Playlist of the day: Elephant Stone by the Stone Roses, Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, Elephant by Tame Impala and Nellie the Elephant by erm, I don’t know, google it. Listening to all four songs in this order is compulsory.
Today we have washed elephants, taken a mudbath with elephants, fed elephants, almost been trampled by elephants, and I have been slapped by an elephant.
We got up early but still ended up being very late for our complimentary breakfast. I was still eating when we legged it down the street to hop aboard the minibus. Try saying “Sa-wa-dee-krahp” to your Thai guides with a mouthful of ham and egg on toast – it actually helped with my pronunciation.
Our guide was a lady called Khi, which she explained was Thai for “egg”. Of all of the gracious, welcoming Thais we’ve met on our journey so far she was easily the warmest. We were in a party of nine tourists on our minibus, and she wrote all of our names on our wrists in Thai so that we can all be addressed appropriately by the various staff at the Elephant Retirement Park. She then passed round an insurance form register, explaining “So we have your details incase elephant crush you” Nice one Khi, you certainly have a way with words.
We drove about an hour into the countryside to the Elephant Retirement Park. We did a lot of research before booking this tour because we wanted to ensure the elephants we met were being looked after properly. Almost all working elephants are kept in chains when not performing the tasks that their human masters expect of them, and should they step out of line their mahouts (elephant keepers) will jab them with an elephant hook. To inflict the amount of pain required to keep an elephant obedient requires a pretty brutal weapon. Our other concern was that we did not want to go to an elephant sanctuary that allows the riding of elephants. In order for an elephant to be considered “tame” enough to be ridden, it is placed in a tiny cage when it is a baby and beaten repeatedly, in a process called “breaking the animal’s spirit”. By writing all that I have above I don’t mean to pass judgement on anybody that has rode an elephant – it’s only through planning such a long trip that we’ve come across all of this information on how the animals are kept. I have no doubt that holidaymakers will come on a fortnight’s holiday to Thailand and other neighbouring countries with the dream of riding an elephant, and go through the whole experience without having a clue about the reality of what happens behind closed doors. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to inform progress, and the death of a Scottish father and severe injury to his daughter in Koh Samui was a shocking reminder of the power that these wild creatures have if they choose not to follow the rules that we have imposed upon them.
I think the last paragraph was a bit heavy, like a wildlife charity advert that you’d see on the telly over Christmas. Those adverts always end on a positive note though, to reel you in to spending your money on helping them, and I intend to do the same. The Elephant Retirement Park has currently rescued five elephants from various labour camps where they have been mistreated in the past. They are an independent park owned by elephant lovers. For fifty quid a pop, you can go and spend the day with the elephants and have an intimate experience with these gentle giants. All the money goes back into rescuing more elephants and building the park up. Once these elephants have been in captivity for a prolonged period they can’t be rehabilitated into the wild, or else they’d be shot by farmers or perhaps even picked off by tigers within weeks. I’ve tried not to plug anywhere specific in this blog so far, but this place is well worth a mention because what they’re doing here is an amazing thing. For the good your money does, you can have a once in a lifetime experience. Now that I’ve done my “celebrity endorsement” bit, I’ll get on with it.
Our first activity was to feed a 45-year old lady elephant, whose name I can’t recall. Pity I’m not an elephant, because they wouldn’t forget – ha! see what I did there? I’d expected bamboo bars seperating us from the animal, perhaps the odd brush on the shoulder from it’s trunk. When we got down there, she was just stood there, ears flapping in the morning sun as nine of us picked up pieces of sugarcane and whole bananas. She politely wrapped her trunk around each of the food items we offered her, and chewed thoughtfully on them whilst allowing us to pat her and feel her skin. Elephant’s skin is – as you imagine – tough, but not tough enough to be described as armour. It has a slight give to it which reveals that although they are one of the mightiest creatures to walk our planet, they are still intensely vulnerable. To the touch I’d describe it as like hard, wrinkled leather with hairs a few inches long all over it that feel slightly softer than the bristles on a yard brush. Hollie describes it as like that hard fabric that they use to make bouncy castles, only with slightly less air beneath it so that you could prod and it would give way to your finger. After around ten minutes of indulging our polite table manners, she tired of the game and bypassed the middle-man by shoving her trunk in the wheelbarrow of food and unceremoniously scooping whole bunches of bananas and multiple chunks of sugarcane into her gob at the same time.
