With bunches of bananas in hand, we walked slowly up the hill through the trees and into a clearing. It was there I encountered my first elephant, up close and personal. There were three of them actually, happily chomping away at the sugar cane that littered the ground around them. The group we came with jumped in without hesitation joining in with the mahouts to feed the three large creatures now turning their attention to the bananas offered. I stopped at the edge of the clearing and watched for a moment. I wanted to take it all in, this incredibly odd and surreal experience. It was somehow nothing like I’d expected and at the same time, more. Perhaps I expected a larger than life, life-altering experience when what I actually got was a calm and peaceful sense of being, in that moment, complete. I had finally found my elephants.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
We spent the night before our trip to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary at Baan Kuhn hostel, also run by Mamma Noi and where we had to go to purchase tickets to the sanctuary. As we had mentioned in our last post on The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, it was through the efforts of Mamma Noi and the Karen Hill Tribe, with whom she is working, that the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was established and we thought it fitting that we stay, at least the one night, at the hostel.
The group of us heading to the elephant sanctuary were all guests of the hostel which meant we left straight from the accommodation with no detours to pick anyone up. With a final goodbye, and a bottle of water for each of us from Mama Noi, we set off in the “minibus”. If you’ve ever ridden in a minibus in Thailand you’ll know that it is really more of a pickup with a few seats in the cab and a covered trailer lined with rows of benches on either side. It can make for a bumpy ride if you are going over unpaved roads…and we were definitely were! Fortunately for us, we somehow got put into the cab and had a little less of a rocky ride – less being the operative word.
The ride was not bad until we hit the mountains. It was here that the road turned to a narrow, rut-covered, dirt road – it would be futile to pave the road, our driver told us, as the monsoon season brings large rains that flood and cause landslides that wash out the roads each year. Lucky for us, the road was dry and our driver was experienced. We made our way to the hill tribe village and were greeted by several people, including Robert, one of the instrumental people in organizing and creating this sanctuary.
Hopping out of the truck, we all grabbed our backpacks as the bunches of bananas and cases of water were distributed among us to carry. The excitement was building. We could feel it vibrating, see it clearly on each others’ faces as we started out, on foot, through the rice fields and forest.
Meeting With Elephants of Thailand
We chose The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary because we had wanted to visit elephants in a more natural setting, knowing they were not being abused, forced to take riders, chained, or mistreated. We wanted to see the elephants roaming free. And roaming free these elephants certainly were!
After a hike through rice paddy fields and some hilly paths, we found our way to a clearing where we were able to put down our bags and take a moment to don the traditionally mahout garb before heading to find the elephants. That was the beauty of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. The elephants weren’t just brought to you… you had to go find them, in the forest, where they roamed with the mahouts (their keepers) in as natural a setting as was manageable.
We took the bunches of bananas and were led up a hill to a forested area where we were told we would most likely find the elephants. After a short climb up a gentle hill, the trees gave way to a small clearing. It was here that we had our first glimpse of them. Three elephants stood chewing happily on sugarcane under the shade of the tall trees. A bursting energy seemed to erupt from the entire group – a silent excitement that bubbled up in uncontrollable smiles and quickened steps. THIS was why we wanted to visit Thailand. This experience of coming face to face with a creature so magnificent and incredible, of looking into its intelligent eyes with depths we’ll never fully understand, and for one moment sharing a connection.
Taking turns, we handed bananas over to the two adult females and one baby elephant, taking time to stroke their trunks and sides. The baby was incredibly playful. Head butting the mahouts and some of the group, reaching its trunk around bodies and attempting to sneak in some extra bananas. He was cheeky and he was happy. Having been born and raised in a sanctuary, he was unaware of any other way of life. Unfortunately, for the two older females, life had been harder for them until they were taken in by the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
One of the men of the village explained to us the circumstances in which the older two were found. He went through the techniques used to break them, to train them and to keep them in line. It was devastating but also heartwarming to know that they would no longer be subjected to this treatment again, especially as the younger of the two females was pregnant.
It didn’t take long for the elephants to demolish the banana offering we brought and decide that it was time to leave. Since this was about them, no effort was made to stop them. Instead, they were followed by the mahouts and we made our way back down to where we had left our bags to enjoy some lunch.
