Oliver is…

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man

…never going to forget this week

And neither will those whom he spent it with, seeing as they’re incapable of such a task.

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My past week has been elephantastic. Just north of Chiang Mai is a wonderful, wonderful place called the Elephant Nature Park. It’s a sanctuary started out by Sangduen Chailert, a Thai woman nicknamed Lek, to help elephants who have been mistreated, injured or abandoned — generally by people who try to teach them stupid tricks or force them into becoming working elephants (ie basically all of them). Lek has been called the Mother Teresa of animals and she’s basically completely incredible. This elephilanthropic woman is definitely this month’s most amazing person of all time (a title that’s easily comparable with Time Magazine crowning her ‘Asian Hero of the Year’ in 2005).

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This is my basic diary of my week. Some of the information may be a bit boring, but I don’t think any of it is irrelephant so I’ve left as much in as possible. They make it clear on the website that you’re going to be spending time working and not just lazing around looking at elephants (although there’s plenty of that involved). It’s also incredibly expensive by Thai standards, although worth every single baht. If you don’t want words, just go here for the pictures.

Fun elephant fact:
Elephants are pretty much silent when they walk and can creep up on you surprisingly easily

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Day 1
Arrived at Elephant Nature Park with my free T-shirt and water bottle in hand. We were told the basic rules and saw some elephants, unchained, just a few feet away from me – this was pretty incredible.

We were told that today was just an introduction day before the real work began, but we were allowed to do simple things like feed the elephants. I gave a couple of elephants some watermelon, hand to trunk, which they seemed to like, before my shoulder was mistaken for food by a blind elephant (Jokia, if you want to keep track) who grabbed at me hoping to find some watermelon. I found out the end of an elephant’s trunk is dirty. (Jokia was a logging elephant. According to the documentary we were shown, she was forced to work through her pregnancy and lost her child because of this. Grief stricken, she refused to work so her mahout fired a slingshot at one eye, rendering it useless. Angered by this loss of sight, Jokia understandably retaliated. Her mahout then stabbed her other eye.)

After that we waded in a river and threw buckets of water over some elephants to clean them. This is much more fun than a normal bath.

Bath time

We had our schedule for the week roughly explained to us, I spoke to some nice people, got another blessing and another piece of string for my wrist.

I generally spent the afternoon watching some elephants grazing – I can’t imagine getting bored of this any time soon. Then we watched a documentary on the place and got a chat from Lek telling us a bit about the history of the place.

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Fun elephant fact:
Their eyes see things much bigger than ours do and they’re generally wary of things that are quicker than them, hence their fear of mice (if that’s even true; they’re certainly uncomfortable around little yappy dogs)

Day 2
Everyone volunteering at the park this week was divided into three teams for morning chores, which would be rotated throughout our stay. My group started off cutting corn stalks for the elephants to eat. We got given machetes and told to go wild in a field. It was quite fun to start with but after a while, because we were in the blazing Thai sun, it got very tiring. We were told to wear long sleeves and trousers to protect ourselves from thorns and the like which didn’t help with the intense heat. And then the hard work began. All the corn that we’d slashed had to be carried back to the truck. I can’t remember being so sweaty or so tired after just a morning’s work. I think I have to do this once more this week. If we hadn’t been shown any elephants the day before I think we would’ve all been very suspicious at this point and on the verge of singing Black Betty.

And then carry it

On the way back we sat on top of the corn which was novel and I spoke to a woman who had been in Iraq for the last four years helping to make things peaceful. She sounds like a very interesting and knowledgable person, even as we were getting soaked by kids on the side of the road. I love Songkran, especially after my roasting corn field experience.

The afternoon’s task wasn’t quite so strenuous: we got a guided walk of the elephant park and up close with the pachyderms. There are 36 elephant residents here: 32 female and four male. There’s a baby of each gender who were born in the park and four of the elephants here are blind. Quite often the elephants will have best friends who they travel around with or they’ll join up to create makeshift families — something that rarely, if ever, happens in the wild. One of the sweetest sights was a perfectly healthy elephant in the medical centre just because her pal was feeling poorly at the time. Mae Perm, the oldest in the park, sticking by the blind Jokia to show her around the park was adorable too.

Mae Perm and Jokia

Then it was bath time again, so a few of us went in the river with the ellies and washed them down.

Given a talk by Antionette, who set up Bring The Elephant Home, and then we were given a little lesson in Thai culture and language, including a nice song and dance about elephants. In Thai, ‘elephant’ is ‘chang’.

Got woken up at about 1am by an incredibly loud peal of thunder and then watched the prettiest storm I’ve ever seen, with lightning flashing every two or three seconds.

Fun elephant fact:
The world’s strongest animal is a vegetarian

Day 3
Started off the day cleaning out the elephant shelters, shovelling dung. Elephant droppings are surprisingly odourless. (I discovered that Candians are much smarter than Americans and put the letter U in words such as ‘odour’ and ‘colour’.) After that I had to unload a few tonnes of pumpkin and watermelon before shovelling a load of sand to help raise an illephant to her feet.

