Anybody who knows me, would be well versed with my love of elephants. I am a massive supporter of Elephant Nature Park based in Chiang Mai and Mr Wombat and I have had numerous visits there, both together and separately. We first visited the sanctuary about 9 years ago and it has been wonderful to watch as the Park grows bigger and more successful every year. The founder, Lek Chalert is inspirational and ENP has become a juggernaut in the area of elephant rescue, rehabilitation and support.
However, I digress, as I have decided to support another fledgling operation based in Chiang Rai. CR is about 3 hours north of CM and not normally associated with elephant conservation but more with treks and rafting. On our first day in CR, we wandered past the newly opened office of Elephant Valley and after reading the blurb outside, I decided go in and find out what the Park was all about.
After hearing that this park had ties with the well known and respected Mondulkari Elephant Foundation in Cambodia, I was willing to change my plans and visit the 6 rescued elephants that now call Elephant Valley home.
The morning dawned brightly and it was easy to see that the humidity was going to be high, so I packed accordingly- hat, water, good shoes, camera and a ton of mosquito repellent. I know the drill- lush tropical forest, rain, heat = dengue fever.
I applied enough sunscreen and repellent to knock out a horse, bid Mr Wombat farewell and climbed aboard the ute that was to take me out of the city and to the park. The only other person in the ute was a nice, young German girl, whose name escapes me. Just the 2 of us, woo! hoo! I thought, plenty of elephant interaction time.
I was surprised, that within 20 minutes of being picked up, the ute had pulled off the highway and was heading along a rural track, it seemed so close to the city. We arrived at the most beautiful property I had ever seen! The level of work, money and commitment that had been poured into this place was amazing. We jumped out of the back of the ute, (well, the German girl jumped out, whilst I did a twisty turn of some sort, landing unceremoniously on the ground in front of our hosts). They greeted us both warmly, introductions were made and coffee was the first thing on the agenda. Sweet! We chatted with the 2 female team members and they ran through the order of the day, the safety rules, the company ethos and principles of the organisation as well as the history and future they have planned.
Tea, coffee and water was continually provided all day, so with a litre bottle of water in hand, we began our walk around the park. I have forgotten how many hectares, but it is a lot, especially when you are walking it. We wandered along and out of the blue, elephants would appear, taking us by complete surprise. There is a 10 metre rule, this is the distance we must keep from the elephants, as they wander around living their lives.
Let me tell you, there were PLENTY of times when the 10 metre rule didn't apply, particularly when an elephant would quietly wander up the track behind us! There were the 6 elephants, their 6 individual mahouts and the 4 of us, watching and taking it all in. There were so many photo ops, and the staff were constantly monitoring and adjusting our movements by watching the behaviour of the elephants. They could tell immediately if there was a problem, just by looking at the eyes and ears of the elephants.
We spent 2 hours in the forested areas, discussing, learning and enjoying this special time. We observed the elephants being bathed by their mahouts as well as physical checks, including teeth and feet. The only time visitors are allowed to touch the elephants, is during feeding time, where we fed 5 females and 1 male elephant, a never ending supply of bananas. As there was only the two of us, we were fortunate to have kilos of bananas to ourselves and all the elephants as well. There is normally 14 people on this trip, so bananas and elephants would be shared. We spent about 40 minutes feeding, touching, stroking and yes, whispering!! I told them how lucky they were to have been rescued from a life of hardship and cruelty, and this new life would be amazing. There is something so special about looking deep into the eyes of a rescued, captive elephant. They are so highly intelligent and very knowing. I let them wind their trunks around my upper body and soon the bananas were eaten and it was time for our lunch.
We wandered back to the eating area where we enjoyed a delicious lunch of locally prepared dishes. Spicy pork, sticky rice, omelette, fried rice, and tropical fruits, so much food we couldn't eat it all. To the person who thought they could hide tofu in my meal, guess what? I found it! I hate tofu!
My new found German friend and I chatted during lunch, discussed politics, world events, travel, food and boyfriends. ( I pretended to know a lot about boy friends. ) Suddenly she jumped up and announced that she had only paid for a half day visit, whilst I had paid for the full day visit. She grabbed her bag, said goodbye and was gone, leaving me there by myself.
I had offered to spend some time in the afternoon volunteering for the park, no, not cutting bamboo as was first proposed! Seriously, look at me, I am too old to work outside in 98% humidity and add to that my overwhelming fear of King Cobra snakes. No bamboo cutting for this little black duck! That's why God invented backpackers! They have no fear and love doing this stuff.
I settled to work painting timber signs for the park, signs for toilets, bunkhouse, mess hall etc. They wanted a bright and funky look for each sign, so after putting in a disclaimer that I possibly lacked imagination for brightness and funkiness, I got to work using the limited supplies and poor working area. Thais are proficient at squatting for long periods of time, they sized up the situation and offered me a small, low stool which I gratefully accepted.
I was working on a toilet sign when I looked up to see three gorgeous elephants, right near me. They were quietly chewing bamboo, their long eyelashes fluttering as they stood and watched me. I won't forget that image, it was so special. We stopped for more water and a break, then the team asked if I would like to take a last walk around the property and watch the elephants being bathed and settled for the evening. We did just that and I was grateful for the transparency and honesty that the team demonstrated, in the long conversations we had about not using bullhooks, the training and expectations of their mahouts, housing and shelters (yet to be built), and a myriad of other things.
It was time to say goodbye and the whole team escorted me to the car, where I was invited to sit in the cab and not in the back, which was really nice. We exchanged contact details and off I went, back to the city and a well deserved foot massage with Mr Wombat. I was very happy to have supported a new player in the competitive world of elephant sanctuaries and I wish them every success. To the gentle giants of Asia, I will be back again,
Love The Elephant Whisperer.........