Visiting Thailand’s Elephants Part 1

The popular tourism destination is Thailand! Good weather, nice people and this country is very familiar with the western tourist, so traveling around here is easy. The hardest part is getting here. So after a mind, leg, and butt-numbing, 20-hour flight… please, and aside…WHY CAN’T SOMEONE DESIGN A COMFORTABLE PLANE??? I mean really, couldn’t it be like a train with berths? or hammocks? Is it really necessary to cram us in like that? and what is up with this “class” system? I say, “Out with it and the rest of the kings, queens and dictators!”


I did arrive without incident. As I mentioned, this is one of the easiest places I have ever been for traveling – smooth as Thai silk. The people are lovely, patient and helpful. Of course they start off with double the price for everything, beginning with the taxis from the airport to the city. If you go downstairs in the airport you can get the metered taxis to town at about 300 Baht plus road tolls versus the 900 they try to get you for upstairs. My hotel, The Siam, is clean and quiet and the pool refreshing. It is near enough to the popular Th Khao San road where all the backpackers are but far enough to not be bothered by the noise and crowds. I thought the people would speak more English than they do since they have so many tourists but am happy with whatever I can get, of course, as I don’t speak any Thai and can completely butcher the simplest of languages – and this one is not simple. It is important to have your destination on paper in the Thai characters, not just in our letters.


I arrived in the afternoon and decided to stay up until the night so as to switch my body clock. I wandered around locally but this area is a backpacker haven and you see more foreigners than locals. The streets are full of food stalls, clothes, chinese junk and massage parlors. But everything is pretty clean and peaceful and no one hassles you too much. I was so tired I figured I would just sit around in the lobby of my hotel and drink the local beer, Chang, which I heard has inconsistent quality control, so you are never sure what percentage of alcohol you are getting. As always in these places you meet other travelers. I was fortunate to meet Claire, a feisty young Scottish girl fresh from working in Australia; big, buxom and brash. We determined of all the things to see and do here in Bangkok, the girley show was the most bizarrely interesting, since we had heard about the Thai sex shows. So we recruited Tom from Italy as our chaperon and self-proclaimed tour guide. We stopped at the Saum Lam night Bazaar, an enormous shopping area touted as the cheapest place and where “the locals shop.” There were mostly locals in fact, and the prices, as with everything here, are ridiculously cheap. Mostly it is just ordinary things like clothes and shoes and handbags. Not much in arts or crafts. But my companions shopped like mad for all the latest knock off fashions. (They are young and into all that). Me, I was just looking for meditation pillows.


We made a quick stop off at one of the gazillions of food stalls for some reasonably yummy, healthy 50 cent noodles/rice/strips of miscellaneous animal flesh, then off to the selected show! Now really folks, this place is about everything I hate in humanity, but I tried to go with an open mind and heart. The streets are lined with neon signs advertising each show. I have to admit that I appreciate unapologetic “sin”. Like ice hockey, which is just violent, period. If you don’t like it, leave. Or like the Republican party: open, honest, in your face greed, no glossing it over. Confronted with this blatant expression, people finds themselves questioning their self righteous judgment and try to figure out the other side. I had to see this, like a train wreck; I was just morbidly curious. As a nurse I was curious to see what these women could do with their bodies.


