After reading Jodi Picot’s Leaving Time, I think of elephant sanctuaries as enormous and magical. They become the mythical place that I would not dream of visiting, except that I did go.
Ian and I were traveling northern Thailand with our friend Win, whose hometown is Phitsanulok. Since he’sa local, and we’re pretty laid back, we just let ourselves be led around for a week. One day, Win rolled his car past a gate guarded by elephant statues, into a massive forested land and I found myself connecting the dots with anticipation and imagination.
The area was vast, with signposts pointing all directions. We had to stop a few times to ask for the way to the homestay, and made a detour down an elephant-only mud path, before eventually arriving at our first destination. Ian and I got a big house on stilts surrounded by wooden fences. The interior was simple, spacious and clean. A visible note on the wall warned us not to leave the room at night. No reason was given but I guess it was the elephant in the room.
Nothing scary happened that night other than a billion of flying ants managed to get through the insect net into the room. Once we turned the light out, they stopped flying into our faces and I drifted into a peaceful sleep.
The next morning, we woke up, popped out and saw a small elephant strolling past. It was just like that. He walked by the block of houses as if they also grew in the forest. I was in awe.
After breakfast, Win took us to a roofed area right next to the homestay. There we could just turn our heads and see a few gigantic elephants. It still surprises me how we didn’t hear or see them the day before. A few minutes later, ten elephants came to us. Some of them carried a mahout as well as a foreigner in trainee uniform.
For a good hour after that, it was all about the show. The elephant came in very close so that tourists could fed them and stroke their trunks. Their extra limb was so powerful and amazingly skilful. I saw an elephant use it to pick up each sunflower seed, probably one-millionth its size.
Having eaten, the elephants were led into the nearby pond for a bath. Apparently, they took their real bath about an hour earlier, and the second one was to entertain us. It was indeed entertaining, though somewhat concerning. Ten massive animals played in a small pond, splattering water and making riotous sound. Still on their back, the trainers and trainees looked small and vulnerable.
Once they were done with the bathing performance, elephants got into a line and paraded through the “village”. The biggest and eldest came first, and the smaller and younger ones followed. Each held the tail of the one walking in front with their trunk, just like they do in the wild. The difference was a drumming noise coming from the front of the line, created by two which were holding the drum and onebanging it with a stick.
The parade ended at a stadium with hundreds of seats. Taking up only a few rows at the front, ourgroup sat watching elephants doing tricks. They could bow in three ways, paint abstractly or drag along really heavy stuff. I found it most impressive when a two ton elephant balanced himself with all four huge legs on a tree trunk. He was heavy but he’s definitely flexible on the feet.
After the show, the elephants came close to the fence surrounding the stadium so tourists could feed them. My husband and I, armed with chunks of vegetables, approached the massive animals cautiously. Their greedy trunks reached out continuously but never in an aggressive manner. They often took more than they could chew and stored the food by the tusks. When baskets of the tourists were empty, mahouts led the elephants out of the stage. I stood there looking at the way their bums swayed left and right, and realised the very bum could be the inspiration for one of the paintings the elephants made.
After the show, Win retreated back to the homestay kitchen, while Ian and I went out to catch a free shuttle and explored the area. Only then we realised how big the sanctuary was. It’s like a gated community with a hospital, a nursery, and a school. All for elephants.
The hospital was more like a car garage, full of heavy lifting equipment. The staff there treated the sick elephants that they rescued. We saw one with severe injuries on both legs. Two hospital workers, each half the size of its leg tried to calm the poor thing down while they washed its wound. Not far away, a defeated elephant stood still bearing a drip on his head, while a younger one tried to get out of its chain regardless of his skin infection.
It’s an unsettling feeling to see such a symbol of strength made so vulnerable. I could not help thinking of the people capable of harming them. Were they malicious logging gangs, illegal traffickers or circus owners with a short temper and long stretching whips? Whichever world the elephants used to live in, I am glad they are no longer there.
The sanctuary we visited also offers rides on elephant’s back, a practice that comes only after the spirit of an elephant has been broken through brutal ways. Performances like painting or bowing to let people on their back are similarly controversial.
However, they seem to care for the elephants at the hospital of the sanctuary. And they have a nursery. I hope the young ones will be able to wander the green surrounding freely when they grow up, no saddles and no fun riders - the same hope I have for the children of the future.
Logistics - The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre
- How to get there: Km 28-29 Lampang-Chiang Mai Highway (40mins- 1h drive from Chiang Mai)
- Where to stay: Homestay inside the centre cost ~500THB.
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