Tuesday 1 January 2019 will always be a memorable day. After a few days of unseasonal rain in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on a lovely sunny day, with a group of 21 other foreign visitors, I headed to an elephant sanctuary. It’s only a 40 minute drive from the city centre to this lush and green, even though its winter, Thai farm with hundreds of birds disturbing the silence. When I first saw the elephants my immediate thought was how small they were. I am used to seeing the African elephants which are much bigger than the Asian ones. They do seem a lot less frightening though.
On arrival we were given tops and pants to wear over our bathing suits. These lovey brightly coloured outfits had the added advantage that when everyone looks the same, the group dynamics change too and straight away there was a very jovial group interacting with each other and the elephants as if we had all known each other for a long time. We were given shoulder bags of the same fabric as the tops and told to fill them with bananas and then we were walking towards the elephants. The guide showed us how to hold the bananas so that the elephant does not take your hand and your camera along with the bananas. They just love these treats and are so picky. They will take the bananas from you, hold it for a moment and decide its not sweet enough, or not to her liking, and just drop it on the ground and ask for another. The guide says they will later pick up those and eat them (because elephants are always hungry) but they will go for the best ones first. This was followed by sugarcane. While the big girls are eating and the visitors are feeding them, I found it so delightful to just rub that inch thick skin. The older elephants have auburn-coloured hair that is very coarse while the younger ones have more black and softer hair. Looking into those eyes is so special, making me feel so small but also privileged that this great elephant has chosen to interact with me, to grant me a moment in her life.
The mahouts just call a command and all the elephants react. It was time to follow them to the river for a drink. They gracefully waded into the river and drank water by putting it into their mouths using their trunks. The youngest one was the first to decide its a good time for a shower and a mud bath.
Then it was our turn to have lunch and after lunch we made the elephants “disgusting balls” as one of the children in the group described it. Using cooked rice, we mashed bananas, tamarind fruit and some supplements into it and made tennis ball sized balls. We fed these to the elephants by putting it directly into their mouths and that gave one a chance to feel that big soft tongue. It is not gross but you do get a lot of spittle on your hands and I even had to wash my camera after this event.
When we were all, humans and elephants, properly sticky and feeling dirty we all headed back to the river. The elephants were told to lie down, the humans were given a bucket and brush each and we stared giving those huge bodies a Turkish bath. I was washing the elephant second in the row and was standing on the back-side (opposite of belly-side) of the elephant and having a great time. The way she was flapping her ears was a telling sign that she was enjoying it too. I then became aware of the elephant behind me standing up out of the water and as I turned to look I saw her take a step back and I felt worried that I was going to get caught between two big bodies so I moved around to the head of the one still lying down. I scrubbed her trunk and forehead and moved over to her ear. This was when it happened. In an attempt to find a comfortable place to stand in the thigh deep brown water to reach her ear and the back of her head, I stumbled against something under the water. As I stepped onto it I realised I’m standing on the elephant’s front foot. She did not seem to mind but I got off very quickly.
After this we were given towels and shown to the showers. This was followed by some refreshments while the visitors who now were like old friends exchanged email addresses and promises to share photos. Then we said our goodbyes and were taken back to the concrete jungle.
It was a wonderful happy day. I feel blessed and I know its is a privilege to have had this experience. And here comes the but…
The website and brochures of the sanctuary I visited said the elephants are rescues but there is a 4-year old one and currently a pregnant one. They have not been rescued, they were and will be born in captivity and be domesticated. Should that be allowed to happen? I did ask the question but was never given a straight answer.
I have read that Thailand does not have a lot of “wild open spaces” left where herds of elephants can roam free. They also have a poaching problem so I can understand that these sanctuaries are the next best home for the elephants. And I suppose while there are tourists with money and “I must touch an elephant before I die” on the bucket list, these sanctuaries are here to stay. At the least they provide a safe home with food for the elephants and create jobs for the local people. At the sanctuary where I was I counted 16 staff members, and that is just the ones I saw. I’m sure behind the scenes there are a few more doing the washing, sewing, buying, maintenance and farming.
There are many more issues around this topic one could raise and debate for hours. All I can wish for is that everyone who visits these sanctuaries should do their research and support the ones that are treating the elephants humanely and running their business ethically.