Thailand: The secret of Happiness – Elephants

I believe it would be spending a day with elephants. Walking with them, feeding them, bathing them, swimming with them and generally messing about with them in the highlands north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

When Steve and I saw the movie, “Love and Bananas” at VTIFF a few months ago, we were smitten by the founder Lek and her mission of rescuing elephants. Her nature park shelters 81 elephants. Three years ago she started the Highland project with three female elephants: Mae Pon, 36 yo, Khun Penh 46 yo, and little Nong Pop 27 yo. Last year Lek bought Kyatingdeng 50 who hasn’t quite settled in and stays separate from the other three. I had only seen live elephants in the zoo and circus. As a child I was in love with the elephant stories of King Babar, Queen Celeste and Arthur, the old lady and the monkey, Zephir, Babar’s best friend. Such a fondness for elephants was hatched long ago. I started collecting little elephant figures following the death of my friend Sara as she had a collection and they keep her close to my heart. So coming up close to these mammoth beings was staggering, thrilling and nervy all at once. Major WOW factor that stays with you.

Their size is overwhelming at first. The strength in their muscle, the power of the trunk, the silent stepping of their massive feet next to mine is intimidating and heart opening. We all watched a safety movie on the car ride. Told not to pet, tease, stand behind. Endearing they may be, yet dangerous and unpredictable they can be. All tamed elephants have been traumatized. They need to be bought from reluctant owners in order to be rescued. One million baht ($30,000) is present price.

We feed them watermelon initially and it was shocking how their “one fingered” trunk wrapped itself around the quartered melon, strongly pulling it out of our hands and bringing it into their maw and eagerly re -extending their trunk until we were out of food. The trunk skin is coarse, bristly and powerful. One intentioned whack could kill you. So on the one hand we are in awe and respectful and on the other, as playful with a lovable pet and anthropomorphizing like crazy.

We are walking along side the girls with our feed bag full of bananas. They eat 500 pounds daily and they come very close, nosing toward the bag. I am located between the hillside and the elephant and it’s just me and her in this increasingly diminishing space. That’s when the awe remains and the brain says, “Don’t get squeezed “. It’s not personal, she just wants her banana.

So we walk a mile or two through the beautiful highlands, past orange groves planted on steep hills, coffee and lychee and palms.

Once my feed bag is empty I’m no longer part of the meal plan and she moves on. Though one goes after my camera which is probably smothered in banana paste. I get in a few trunk pats, I can’t resist. We go to another feeding station and this time we feed grasses bundled in sheaves that the elephant takes apart. From there it is bath time. We hike up a trail and throw buckets of water into a mud hole which they then spray themselves and all that are nearby.

We are just hanging out, some of us covered in the sticky red mud, not really appreciating the cooling effect it has on the elephants. The elephants are just roaming, their mahouts lounging under a shelter. It is midday and hot. I and some others go for respite under a small pavilion. An elephant saunters over in front of me. I’m amused but then Steve says, “Turn around quick”, and there is another, very very close and moving forward! She wants to come in but her head keeps bumping the structure. We vacate the shelter as she begins to rock the the poles.

Time to rinse off the mud

Our last food station and we get to make sticky rice balls and feed them directly into their mouths. And they have, as you would imagine, really large mouths, soft and pink as ours and huge.

Truly a magical day. For us, knowing that these animals are finally experiencing the free life. And grateful that we could share in the happiness.

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