While in Chiang Mai, it seems a must to see elephants. Working on a project that is conservation conscious, I have become aware of some very unethical and inhumane Practices in the elephant industry. Training elephants starts from a young age and involves taking babies from their mothers and crushing their spirits. It can involve starvation, sleep deprivation, physical punishment and social isolation. While in Chiang Mai last month, I planned to find an ethical place to see those majestic beauties but wanted to make sure it was ethical. The last time I was in Thailand (2002), I rode an elephant; as a tourist who had no idea of these practices towards the elephant I rode and the elephant I saw playing soccer and gave me a massage! Time to correct my past uneducated mistake. The stars were aligned and I happened to meet the Base Manager of GVIs northern Thailand project, an elephant project. After mentioning I wanted to see elephants, he invited me up to the project to see elephants! I couldn’t believe my luck! Must have horseshoes on me for sure!!!!
We boarded a little red truck, the primary taxi transportation in Chiang Mai for city driving, and off we went on the five hour drive up into the mountains of northern Thailand. The journey including passing through a mountainous national park. It was late evening, so I saw the sun set over the mountains, and soon the air chilled and the stars twinkled in the pitch black sky above. There were no houses or lights for kilometres so the stars and constellations appeared unbelievably close, plentiful, and beautiful. Only in Africa had I had such an amazing view of the night sky. We wound up through the park and I was fascinated by the rows of some sort of greenery or plants covered in plastic arches and light up at the main National Park entrance. The cold evening mountain air began to penetrate my skin and I pulled on my only pair of jeans. I took two pairs of jeans, three jackets and four fleeces when I moved to Osaka in May, but before moving to southern Thailand, I shipped home all but one pair of jeans, one jacket and a light fleece and a medium fleece. I had heard Chiang Mai is cooler so was grateful I could pull on my medium fleece and jeans over my shorts as the chills started!!!
Five hours on a bench in the back of a pickup going up a mountain road in the black of night is exhilarating and exhausting at the same time! We arrived and I was worn out, but so excited. I knew I would get up early and hike to see elephants! Dogs barked greetings to us, a campfire was surrounded by merry volunteers, the wooden structure of the volunteer base was rustic, practical and quaint. The stars radiated above and the air was chilly but so fresh!
I was lead to my Homestay for the night. I was delighted and surprised to learn I had my own little guy with two balconies, a toilet and bucket shower and a huge bed. It was very basic but seemed new and so lovely! Think I got the royal treatment on location to stay in the village!
As I tried to reign in my excitement and fall asleep, I could hear what I decided was a pig snorting. It sounded right outside my bedroom hut! I sighed contentedly and luckily fell fast asleep.
Rising before the sun, my host family was gathered around a small fire and I greeted them eagerly, trying out my Pakinyon, the language this hill tribe speaks. I greeted the woman with a cheerful “Da Blue” which means Hello, Thank You, and Goodbye, and quickly became embarrassed as I realized she was squatting to pee! Oops! Nice first impression, Deb! Ah well, at least I tried using my Pakinyon words. It’s close to Burmese I am told and quite simple and easy to learn. I had learned a few words to get me started. I used the squat toilet and headed off. I was given a beautifully woven bag with a tin stacking lunchbox! I had heard my host family was known for amazing cooking so I, of course, delightfully anticipated lunch while out on the hike.
As with my project down south, things change suddenly and without warning; flexibility is key. We found out the elephants were quite far out of the village, so we walked down the village and hopped in a pickup to drive to where the elephants were located. I headed off with a group of four volunteers, one staff and four mahouts. (Elephant men)
The GVI project owns six elephants. They have been either taken from the logging and/or entertainment industries or born to the current herd. They are likely the only owned elephants in Thailand to range freely in the forest and rice fields.
- Grandma Kham Suk 54 yrs
- Mom Kham Moon 36 ish
- Lulu female fivld
- Wan Mai male nine months
- Sahjah unrelated female maybe 40 years.
- Tom Dee unrelated female 58 years
As I clung to the back of the truck as we navigated a very bumpy dirt track through the narrow mountain “roads,” the views were unbelievable. After about forty minutes of “surfing” standing up in the bed of the pickup, we reached our destination. And spotted an elephant with the help of the mahouts. For a massive animal that weighs a tonne, the elephant glides silently through the jungle! It was about five feet away just behind a tree. Clearly visible if you were looking! But completely camoflauge if you weren’t really consciously seeking it out!!!
The elephants were all in the area. After playing eye spy and seeing the baby, we walked into the forest to see the others! Some larger females were around and we kept a respectable distance and I was in awe! Beautiful, magnificent and so silent! With tears in my eyes, they grew big as globes as I watched Sahjah, a forty year old female, storm down towards us. We moved out of her way but she stopped to inspect us. Miraculously, or not as they are amazingly perceptive creatures, she stopped to give my a sniff and touched my torso. In turn, I stroked her trunk and spoke to her. My calming voice from working with monkeys magically returned and I greeted her lovingly and told her how enchanted I was to meet her acquaintance! She gazed into my eyes, blinked then moved on down the forest “path.” Wow! An elephant touched me!!!
We wandered down to a rice paddy and enjoyed watching the elephants for a few hours. The volunteers track their behaviour and record what they are doing every ten minutes. In particular, the baby is watched to see his development and change over time.
We ate a potluck kind of lunch and it was outstanding with homemade sausage, chicken, rice, vegetables and lots of good things. It was cold but the mahouts fired up a batch of noodles on a fire! What a feast.
After a last look, we headed back off along the dirt track about forty mi Utes of bumping and jolting til we were back at the volunteer base. Didn’t have too much time u til I left on a return journey as an ill GVI member was heading into town and a few staff were then being picked up to return to base.
Back to Chiang Mai feeling incredulous and grateful for this amazing experience.