Tis my first post of 2017! My 1 woman trip to Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park was pure therapy.
1. Traveling Alone: Never Have I Ever
I never thought I’d like traveling alone. Who am I going to be loud with? When I think This looks like an edgy spot Lonely Planet hasn’t discovered, who’s going stop me? Dark alley. Not cool.
To anyone who’s nervous about a solo trip, just think: a machine levitates you into Smore-worthy clouds. By the time you’ve finished Mindy Kaling’s book, fully reclined your seat, and drooled all over your neck pillow…you’re in another world. MAGIC
2.The Elephant Nature Park Experience
What You’ll Do
- 6 am Breakfast
- 8 am Work 1-2 hours
- 11:30 am Lunch
- 1:00 pm Work 1-2 Hours
- 3:10 pm Elephant bathing/Free Time
- 6 pm Dinner
- 7 pm Ceremonies/Performances/Workshops/Free Time
- Feed Elephants (They LOVE pumpkin and will reject not-so-juicy watermelon)
- Bathe Elephants (Throw water on them from a safe distance, not into their eyes)
- Scoop Poop
- Cut Corn/Wash Watermelons
- Shovel and sweep mountain to clear way for fire tracks
- Group meetings to watch short elephant documentaries. Bring tissues.
- Visit a local school: get your hair braided, drink iced cocoa lattes, jump rope
- Free Time:
- Walking handi-capped dogs
- Assisting the vets
- Listening to Lek, the founder, teach with love, not hate. Animal rights activists, please choose to educate instead of attack.
- Waiting for Lek at her dinner table to profess admiration. Realize you’re sitting in her seat, next to her husband. Awkwardly leap to the other side. Turtle.
- Tell Lek she needs a TED Talk. She’s already been approached. “Who’s Ted, anyways?” she asks. Laugh with the queen. #LekTalks.
- Eat small donuts with huge bday candles.
- Pick songs for Group C’s last night hurrah. Everyone loves Pony, especially Germans.
- Pray for your family with new friends. Moment of silence cut short by trumpeting.
What To Bring:
- Mosquito repellant( Miraculously, I didn’t get a single bite. Could be February. Or god)
- Clothes you don’t mind getting dirty (they have a laundry service)
- Long sleeves/pants/socks (cold at night!)
- 1 pair of closed toe shoes
- 1 pair of sandals/flip flops
- Bathing suit to wear UNDER your clothes. Respect Thai traditions. Do not distract the mahouts(elephant guides). A Jumanji stampede is not worth your side boob.
- $100-$200 spending cash for soda, alcohol, snacks, thai massages, souvenirs (Friendship bracelets, carved wooden elephants, tip generously)
What You’ll Eat
- Buffet Style AMAZING Vegan Food
- So FAHCKIN’ good they need an NYC lunch spot
- So good they’re releasing a cookbook next year
- So good I’m becoming a vegetarian. Live consciously. More clean, less death. Shoutouts CHolls&Stace&Steph.
- 2-3 people per room
- Single beds with mosquito nets
- Clean and spacious
- Shared bathrooms and showers
- Ours had a balcony overlooking the river
- Optional: chubby cat/stealth door opener
Golden Rules Of Safety
- You are NOT an elephant whisperer. Maintain a respectful distance.
- Each elephant is different. Some are NOT OK around humans or other animals.
- Ask the mahout before feeding/touching/engaging
- Do NOT stand directly in front of them.
- Do NOT stand directly behind them.
- Their trunks are extremely powerful. A small flip can send you flying.
- Stay behind the red line
- Listen to the staff. Watch Out means “Move away before you get popped like a prune”.
3. The Tale Of Lucky
Lucky loves his mom and his nanny. They tower over him, tickling his face with their trunks. Under the shade of a disappearing forest, they search for food. When vegetation ran out, they eat garbage left behind by humans. When garbage runs out, hunger drives them to stumble upon a farm. When night falls, they feast on sweet corn. Lucky, lulled by his family’s happy chewing sounds, drifts to sleep.
The darkness erupts. A piercing crack rings out. Human yells. Lucky’s mom screams. His nanny pushes him hard.RUN, little one, RUN! Lucky listens. He doesn’t see his nanny fall to the ground, nor his mom.
