I left Cambodia a few days sooner than I was originally intending to because I found a cheap direct flight to Bali leaving from Bangkok that was priced at less than half of the price of the flight out of Phnom Penh (which had an overnight layover and luggage fee as well as a higher price). Big surprise. Bangkok is known for having those great flights. So instead of flying out on a Sunday, I was now scheduled to fly out [and arrive] on a Tuesday, AND the situation required that I return to Bangkok which I couldn’t complain about (especially since I needed to stock up on some small items from 7-Eleven). There is no fee for the visa or border crossing to enter into Thailand so it was no hassle at all. Except for the “VIP Sleeper Bus” and transfer experience from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, totaling around 15 hours which I mostly laughed through instead of sleeping. But I will not put that story here–you’ll have to get me in person after a glass or two of wine to hear that one…
I left Cambodia on a Thursday which gave me a couple days to kill in Thailand before my flight–the perfect amount of time for what I had in mind. Instead of staying at my usual spot in the business district, I opted for a night in the busy backpacker area on the river that Camila and Cris had recommended to me becasue of the location–it was a 50-cent boat ride across the river, followed by a 10-minute walk to the train station where I needed to catch a [three-dollar] train to Kanchanaburi, a small mountain town about two and a half hours to the west of Bangkok along the Kwai River, made famous by the World War II film called, The Bridge Over the River Kwai. In addition to that, Kanchanaburi is also where I could access a project associated with the Elephant Nature Park (whose headquarters are located in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand). I was finally going to get that up-close-and personal elephant experience that I had been dreaming about for years. [Hashtag: dreamsreallydocometrue.]
The MAJESTIC MATRIARCHS of ASIA
It wasn’t difficult to come up with the title of this chapter because elephants are literally everywhere in Asia–or from what I have seen in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia thus far. Not necessarily real live elephants, but elephant statues, elephant carvings, elephant decorations, elephant artwork, elephant souvenirs–you get the point. I took notice immediately, but it has taken me awhile and lots of interrogation to figure out exactly WHY there is elephant-everything everywhere.
According to my research (which mostly involved asking the locals and any tour guides I have had during the past month and a half), elephants are a symbol of power and have been a part of the culture and daily life in Asia since before the history was even recorded. In the spiritual realm, elephants are considered transportation of the gods. In Hinduism, elephants are the transport of Indra, the god of storms/thunder. He is the king of heaven, the god of directions, the most powerful of all the gods–the equivalent of Zeus in Greek mythology, Jupiter in Roman mythology. Also in Hinduism, there is a god called “Ganesha” that is actually part elephant. Another example of how elephants were a symbol of power is that kings and high-ranked military officials used to ride on elephants to illustrate their positions of importance within societies.
There are engravings of elephants on temples walls, inside and out; they have played a critical role in humans’ lives for millennia. They have been used for logging and for building great structures, and they have also been domesticated, growing very close with humans to the point of developing lifelong relationships with them. Elephants are extremely intelligent, and they are also considered sacred. Unfortunately, people have also thought that ivory is a sacred/holy material; therefore, elephants have been poached all over the world specifically for their ivory tusks leading to the addition of elephants to the list of the most endangered species in the world.
In addition to elephants being revered both in the cultural and religious senses, they are now also a huge attraction in the world of tourism, so much so that elephant artwork, paintings, and other small souvenirs are the prevalent items in the market. There is even such a thing as “elephant pants” that many travelers end up purchasing. At first, I thought I had packed everything I needed so I wouldn’t have to purchase any more clothing. I also thought that “elephant pants,” most of which come in two colors with the main print involving sketches of elephants, were cliché and that if I started wearing them, my backpacker status would be completely obvious so I resisted even though they were being sold everywhere for approximately $4 a pair. But one hot, sweaty temple-hopping day in Bangkok wearing a long maxi skirt was enough to change my mind!
I finally gave in and purchased a pair–the black and emerald-green pants that keep showing up in my photos–and it was probably one of the best and most practical purchases I have made in Asia yet. Not only are they lightweight and airy, allowing for ideal ventilation, but they also stretch from the waist down to the ankles with a loose fit in between, offering protection against both sun and bug bites as well as serving as a modest (non-butt-hugging and reaching the knees) option for respectfully entering temples. I love my elephants pants. I will highly recommend them to anyone traveling to SE Asia.
Once I arrived in Kanchanaburi, I settled in to a place that Camila and Cris also recommended, called VN Guesthouse, situated right along the river–great recommendation as my room might as well have been floating! I could have jumped in the river from the porch. It was very peaceful. But more importantly, I was gearing up for elephant day!
