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"The lasting revolution comes from deep change in ourselves."
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In the river at the Elephant Nature Park, Thailand
Amanda with Jokia
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Elephant Hug in Thailand
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Elephants | Elephant Journals | Jan. 13-17 | Jan. 18 | Jan. 19-20 | Jan. 21-22

The Elephant Journals

Thailand, January 2006

In January, 2006, I flew from the San Francisco International Airport to Tokyo, Japan, and then on to Bangkok, Thailand to meet up with my new friend, Amanda de Normanville. Amanda and her husband, Gary Soden, are the founders of All For Elephants. Amanda was to be my trusted guide into the world of elephants.

January 19, 2006: Elephant Nature Park

Amanda and I climbed gratefully into bed last night at 9:30 or 10:00, after a very long day. The mattresses were pretty hard, as if filled with straw or grass, but the blankets were warm. Outside, the wind kicked up and howled around our closed up hut. The bamboo creaked and the thatch rustled, but the wind went around. We were safe and snug. During the night the door blew open, but this was not really a problem. I was glad to be able to see dawn nearing, although there was no doubt anyway. There was such a cacophony of howling dogs, yowling cats and crowing roosters.

I got up just before sunrise at 6:45 a.m. and took my camera out with me to catch the first rays of light as they struck the silver hides of the elephants. The evening before, they had been chained to trees and as the sun rose they all quietly stood in its warmth. Some grew restless and pulled on their chains, stretching their trunks towards the grass just beyond the bare circle of their night habitat. However, none made any noise that I could hear. All the trees that had elephants chained to them were ringed of their bark and dead. I took a short walk to a trail that afforded me a good view of the hut in the morning light. I had to pass by one of the chained elephants who seemed restless. He came towards me until he reached the end of his chain. He stretched out his trunk in my direction and when I looked at him he lifted his chained foot and pointed at it with his trunk. I felt terrible that I could not unchain him. I think the mahouts should be required to unchain the elephants at the crack of dawn and only chain them back up when the sun is setting.

Mahout village at dawn

Once back at our hut, Amanda was waking as I headed up the spiral staircase that wound around the huge trunk of the tree our huts surrounded. The stairs led up and up to a circular platform from which I was able to get a 360 degree view of the Nature Park and river. Behind our hut was the mahout village where the  mahouts and their families lived. In between our hut and the village were three or four elephants drinking in the first rays of light. I clicked away, hoping to capture this quiet moment. Then, I descended the stairs and headed off to breakfast with Amanda.

Amanda in the river with the white elephant

Breakfast was two pieces of white bread toasted with butter (margarine) and jam and a cup of tea. A bit sparse, but that was OK with me. Remember, eat light and drink lots. It seemed to be working. I was feeling good. After breakfast, we basically lounged around until lunch. The routine of feeding the elephants and then ourselves was repeated. Only, today it was much calmer. There were no tourists and the mahouts did most of the feeding. After lunch we went down to the river again and I bathed Mae Perm, mostly. I did not take my camera this time, as I had been told there would be another evening swim. The light during the evening swim is better, so I figured I’d wait. Unfortunately, that second swim did not happen and elephants were on chains by late afternoon.

Jokia and Mae Perm

There were much fewer people for dinner and we all sat in small groups afterwards, talking until 9:00 p.m. or so. I had a very good talk with Karl, Michelle’s husband. Karl is Max’s mahout, which is an unusual circumstance. I am told most of the mahouts are Burmese and that the mahout job is considered fairly low on the totem pole. An Australian as a mahout is uncommon. I was able to tell Karl some of my observations of the mahouts and ask him questions regarding their vision surrounding the “hospital” on the premises. Right now it is just a huge cement structure with huts attached to the back of it. Mae Perm and Jokia like hanging out under the roof of the structure and a young renegade male elephant named Hope is chained near it. Karl mentioned the structure is slated for use as an infirmary for the elephants, but right now the attached huts are just being used by mahouts.

January 20, 2006: Elephant Nature Park

Our second night on the hard mattresses was a bit tougher for me, simply because my hips felt bruised from the hard contact with them the night before. The wind blew the door open again, and same as with the first morning I was glad for dawn. This time Amanda got up with me because we were planning on going on an “elephant walk”, which we were told was to be a walk with the elephants down the road to either go up the mountain a bit or down to the river. In either case, it was off the property. We went to have our sparse breakfast and then set out at 9:20 a.m. on our walk.

Morning elephant walk

When we got to the end of the driveway, there was a large herd of oxen being driven down the road by people riding motorbikes in the same direction we were going. There was some confusion as the mahouts asked the elephants to wait for the oxen procession to pass. More than one elephant was made nervous by the motorbikes, which distracted them and threatened the fragile hold their mahout’s verbal orders had over them. At the Elephant Nature Park, the mahouts are not allowed to carry the hook and appear to use only verbal commands. Near the tail end of the passing herd of oxen, the mahouts allowed the elephants to move forward. It was a surreal and sensual feast of elephants, oxen, dogs, motorbikes, farangs (foreigners), dust, bellows and squeaks.

Jokia’s, Amanda’s and a dog’s footprint

We eventually followed the oxen, who moved a little quicker than the slowly ambling elephants, to a sparse feeding area along the river. The valley grew lusher as we left the Nature Park behind, but the actual place where we turned the eles loose was pretty meager. I suspect the change of scenery is good for them, though. I took several pictures of Amanda with Jokia. At one point, on the way home, Amanda and I watched as Jokia left big, round foot prints in the soft dust on the road. Choosing a good one, Amanda took her sandle off and made a foot print next to Jokia’s.

Now, after several days spent superficially involved with the mahouts and their elephants, the mahouts stand uppermost in my mind. They are not comfortable without hooks. At the Elephant Nature Park the hooks have been taken from them and no real replacement given. This leaves them prone to falling back on the old ways. For example, I observed one of the mahouts down at the river when we went on our walk with the elephants. The young male elephant he was in charge of did not want to go back when it was time and began giving the mahout trouble. It got worse and worse until the mahout finally started punching the elephant with his fist. I really like the mahouts I have met, so I do not feel they want to do this. Yet, what else are they to do? I am not sure I know yet, but I do know they need a new focus, an alternative approach, if the use of the hook is restricted or prohibited.

Preparing to leave the Elephant Nature Park, I looked through the small gift shop and purchased a shirt for Eyla. Then, I made an entry into the Guest Book, emphasizing the skill Michelle demonstrated in providing an education for visitors. We said good-bye to everyone and climbed in a van that had arrived to drive us and one other visitor, who had come just for the day, back to Chaing Mai. As we left, the sun was setting over the distant mountains in the west. I felt a sense of relief at having managed my elephant experience and excitement at heading into yet another adventure.

Elephant Journals: January 21-22, 2006




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