Days later, the locals find him. Lucky is caught between two trees. He’s starving, dehydrated, lost. He’s an orphan now.
The locals call Lek. She and her team bring food, medicine, transport but Lucky won’t let anyone near him. He refuses to eat. He cries for his family. Did you know elephants can die from heartbreak?
No one knows if Lucky will make it. Lek coaxes him with pumpkin, piece by piece. She sings him to sleep. Some days she passes out from exhaustion. One day, she wakes to the warmness of his trunk. Wake up. I’m hungry. Lucky is healing.
What happens now?
- The locals let Lucky go. Either they cannot afford to keep him, or they understand the ethics involved. Lucky lives out the rest of his 60+ years in peace with the support of philanthropists like us.
- The locals ask for Lucky to be returned. They’ve lost time, labor, money due to destroyed crops. Their families need to eat. Debts must be repaid. Time to put Lucky to work.
4.The Phajaan: The Crushing
When we see Lucky next, he’s all grown up. He carries us on his back. He paints for us. He performs tricks for our amusement. He walks down a crowded street, waving his trunk for bananas. What we see calm, obedient elephant. What you might miss is that the mahout still carries a bullhook.
None of these activities are natural or normal. How does one get a wild animal to obey?
***DISCLAIMER: This is graphic. I humbly ask you to read on.
There is an age-old tradition in Thailand called the Pajaan. Men tie ropes around Lucky’s neck, legs, trunk. They shove him into a tiny corral. Imagine cramming a brick into a pencil case. From all sides, he is beaten with hooks. Blue-violet blood oozes out of his cuts. Lucky cries for his mom and his nanny. He defecates from fear and anger. His eyes glaze over till you only see white.
This process will be repeated until the spirit is broken and an obedient elephant remains. Some don’t survive. 85% of the elephants arrive to ENP with mental health problems.
5. How You Can Help: Do’s and Don’ts
Animal tourism puts food on the table for many locals. For change to happen, we need to 1. educate ourselves on better practices and 2. support a sustainable alternative. If we’re only willing to support ethical tourism, businesses will follow. Think SeaWorld’s stocks dropping post-Blackfish.
Education must come first. Laws are only half the battle. For example, once logging became illegal, elephants were either abandoned or put to work in tourism. When there’s no sustainable alternative, all animals suffer.
- Do your research. Find a reputable, ethical, sanctuary to visit and see for yourself
- Do educate with love, not hate. Try “Hey did you know that…” rather than “What’s wrong with you…”
- Do support conservation. Our time and money goes to buying food and medicine. ENP is also home to thousands of dogs and cats, a bunch of water buffalo and horses, and one crazy-ass goat.
- Don’t ride elephants
- Don’t feed elephants off the street
- Don’t buy products “made by” elephants. Paintings, etc
- Don’t support festivals/parades with live elephants
- Don’t visit the circus or zoos
- Don’t attack others. Like Lek says, it’s very difficult to educate someone if you make them an enemy.
- Don’t assume people know what’s going on behind closed doors. It took me 30 years.
6. Goodbye Grandpa
While at the park, I got a voicemail from my sister. My grandpa passed the day after my 30th birthday. Before therapy, how would I have felt? Guilty. Overwhelmed. Out of control. How did I handle it last week? Terribly sad, but not guilty. I trusted my decision to be in a haven of healing. I recognized who could support me. I allowed myself to feel a spectrum of emotions. I laughed while shoveling elephant poop. I cried doing the same. I journaled, an exercise recommended by many therapists.
I channeled my grief into curiosity. I asked Lek about her grandpa, a shaman in a village of Northern Thailand. When she was 7, he gave her a gibbon to care for. Let’s call it Love.
“Do not name it. Do not hug it. Do not take it to your room,” he said. She did the exact opposite. When it was time to release Love, Lek begged her grandpa to keep it. He ignored her. “Love!” Lek cried out. The gibbon returned to her arms.
“You broke the rules,” her grandpa sighed. He sent her back to the village and freed Love alone. Lek refused to talk to him for months, believing him to be cruel. “I was wrong,” her voice now softens, “I’ve seen gibbons after too much human contact. They chew off their own legs.”
Remember: Love cannot grow in a cage. Release to nurture.