These places try to get you to pay more so you have to resist massages, lap dances, etc. We got in with drink included for a whopping $5. To describe this experience adequately would be too x rated to print: It is dark and smokey with black lights so everyones eyes and teeth glow eerily. There is a stage with what appear to be fifteen year old little girls in thongs, pasties and knee high black leather boots. They wriggle a bit around the silver poles and, as far as I could tell, were completely bored. They visit amongst themselves like teenage girls would do in the hallways of any high school. Then, they take turns doing various obscene stunts alone for the “show.” I wanted to laugh, cry and vomit all at the same time. The most noticable thing about the whole experience was the audience. There were a few couples, like us I’m sure, sickly curious. But then, there were all these men, even some Thai men, all rather homely, balding, with big guts and wedding rings… or drunk frat boy types… . It was all so utterly mesmerizing and yet… strangely… dull. And that was that. No big deal. And yawning, we waved cheerio, see ya later, thanks; came home and went to bed. Tomorrow, sight seeing to all the temples.
Day two in Bangkok was much more tame. Just the usual wats (temples), which are spectacular with lots of gold, tile, jade, monks and Buddhas. It was an auspicious day so all the monks were about doing prayers and what-not. Then we accidentally stumbled upon the long boats (colorful, thin wooden boats with enormously long engines) and bartered a good deal (500 Baht or $15US) to go through the back canals of the city. You have to pass through locks like a mini Panama Canal passage. The canals take you by all these fantastic little houses and temples and local folks going about their daily lives. Really pleasant. We also did the obligatory “amulet market” to pick up miniature Buddhas, beads and tiny jars with unidentifiable goo and bits in them; not sure what they’re for, but I loved the old lady selling them, and a wrinkly monk smoking cigarettes and listening to an iPod got involved in the sale. I think he didn’t want me to get ripped off, a whopping 25 cents.
We then went through horrendous rush hour traffic in a Tuk-Tuk (I really do suggest traveling around by AC metered taxi as to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning ,and they actually are cheaper (Tuk-tuks lose their novelty quickly in ninety degree weather) to the MBK shopping country. Yes that’s right, it seems as big as a country…
way overwhelming, but my Scottish companion Claire is a shopping machine. I did find some of those $5 cool cotton fisherman pants, a must for the hip backpacker. So now, the luggage seems ridiculously full, already. Another tip: be careful trying to get cabs at rush hour. They turn off their meters and charge whatever they want because of the terrible traffic jams.


I got lazy and didn’t take care of business regarding the next leg of my journey so I had to pay a bit more to fly to Chiang Mai. It is more expensive to fly on the weekends and most the hotels are full because of the flower show happening up there for three months! I lucked out and found something downtown for a reasonable price, but I
recommend booking in advance.


My last day in Bangkok I decided to try the famous Thai massage rather than the river market (which is supposed to be quite nice but I didn’t have time before my flight north), and I swear she said her name was “Ew”. Just a little wisp of a thing, who would have thought she could toss me all over the place! They use amazing body mechanics and just push/poke/pull harder if you groan. I took a taxi to the airport ,and ,I don’t know if I mentioned it, but the taxis are every color from pink, yellow, green, purple… Quite festive. And they drive on the left, which means I am always getting in on the wrong side. During my ride I made a few “notes to self” of things I noticed. For example, I never hear any traditional music, only English or Thai pop blasted everywhere. The food, oddly enough, has not impressed me but I think that is because, as all my eating companions know: I Hate Cilantro… And it is in EVERYTHING. And, what’s up with the 7-11’s? My gosh they are making a killing here! Seriously, they are on every corner, it’s weird. The cigarette packs have pictures of skulls, black lungs, rotted teeth, etc. Made me wonder.


