Before we left for Chiang Mai, many people recommended a visit to Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescue elephants and rehabilitation center where you can volunteer and visit to help. The organization has rescued dozens of elephants from a life of logging, street abuse and land mine accidents. They now have a thriving elephant herd, many with very resilient personal histories and yet charming personalities.
We signed up to “pamper a pachyderm” for a day. We started the day feeding the elephants with watermelons, bananas, and sugarcane. Muoy, the leader of the herd, assigned me to take care of Happy, who is a loving and energetic lady in her 60′s. Her teeth are not so good anymore so the team trimmed watermelons down to only soft parts for her. You would never know her age from her appetite.
It was an unforgettable experience, getting to know the elephants, having the privilege to hear their stories, the tragedies they survived and the resilience they carry to this day. There was a baby elephant who was rescued from begging on the streets of Bangkok, the past owner withheld food until enough people gave him money. It was a traumatizing experience for him. Elephants use their feet to feel and see, the vibrations and chaos created by car traffic must have terrified him.
Another female elephant had stepped on a land mine, you can see it in her walk as one of her legs does not work and she falls behind in the herd. I observed her irrepressible spirit as she trekked on. A friend of mine quoted Graydon Carter, “we admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits: empathy, self-awareness, and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behavior,” that really resonated with me.
The park also provides a natural environment for elephants, dogs, cats, buffaloes and many other animals under their care.
After feeding, we walked the elephants across a river and up the hill where the park’s staff had cooked us a beautiful meal of delicious vegan Thai food. Then it was time to bathe the elephants, we filled buckets full of water and splash them with it while they gorged on more food (yes, elephants eat a lot!). It was incredibly fun to get wet and get the elephants wet. I felt like a child again running around in the monsoon rain of my childhood.
My favorite part of the experience was having the privilege to be testimony to the elephants’ past sufferings. As a former social worker and immigrant, bearing witness is a part of me. When I returned to the US, I was very motivated to tell the elephants’ stories so that there would be more awareness of the issue and thus more change to their condition. To my surprise and bewilderment, many people didn’t want to hear it because it was just “too traumatic”. I don’t often travel in web circles where trigger warnings are part of the conversational landscape, and I don’t think I believe in this mentality of swaddling oneself from real experiences around the globe. How can we change the world if we are not willing to get to know it?