Suitably impressed by this experience we were led by the guides to visit the other three elephants who were in huge bamboo sheds, each one the size of a cow barn. We felt lucky to have been able to meet one elephant without bars and chains seperating us from the animal. Looking at the largest of the lot, a big girl pacing up and down in her cage in what seemed a rather menacing manner, we felt sure that the “touchy-feely” bit of the tour was over. The next thing we know, they’re releasing this bloody behemoth to roam as she pleases! Another young girl was released and we found ourselves in a large field, with three specimens of the largest creature that currently walks the land, and nothing inbetween us whatsoever. I’ve described to you before how much of a coward I am readers, but I think you’ll be able to relate to me when I say that deep down, above the utter elation of what was happening, I was quietly shitting myself.
After feeding all of the elephants we made our way up the hill to the stilted bamboo houses that operate as the headquarters of the camp. We sat on mats and attempted to emulate the eating habits of our elephantine friends by eating a beautiful Thai buffet. We sat in the shade for about an hour and played with a litter of kittens that one of the camp’s cats had recently had, before descending back down the hill for bathtime.
At this stage I need to mention the fifth elephant in the camp – a baby called Lanna, which means “Million rice fields” and was the name of one of the orginal ancient Thai kingdoms. Unlike Hollie I don’t usually get all caught up in the emotion of petting baby animals, but a baby elephant is different. She was a beautiful, playful young scamp, who dashed around the camp getting under the feet of her elders, attempting to eat anything she could wrap her trunk around and creeping up behind her mahout to try and knock him off his feet. She was nine months old and already the about the size of a large upended wardrobe. She grabbed a plastic bottle off me and attempted to eat it before giving up and charging headfirst into a bucket of bananas, which she sought to tip into a large muddy pool.
We stood and attempted to keep a safe distance as the mahouts rolled car tires into the paths of the elephants, who in one deft movement picked them up with their trunks and flung them into the air with an effortlessness which made me wince. They all seemed to enjoy the feeling of picking clods of dirt up with their trunks and covering their backs with them. Hollie and I were stood admiring Lanna when we were politely asked to step aside by one of the mahouts. We turned around to see two of them trotting towards us with no intention of changing course. When an elephant wants to be where you’re standing you move, quickly. The group crowded round and watched two of the adults (one of whom is the Mother of Lanna), and Lanna herself lean onto their front legs, then slide awkwardly down the embankment into a pool of muddy water. Wearing tatty old clothes that the park provided us, we jumped in the water with them and using plastic bowls we covered the animals in water, which turned into a bit of a free-for-all waterfight. Following this we followed the elephants into a swamp of sludge. It smelt rancid but was actually surprisingly pleasant on the skin, which was convenient because we all ended up caked in it. The group proceeded to crowd round the elephant and slap mud all over it, which is apparently good for their skin. This part made us particularly nervous because the mud came up to my knee and Hollie’s thigh, meaning that if the elephant decided to roll over we’d find it difficult to take evasive action.
After the caking process was complete we took the elephants back into the pool of water to clean them off, and then stood as a group with one of the elephants as the staff took our photographs. It was at this point that I was stood at the back (as I usually am for group photos), trying to take up a prime position by the elephant. I was unceremoniously clouted as she wafted the mosquitoes away from her ear – a surreal experience that I could only liken to somebody soaking a leather jacket and then slapping you in the face with it. If you can be taken out by an elephant’s ear, imagine what the rest of it could do to you. One final treat was to watch one of the mahouts jump in a large bath of water, quickly followed by Lanna who could easily have crushed him had she sat directly on top of him. They shared a hug and we patted various elephants on the head in farewell before showering and being driven back to Chiang Mai.
That’s all I’ve got for you tonight – I don’t think anything else I can describe could top that. Apologies for the essay but I have to say that today has been one of the best experiences of my life. We’ve been priveledged enough to walk the same earth as these amazing creatures and share a level of intimacy with them which you couldn’t get in many other places in the world. I’d have paid a million quid for today’s experience and if we’d flown all the way to Thailand just to do this and get straight back on the plane, it would have been worth it.
You won’t be hearing from us now for a couple of days – we’re off to visit a hilltribe in the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai tomorrow.
Hope you’re well, whoever you are and whatever you’re up to.
Tommy and Hollie x