It’s a quick trip to Chiang Mai so my first evening I did a tour of the Night Bazaar. In fact, my hotel was called “The Night Bazaar” as it is right smack in the middle of things. I was the only farang (meaning westerner – it is pronounced as “all wrong”, not as “gosh dang”). It was nothing special, this hotel, but clean and with AC. Breakfast was included; Wonder Bread white toast and Nescafe. The Bazaar was just so crowded I really couldn’t take much of it and most the stuff is all the same, row after row. Really, as a species we will simply be buried under all of our crap.
During the day I went to Wat Umong, a jungle temple. I lucked out and met a Thai English teacher who was volunteering with a program that has monks teach young kids about Buddhism. Everything I love wrapped up into one great experience. I got to see a few men get their heads and eyebrows shaved to join the monastery. It was a big deal with all the families there to celebrate. Then got to hang with the monks and kids for awhile, and with a translator taboot! She dropped me off at a place to catch sawngthaews (yeah, go ahead and try to pronounce
that one), which literally means “two boards”. They are trucks with two rows of seats in the back, definitely the cheapest transport. Again, tuk-tuks are the most expensive, believe it or not, and in Chiang Mai there are no metered taxis. Anyway, took one of these things up to Doi Sutep, a really amazingly beautiful temple up on top of a mountain overlooking the city of Chiang Mai. They have a program called “the International Buddhist Center” that offers retreats and training in English that I am considering. Kinda scares me I hate to admit… sitting still and quiet… I might just crack up and end up at the local mental hospital. Speaking of which,I have not seen even one schizophrenic on the streets! Where are all the crazy people? My English teacher friend assured me they have them. In fact she says she wants to study in the US how to teach hyperactive kids. I can’t believe it, the kids I have seen are all so well behaved. And, as you know, the boys all go to do training as a monk sometime in their youth. They can’t touch women by the way, the girls in the truck taxi all had to cram to one side so the monk boys could have their space. I realized I had accidently touched my old monk in Bangkok and that must be why he screamed. He probably has to come back again as a rat or something thanks to me. Well, finished the day walking down the Sunday market street. I have had my fill of markets already and am looking forward to going to the Elephant Nature Park.




Oh my gosh, indeed I could die right now a fully content woman… OK, only fully if I knew these amazing creatures would never again be abused, tortured or made to serve Man. I cannot even begin to describe this experience but I will humbly try: The Elephant Nature Park ( is about forty or so kilometers north of Chiang Mai in the middle of a valley with lush jungle and a river running through it. There are thatched huts for us volunteers (with a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net) and the permanent staff. It is rustic but not really rough. We have electricity, shared toilets, cold running water for showers (you don’t really need a hot one) and the most delicious food I’ve had yet in Thailand. There are twenty eight elephants, forty dogs, and probably twenty or so cats, three cows and maybe thirty people counting permanent staff. The elephants have been rescued by this amazing woman, Dr. Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert, the founder of the elephant park who has dedicated her life to saving them and trying to change the cruel practices of “taming” them called the pajang. This is where they take the baby away from its mother and starve and torture it. Lek also discourages people from riding the elephants, which actually elephants are not designed to do as it hurts their backs. And of course trying to get them out of the circuses doing demeaning tricks or begging on the streets. I will let you read about her and the park on your own because the history of both is just too much for me to go into here. What I can say is that this is one of the greatest experiences of my life. We actually feed and bathe the elephants! There we are right in the river with them! My Gosh! I was so blissed out I was nearly hysterical.
They are all around you, and you are splashing and scrubbing and they are letting you! The babies are just like ours, they just play and play and don’t want to come out of the water! Each elephant has it’s own painful story of how it ended up here… eyes poked out, foot blown up by a mine, mother shot for eating the crop, etc, etc… and these creatures, who never forget… have chosen to forgive and let us love on them. How blessed we are!

Needless to say, I am trying to stay another week. Lek came to the camp today and she heard I was a nurse and hopes I can come with her and a doctor to the villages to treat the local people. I also want to help the veterinarian and maybe even teach some mahouts (trainers), English. There is sooooo much to do! We need your help!
Today we planted half a field with grass shafts; soggy, muddy, scratchy work, but so rewarding because this will be food for the elephants. What Lek really needs is land, more land, and of course the money to buy it. Evidently this is the only place like this in Thailand so far. Hopefully this can become the new tourism. It is so much more fulfilling than a ride or a show.