Food in Thailand is amazing and is one of our favourite cuisines. The food that they cooked and served for lunch could compete for one of the best meals we’ve had while in Thailand, and even abroad. Freshly prepared chicken, veggies and noodle dishes, rice and fresh fruits were laid out for the entire group to enjoy. It was a wonderful time to reflect on our first meeting with the elephants as well and to get to know the rest of the group.
After lunch we were told we could change into clothes we didn’t mind getting dirty or wet. For the majority of us, that meant bathing suits. This time, the elephants were led to us for what appeared to be one of their favourite activities of the day – a mud bath.
With everyone joining in, we helped the elephants play in the mud. And when we say play, we mean play. They rolled around, they threw it on their backs, they threw it at each other… and they threw it at us! If it wasn’t enjoyment, we don’t know what it was!
Following the incredibly fun (and messy) mud spa, we headed to the nearby stream to meet back up with the elephants and help them bathe. This was another incredible up-close experience. Standing close to them and cleaning off the mud, we had yet another chance to really appreciate these animals. Large and powerful, yet gentle and timid. We knew a lot of their calm had to do with their upbringing and treatment, but seeing the playfulness of the baby and looking into all their eyes again, we could tell it’s also a part of their basic nature.
After the elephants were finished bathing and we’d all had a swim of our own in the stream, we headed back to dry off. The rest of the group would be returning to the hostel, while we had booked an overnight stay with the hill tribe. Knowing we’d be seeing the elephants again, we happily went on our way to learn more about the people who opened their lands to us and the elephants.
A Night With The Karen Hill Tribe
As we had mentioned in our last post, it is through the help and efforts of the Karen Hill Tribe Village and Mamma Noi that the sanctuary was created. Bringing in tourists to visit the elephants for the day became only one part of the experience. Staying within the village for a night, or two, was another part and we decided to stay a night to better understand the program and the people of the village.
After the rest of the group left, we were brought back to the main part of the village by Robert who, as mentioned, was one of the integral members of the sanctuary’s creation and a cornerstone of the program itself. We sat for a while, chatting with him about the village and its history, the sanctuary and its origins and the hopes his people have for the future.
We learned of the struggles to keep the land. The struggles to acclimate to a changing cultural landscape where development and advancement occurs around them and without them. The government, he said, provided them with a handful of solar power panels… years ago. Most of them are now no longer working so they are stuck with even more limited power options and little by way of means to improve their way of life.
It’s become a controversial topic. We discussed it and he acknowledged it. Greater society would prefer to keep these more isolated and primitive cultures untouched, “untainted” by the hands of tourism and technology. But Robert told us, that’s not what he and his family want. The people of his village believe they deserve a chance to advance as well. Why shouldn’t they be able to better themselves and their situation, he asked us. We couldn’t argue his point.
With this in mind, and the connection to Mamma Noi with her desire to help elephants, the sanctuary and the stay in his village was born. Hoping to provide more for the village and the elephants of the country, it was established and open up to tourists. Hopefully, we were told, the worries of poor rice harvests and the necessity to partake in backbreaking work simply to produce and collect food, would lessen.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with Robert and members of his family. We took a tour of the area, helped feed the livestock, prepared a meal on an open fire and made our way to our room in one of Robert’s siblings’ houses who was visiting in-laws in a another village. We spent the day and evening without electricity, cut off from the world and, in the process, deepened our understanding of a culture struggling to retain their identity while at the same time, attempting to advance and integrate with the rest of society.
The next day brought a new group of visitors to the sanctuary and we were able to participate as we had the day before. We woke up for breakfast with Robert and headed to meet the new arrivals. Walking behind them, we watched their faces as they approached the elephants for the first time and saw the same awe-filled expressions we knew were wore the previous day. To our surprise, the awe of seeing the elephants up close was still as strong for us.
This time though, we got to take in the experience with an eye to all that they were looking to achieve at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and this time, when we looked into the eyes of the elephants, we also saw a glimmer of recognition.
An Unforgettable Experience At The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
If you are looking to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, tickets for 1-, 2- and 3-day visits can be purchased at Baan Kuhn Hostel in Chiang Mai – 119/10 Thapae Rd, Chang Klan, Chiang Mai, 50100 tel: 053-273415. More information for visits or volunteering can be found on their site at www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com.
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