Second in line for tourist activities, after Janet and I’s cooking class, was a trip to an elephant sanctuary. It was another early wake-up to get picked up by a van full of other tourists. I heard Janet in my ear, and I let out a groggy moan. But then I remembered: today was the elephant sanctuary!
The ride was another long drive outside of the city, to a nature reserve park for elephants who had suffered horrible lives before coming to the sanctuary. Some were rescued from logging or forced labor, others were blind or disabled due to their bad treatment, and others were even used for begging on the streets before being taken to the sanctuary.
During the ride, we learned about how to be careful around elephants, and how not to scare them. All the elephants had suffered at the hands of humans, and would have the right to be slightly afraid around people.
When we arrived, we got to change into clothes they had for us, clothes that they said we could get dirty in. Apparently the time with the elephants would involve mud.
After that we and our group began the walk down to the hill to where the elephants would be waiting for us. The elephants were only told where to go when they had to go to the places where they sleep, or when they were with people like us. Other times the elephants could wander wherever they pleased, but they needed a person to make sure they did not venture onto property that belonged to the neighbors.
We stood there, and around the bend came four female elephants. African elephants are on average slightly bigger, and have much bigger ears. These were Asian elephants. They are on average slightly smaller and have smaller ears, but they were still magnificent. There was a baby, only about three years old, then one that was five years old, then one that was probably about fourteen, then the big mama, thirty seven years old. I looked into their round eyes and across their thick, leathery skins and I saw elephants who had been abused in ways that animals should not be abused. But I also saw hope. Even though the elephants (those four weren’t the only ones on the property, they were only the ones we met today) held scars and marks from their past lives, I could see that the sanctuary had given them a new life, one of happiness. I thought the elephants more than deserved it.
It was brunch for the elephants. The elephants always had room for food. There was a big bucket full of bananas and sugar cane. You would hold it out, put it in the end of their trunks, and they took it up to their mouths to eat it. There was no end to it. After all the bananas and sugar cane, there was a big pile of stiff, long grass. We fed them that too.
During the feeding, I could almost see each elephant’s personality. I did not think of elephants as intelligent or gentle until that day. All those directions about how not to get injured around an elephant were unnecessary. The elephants didn’t even get close to hurting any of us, and after a couple of minutes, I felt much more comfortable. They were so intelligent and precise about how they moved their trunks.
“I feel like they could perform surgery with their trunks.”
They would nimbly grab the grass from your hands, even if you weren’t deliberately giving it to them. When you weren’t looking, they would try to get more food from your hands. I could see why they would have to eat so many fruits and veggies to power their massive bodies.
One elephant was very picky about how she would accept food. She would eagerly stretch out her trunk for the sugar cane that you were holding, and when you gave it to her, she would toss it on the ground. She would only eat bananas. And when you gave her the grass, she would break off the hard stem and eat the soft grass on the end.
The biggest elephant, aged thirty seven (elephants live about as long as humans), did not like it when you gave her one banana. To her it was like giving her one grain of rice at a time. She wanted a spoonful! She would eat like 8 bananas at a time.
It was funner than I thought, hanging around with elephants.
After brunch for the elephants, we proceeded to take a walk with them, feeding them on the way. One pooped, and that reminded me of the elephant poopoo paper that Jasper and Kieran had made at Jai Thep (read Jasper’s post; Jai Thep!). The sun was hammering down on us like a sledgehammer, and I’m sure the elephants didn’t like it either. We walked down to the river that ran through the park. The second my feet touched the water, my whole body felt cooler. The elephants came in after us. We grabbed some buckets and splashed the cool water over their backs. They looked so happy.
After the walk and spending time with the elephants, it was time for lunch. The sanctuary supplied a vegetarian buffet for us, and we sat out on a porch, looking down into the reserve. I kind of wanted to be the elephants.
With the hot sun and all the mosquitoes, the elephants like the mud. After lunch, we walked over to a huge mud pit and let the elephants roll around. It was like their sunscreen and bug spray all rolled into one. They said that we could get in there with the elephants, and help smear mud across their bodies. Earlier when we were just watching the elephants get messy in the mud, occasionally mud would fly from one of the elephant’s trunks and slightly splatter us with mud. I could see why they made us change out of our clothes. Big thirty-seven-year-old elephant even got some good butt scratches on the rim of the area.
I decided that I could take a shower when I got back to Chiang Mai, and that I probably wouldn’t be able to do this again. I took off my shoes and took a step forward. My foot sank shin-deep into the mud. As my foot descended, I could see the mud coming out from in between my toes, and then my right foot was submerged. I kept walking through the mud until I reached the elephants. Most of the people got in, though some of the others just didn’t want to get dirty. I picked up a big glob of mud with my hand and gently smeared it across an elephant’s cheek. It was a messy job.
After the elephants were covered in mud, they retired to the river to get washed off. Everybody grabbed little containers, filled them with water from the river, and splashed it over the elephants. They looked so happy. Rolling in the cool water, sometimes going half underwater. We all stood in the water, cleaning the elephants. I was half soaked through with water myself by the time the job was over. The elephants went back over to the place where we had fed them the first time and were of course ready to eat more. We fed them more. They looked like such happy elephants.
That was the first time I had ever touched an elephant, and I loved being around them. It was another special day.
Below: Feeding Elephants
Below: Elephant Mud Bath
Below: Washing off after Mud Bath
Below: Elephant Pictures