Week two at the park and our group is preparing to leave on the “Jumbo Express,” eight hours in the back of a truck and one or two nights up in villages in the mountains to treat the people and their livestock and then do public relation visits to some schools. Lek is going so it should be a great opportunity to finally get to know her. We volunteers have been working our patooties off! Still, this is a truly amazing place. We went for an overnight trip to the mountains to get the elephants used to foraging like they would normally do in the wild. One of the big boys ran off and ransacked a village which we subsequently had to repair. The other morning one of the little babies decided a new game was to head-butt me and eat the flowers in the garden, then come up on the platform which I had dashed to for “safety”. It took three mahouts to get her out. So now we have had to change the fencing structure and the new issue will be that the other elephants have seen her get up on the platform and they want to try it too. I think they are plotting a take over. Some of us old timers got to change to nicer rooms. However, the showers are still freezing
cold, we wash our clothes by hand, and the “bamboo bounce” keeps you up at night (that is, whenever anyone walks by or turns over in bed, the whole structure sways). One of the bulls is in musthe, that is when they are ready to breed. You can tell because a fluid leaks out of their temples and runs down their cheeks. The males have to be chained during this time because they are so aggressive, so they bring one of the females over to him every day and we get to see “ele porn”. Actually, it is really beautiful to watch them nuzzling and loving on each other.

I’ve gotten to play nursey a few times with people falling or a mahout cutting himself or just plain getting depressed. The mahouts are generally from Burma and were living in refugee camps. They don’t speak Thai or English, but are reportedly better with elephants. For the most part they are all sweet and we try to teach English as they teach us. However, there are still bad ones, one guy got drunk and macheted his elephant… needless to say he is gone now. It will take a long time to change the centuries of thinking these creatures have no feelings. Really, they are so much better than we are; you should see the family groups and how they protect each other and the young.

Well, we arrived, again, to Chiang Mai. There are seven of us left from the original group and we have really bonded. Yes, yes, I am the Grandma. We are here to meet with our volunteer coordinator, Bryan (he’s even older than I am!) and celebrate our time together. I am so tired and dirty I can’t wait for a hot shower. The Jumbo Express was
really LONG. We were in the back of a truck on bumpy dirt roads with extreme hills for at least eight hours. We stopped at one elephant camp to check on their condition (which was not good… again, DO NOT RIDE ELEPHANTS), then carried on to the Karen village. We got in late but the people were so welcoming. We handed out toys to the kids, helped prepare an amazing dinner over the fire and then were invited around to all the homes to meet everyone. You sleep on the floor and the outhouse has a ceramic hole, not too bad really. It was SOOOOO COLD, though, and the women arise at five A.M. to beat the rice. They try to get up before the chickens, so they don’t eat it. They use this very cool levered pounding system then throw it up in the air so the husks blow away. After that we went from home to home to treat the animals. The houses are up on stilts and the animals live below. We treated pigs and water buffalo.
This village does have elephants but they are all out working the trekking. One is with us at the park and is called a “leased” elephant because we pay and it will have to be returned one day. The families send their boys to work with the
elephant as its mahout. The hope is that they learn kinder healthier ways to manage and train the elephants and eventually return home. Lek hopes one day to send volunteers for home stays in these villages. Again, building the bridge between the park and the local people is key to the success of saving the elephants. We also treated the villagers with deworming formulas, cough medicines, etc… simple stuff, plus gave out basic hygiene items, school supplies and clothes. There were about forty families in this village; it was a bit chaotic but appeared enjoyable to all. Then we drove like mad from school to school over pretty bad roads, gave out prezzies, took a group photo, then zoomed off to the next one. It was a bit confusing. Again, I think Lek is just trying to build up community support.
We were grateful to get back “home.” These last couple of days have been sad, preparing to leave. All of us feel completely lost as to what to do next… And the park is full so we can’t stay. I figure I will take a day or two to clean up, eat pizza, and ponder the next step. Nothing seems to grab me at the moment. The hill tribe visits turn out to be real human zoos: Evidently the long neck people stopped wearing the rings for awhile but then realized they could make money from tourists if they did it so they started it up again.I don’t think I can take that. At the moment everything to do sounds meaningless; I’m afraid I’m hooked on this volunteering thing.