My Birthday with Elephants

We started this year of travel with only a handful of must-do activities. For me, spending a day with rescued elephants was very close to the top of that list. So, when I realized we would be in Chiang Mai on my birthday I knew exactly how we would spend it—with elephants.

Thailand's Elephants

Across Thailand, elephants are often treated terribly. Loggers use the elephants’ strength to pull massive logs across the forest floor. Tour companies put heavy benches on their backs to carry visitors. Beggars use elephants in cities to entice “donations” from people on the streets. Circus groups make elephants do tricks for shows. And recently, poachers started killing elephants for their skin.

It is all appalling and unfair to animals that are so similar in nature to humans. Despite their size, elephants’ bodies are not built to carry or pull huge amounts of weight all day. They have very sensitive eyes and ears, so they are not meant to live in cities (well, duh) where car lights can cause them to go blind. When circus handlers, or mahouts, train elephants to do tricks for entertainment, they often use brutal methods.

Fortunately, the Elephant Nature Park is one of many rescue and rehabilitation centers just a couple of hours outside of Chiang Mai. They provide a sanctuary for endangered species (which Asian elephants now are) after rescuing them from terrible conditions. They also help with rainforest restoration and focus on educating the public on how to interact with elephants, i.e., don’t ride elephants, don’t buy something an elephant “paints,” and don’t pay to see them in the circus. 

Elephant Wellness Day at the Elephant Nature Park

The park has many different experiences available ranging in length and cost. Because it was my birthday, we chose a more expensive day trip (Hey, I only turn 26 once). We opted for the Elephant Wellness Day which featured a smaller group with activities outside the park plus a tour of the park. 

 Dang with Watermelon and Big Girl.

Dang with Watermelon and Big Girl.

Our tour guide for the day, Dang, (easy to remember) picked us up at 8 am from our hotel with a minibus already occupied by our five fellow pachydermophiles (not sure that is a real word, but it sounds better than elephant fans). During the two hour drive out to the park, he showed us an informational and frankly disturbing video about elephants in Thailand. It covered the information I mentioned earlier but with a lot more detail and blood. It was an uncomfortable ride, but I get that it was necessary information we should all be aware of.

Once we arrived, Dang introduced us to the three elephants we would be helping for the day, This group lived just outside the Elephant Nature Park. They all had Thai names but Dang mostly used their nicknames—Watermelon, Big Girl, and Happiness. He told us Watermelon and Big Girl are senior ladies in their 50s, are best friends, and are always side by side. 

At this time Happiness had a toenail infection, so she didn’t like walking much and stayed in the stream most of the day. She seemed to be on her own most of the time away from Watermelon and Big Girl, which Dang said was because her toenail hurt. Fortunately, she always got half the groups attention and food to try to make up for it. 

 Feeding Happiness away from the other elephants.

Feeding Happiness away from the other elephants.

We started the day cutting up pumpkins and watermelons to feed our three elephants. Then, we carried buckets of the food down to the grass field where the elephants roamed freely. They immediately came to us, eager for their breakfast. We held out chunks the of fruit and the elephants used their trunks to pick them up out of our hands and toss them into their mouths. 

True to her name, Watermelon loved watermelons so much that she would spit out a piece of pumpkin if someone nearby had watermelon in their hand to give. Fortunately, Big Girl was hungry enough that she would pick up Watermelon’s rejected pumpkin slices and eat them herself. I understood why they were best friends. 

After their meal, we filled bags with small bananas and set off on a hike with our elephants. We walked along the river with them while handing them a banana every few steps. We learned it was important to keep feeding them bananas because if you stopped so did they and would eat grass instead. 

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Eventually, we crossed a road and turned toward a single-track trail. While turning onto the steep trail, Big Girl somehow slipped passed me. After a minute of hiking behind her, I turned to say something to Andrew only to see that Watermelon was behind me, not Andrew. Yikes! I was sandwiched between two enormous elephants on a very narrow trail on the side of a steep hill! It was a surreal few moments though slightly intimidating since elephants kick when they are startled. Luckily Watermelon and Big Girl stayed calm the whole way. 

Once the trail widened, I passed Big Girl to join back up with the group. At the top of the hill, we took a lunch break while the elephants threw dirt all over themselves with their trunks for sun protection and ate another enormous pile of food. Dang told us they are the gardeners of the forest because they eat about 500 lbs of food per day but barely digest any of it. Essentially, they spread plants and seeds around by um, pooping it all out over the forest floor. 

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After we hiked back down the hill, it was time to feed the elephants lunch. An elephant’s day is basically eat, eat, repeat. It was pretty similar to breakfast except that all of us were much more comfortable around Big Girl, Watermelon, and Happiness so we all stood closer and fed them faster.

Next, we bathed them in the river. This part felt like it was for us since elephants can give themselves a very effective shower with their trunks, but it was fun anyway. We changed into loose denim pants and button up shirts the park provided before wadding into the river with the elephants. The giant animals slowly laid down and then we splashed them with buckets of water and washed the mud off their backs with brushes.

As Andrew and I washed Happiness downstream of the other two, I noticed her tail lift. Suddenly, coconut-sized elephant poops started appearing and floating toward us in the water. We dodged them back and forth to let them float past us while laughing at how relaxed Happiness looked, pooping during her bath.

I was still feeling a bit silly about the whole bath thing when I felt water hit my back. I turned around and glared at Andrew until I heard laughing behind him and noticed Dang running away. It was on! The elephant bath turned into a full-on water fight and soon everyone was splashing each other and soaked in their heavy denim pants. It was very refreshing. I kind of think the point of the bath was for Dang to wash the smelly, sweaty volunteers.

After a third round of feeding the elephants, we said goodbye to Happiness, Watermelon, and Big Girl then walked over to the Elephant Nature Park. Once inside, Dang told us the story of each elephant in the park we passed. He identified at least 30 elephants by name and told us about their lives—their previous “jobs,” their ages, the injuries they have endured, and which elephants are their new chosen families. All the elephants’ stories are heartbreaking at first, but they all end happily at the Elephant Nature Park.

Khun Dej’s Story

One younger elephant, Khun Dej (whose name I honestly didn’t remember but I found him here), had green cloth wrapped around his front foot and walked with a limp alongside a larger elephant. We learned the Khun Dej was born in the forest of central Thailand.

When he was just a few years old, he walked into a snare set up by hunters. He was stuck in the snare for a few days before someone found him and took him to a government hospital to treat the infected wound. Though he received good and necessary care at the hospital, he got feisty from loneliness and boredom.

Now eight years old, he lives at the Elephant Nature Park with his adopted elephant “nanny,” Dani, who never leaves his side. The snare and ensuing infection deformed his foot so it drags a bit while he walks. To protect his foot from getting scratched up all the time, the workers soak his foot in a pool of antiseptic treatment every single day, then wrap it in cloth. To entice him to stand still in a pool, they feed him piles of bananas. The sweet part is that Dani must also be fed bananas because if she wanders off, Khun Dej will follow her no matter what.

There were a few more stories that really stuck with me—like the oldest elephant with deformed hips from over 70 years of logging or a 25-year-old elephant who was used for breeding and sustained a dislocated shoulder and fractured spine from a bull who charged into her. But instead of repeating them all here, I encourage you to visit the Elephant Nature Park’s blog. The translation is not perfect, but they introduce their elephants and tell their stories and provide pictures. I will be following along for a very long time. 

Below are more pictures of elephants than you probably want but I couldn’t help myself, so enjoy!