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Went on another walk through the park and watched the elephants frollicking for a while. Hope, an 11-year-old bull, was particularly frisky, repeatedly mounting a 60-65-year-old woman, despite a nine-year-old openly flirting with him and trying to cockblock. Elephilandering at its best.

Spent lots of the day wetting people or getting wet because of Songkran. For the Thai New Year, because it’s so hot, people spend three days (or more) soaking each other.

We were told in the evening that we may be asked to watch Lily, the poorly elephant, in shifts during the night but this was later cancelled.

Fun elephant fact:
To find out if she’s able to conceive, Mr Elephant will put his trunk inside the private parts of Mrs Elephant (whom he loves very much) and then puts his trunk in his mouth where he has a gland that can detect if it’s worth the effort of trying to impregnate her

Day 4
Spent the morning preparing food for the elephants — pumpkins, watermelons and banana balls. Around lunch time I started to feel poorly so went for a lie down around 1pm. Apparently spending a day in cold, wet clothes isn’t a great idea. Who knew?

In the morning there was an elephant poo surprisingly close to my room. Elephants generally shouldn’t get that near. I also missed a massive dog fight, but later reports told me I there wasn’t much more than a lot of barking.

Fun elephant fact:
Yellow bananas are a natural aphrodisiac for an elephant

Day 5
Got up after 16 hours in bed, after some of the most delusional and paranoid dreams I’ve ever had, and joined the mucking out group. There was a bit of a sombre feeling by the last shelter as we could all see Lily lying nearby struggling badly. It’s humbling to see such a large and majestic animal looking so helpless.

Lily has a friend, Mae Khum Keow, who roams the park with her. I was told these two don’t get on well with the other elephants so they’re not sure how she’s going to cope without her BFF. The last time one of a pair like this died, the survivor spent three days (and nights) wandering the park trying to find her friend.

Helped clean out a building that was soon to be demolished and went for a nap to try to cure my man flu further.

Woke up to find out Lily had died.

Went to see the park’s resident sun bear and then to Lily’s funeral. I’d never been to a funeral before.

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In the evening there was a ceremony for the end of Songkran, which included around an hour of Thai chanting and ended with me getting a blessing and a third piece of string on my wrist.

Fun elephant fact:
Wild elephants have a life expectancy of around 80 years. Captive ones don’t live so long.

Day 6
Today was the eighth anniversary of the park’s opening so after morning chores (banana balls) things were a bit more relaxed. We got to watch a DVD of out time at the park (probably would’ve been better on the last day) and later on there was a ceremony, as it was also the first day of the new year, to honour Lek — the boss — for all work and for providing jobs for so many.

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Won the ultimate spoons championship.

Fun elephant fact:
An average elephant’s day  is spent something like this:
Typical elephant day

Day 7
One more morning of poo shovelling (for good luck) and then a bit of pottering about, hugging a few trunks and volunteers goodbye, until departure at 2pm. There was also a small gathering got Faa Mai to celebrate her second birthday

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Fun elephant fact:
You can tell roughly how old an elephant is just by examining its poo

This is the first time I’ve spent money to do work or volunteer for a non-profit organisation and I completely loved it. Mainly because there were elephants all over the place, but also because there were some very decent people doing the same thing as me. If you’re going to visit Thailand, or anywhere similar, and you want to see elephants, make sure you do it somewhere nice like this and not some horrific street begging or painting performance.

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6 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    One for the greatest hits! It has everything – love, poo and death.

    Unfortunately, I did more bad than good for animal exploitation in Thailand.

    I thought about helping out some turtles on the island I’m visiting, except I got here a day too late and will have to wait until next Monday to start, which seems a long time (and it’s a bit expensive too).

    Hey, I just had a restless night of totally delirious and paranoid dreams too. Clearly some kind of prophecy.

  2. Oliver says:

    Clearly! You’re getting into the spirit of things now!

    In case I didn’t make it clear enough, I totally recommend doing something like this. Almost all of the elephants at the park had been totally abused by humans — not just the ones that had been blinded, but we watched a documentary showing the standard practises for subduing an elephant for working/training and it was horrific. A few had been hit by cars which broke a leg or a back. One of them had stepped on a landmine and lost a lot of one of her feet. Even still, remembering all this poor treatment from humans, so many of them were happy to see us come in. Maybe they’re used to us being nice and helpful now, and maybe you wouldn’t get the same reaction or recognition from a turtle, but they seem to have no resentment towards mankind for how we treated them in the past.

  3. Dave says:

    I’m not sure I can be trusted not to bring in a vial of radioactive mutagen and pour it on the little suckers in the hope that they become teenage mutant ninjas.

  4. Jemma says:

    Ok i only got as far as the elephant being stabbed in the eyes. That makes me so fucking angry, I’d like to find the SEE YOU ENN TEE (horrible word but there is no other to describe someone who could act like that) who did that and stab him in the fucking eye and boot him in the fucking balls as well. 😡

    I’m going to go and read the rest.

  5. Jemma says:

    NOOOOOOOOOO THAT POOR ELEPHANT LOST IT’S BOMA! 😦 omg this is so sad!? I fucking love elephants! Do you think I could just move to Thailand and work with the elephants forever!?

    Also stop feeding Hope banana balls, that’s obviously why he’s shegging grannies!

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