25/02/2013 - 03/03/2013
After leaving Bangkok we headed to Chiang Mai, where we basically slept all day to recover from our hellish night coach journey before reporting to the Elephant Nature Park Main Office the next morning for our week-long volunteering project. We had booked to work at the Park through STA Travel without knowing much about it, and had no idea the reputation the place and its owner, Lek Chailert, had built for themselves. More on that later.
Our first day was gifted to us as a free day; we checked into our rooms and were shown around by the Volunteer Coordinators Jane, Toby, Mix and Chet, who were to become our family for the week. Chet is also the most fabulous man I have ever met; he called everyone 'honey', had a different pair of sunglasses for everyday of the week and was not afraid to wear tiny shorts for manual labour. We were also treated to a traditional Thai welcome ceremony; the shaman from the local village came to lead the ceremony and we were each given a hand-woven string bracelet that is supposed to bring good luck.
The next day real work began. For the whole week we were up at 7am for breakfast, with work starting at 8. We scooped poo, cut bamboo and corn in the fields, made mud pits and prepared food for the elephants. This last job sounds like a breeze, but the average Asian elephant eats around 300 kilos of food a day, and there were 32 elephants living at the park. I have never seen so much fruit...
I have to admit though, we got a pretty good deal. We had been led to believe we would be roughing it, so we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to discover we had our own rooms, three meals a day prepared for us by the Park staff, a beautiful veranda on which to eat looking out across the elephant territory, and even wi-fi. These are all signs of the extent to which the Park is prospering, despite the fact that the owner, Lek, is somewhat infamous in the area for her unconventional beliefs.
Many Asian elephants in Thailand live in domesticity and are used in the farming and tourism industries, and while wild elephants are protected as an endangered species, domesticated elephants are classed as livestock and therefore have the same rights as donkeys or cattle; none whatsoever. Thai people use an age-old method called 'Phaajaan' to break in young elephants, which involves trapping them in a cage preventing them for moving for days on end, jabbing them with blades and hooks, and depriving them of food, water and sleep until their spirit is completely broken. Lek rightly believes that positive reinforcement is a better training method; at her park the elephants are rewarded for good behaviour instead of punished for bad. Unfortunately most of the elephants at the park have already been put through the Phaajaan, and were rescued by Lek only after years of hard labour and maltreatment. Lek told us the story of one elephant at the park who gave birth on top of a mountain while working in the logging industry. The baby rolled down the mountain and died, and the mother was so stricken by grief that she refused to work; her owners jabbed her in the eyes with sharp sticks until she was blind.
Due to her forceful activism against these horrific traditions, Lek is fairly unpopular in Northern Thailand; the government charge her higher prices for purchase of land and after releasing video footage of the Phaajaan she even faced threats of physical harm. It is in the face of all this adversity that she has built this amazing park and rescued 32 elephants, with plans to expand. Her story and her spirit are truly inspiring.
However, her best work in my eyes is the message she is spreading through those who visit the park. The majority of elephant parks in Thailand advertise trekking as their main attraction, where elephants are forced to carry tourists on a large wooden frame. Although this, and smaller performances such as elephant painting, appear harmless, it must be remembered that all these elephants have been put through the torture of the Phaajaan in order to become controllable, and are still controlled with pain throughout their lives. Therefore I have to urge everyone to do your research when going to an elephant camp. Choose an organisation that does not offer trekking or any kind of gimmick. The elephants we lived and worked around were treated as the wild creatures they are, and seeing them wander around free from chains was infinitely more rewarding than riding them. Instead we got to see how they acted of their own free will; how they formed their social groups and how they rushed to protect the babies when a stranger approached.
And so, after spending a week working in these amazing surroundings, it was with heavy hearts that we packed our bags on Sunday morning and boarded the bus back to the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai. Eating a meal will never be quite the same without an elephant wandering past in the background...