I left early the next morning and walked through the market, grabbing some quick street food for breakfast as I made my way to the bus station, where I was going to be picked up. When I got in the minivan and we started to drive away, I asked if we were going to pick anyone else up and the driver said, “Nope.” Then I asked if anyone else was going to do the activity that day, and he replied, “Yes, there are two other people who will meet us there.” That was it. There were going to be exactly 3 people participating in the activities with 6 elephants that day–a 2:1 elephant to person ratio. Score! I thanked my lucky stars and felt quite happy that I hadn’t pursued the experience at Elephant Nature Park while I was in Chiang Mai. Instinct, research, and patience had led me up to what was about to be a spectacular day…
Supported by Elephant Nature Park, the activity offered here was called “Elephant Haven – Single Day,” located in a town called Sai Yok about an hour outside of Kanchanaburi. Elephant Haven – Sai Yok is a new project, having only recently opened on August 20th so when we were there, the project had only been up and running for about 2 weeks. It is advertised on the Elephant Nature Park website which is how it will gain most of its visibility and traffic, and the set-up is similar to how Elephant Nature Park runs, it will just take some time for the kinks to get worked out and a system to be established–just as in any business that is starting up. Christie and Jason, the couple from South Carolina who were the other two people there that day, and I were very excited that we got to participate in the project while it was still so new. And the price per person was only 2500 baht (about $70), compared to the $175 personal elephant experience that I had almost done in Chiang Mai. For the closeness to and the amount of time with the elephants that we had, we all got a great deal! (Elephant Nature Park website: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org)
This project and all of the projects that Elephant Nature Park runs are different from many of the other companies in Southeast Asia who operate elephant activities. Traditionally, elephants had been used for logging for centuries, however, when that practice was banned in 1989, people started using the elephants as a source of entertainment and trained them for circus acts and for riding–as that is what people wanted to see and do and therefore, that is how people could continue to make money by using the elephants. All of the elephants at Elephant Haven were formerly part of the circus and riding-themed elephant camp right there in Sai Yok; they are now the beginning of a conservation-based type of tourism, which is in high demand now–people are more aware of animal rights and therefore many will do what they can to support them. The activities for visitors to Elephant Haven are designed for the purpose of getting to know the elephants, observing them, and interacting with them, as opposed to riding them or using them as a source of entertainment (the training for which usually involves forcing the elephants to do things they don’t want to do, coercing them with sharp hooks and whips, and other forms of animal cruelty).
Before I go on, for all of you elephant enthusiasts, I have several videos from the day that capture some typical elephant behavior. I’ve included five of them on this post, but the links are all in one place toward the end of the chapter. Also, I’m sure you won’t mind ALL the elephant pictures I couldn’t help but including here. (I started with about 40 favorites from the day…it took me a couple days to narrow it down!)
When the day started, we were given the history of the project and introductions about the elephants and where they had come from, how their lives have changed, and how happy they have all become since being introduced to their new lifestyle. All six of the elephants on premises are females between the ages of 25 and 50. (The lifespan for elephants is between 60-70 years!) As male elephants tend to be much more aggressive than females, they are not often a part of touristic projects; the females, on the other hand, are easier to domesticate and generally have calm, gentle, and deep spirits.
Our first activity entailed preparing food for the elephants. As a means for assisting their digestion, we each got a bucket with a mixture of sticky, starchy, and whole grain foods that we needed to peel, pick out the tough plant parts, then work into what Jason referred to as “giant meatballs.” There was sticky rice, rice bran, corn kernels, small bananas (that we peeled first), and tamarind (from which we removed the tough veins). Once everything was raw and ready, we squished it all together and mushed it up with our hands, mixing all the ingredients well before formulating the balls. After we each rolled six balls and placed them back in our buckets, we moved on to peeling watermelons and cutting them up, along with small pumpkins, into large pieces that we would get to hand-feed to the elephants.
We finally got to meet the elephants when they were led in by their “mahouts,” or the people who work with and tend the elephants, to the feeding area and lined up behind a long post. knowing that food was coming, they waited patiently behind the post, just standing there–they didn’t need to be tied up or locked in or anything. I was so excited to be so close to them! we were all just as eager to feed them as they were to eat and because there were only three of us, we were each stationed to two elephants, alternating feeding from one to the other.
Elephant trunks are one of the neatest animal body parts in existence, in my opinion. They are so cool! Each elephant uses her trunk like a hand–but also like a nose to sniff things and a hose to suck up either water, mud, or dirt. In this particular case, it was more like a hand. Some of them took food in their nostrils, suctioning it to hold it in place as they moved it to their mouths, while others preferred to wrap the last 8 inches or so of their trunks around the food like a little scooper or cup and carry it to their mouths in that manner. I loved being able to be in contact with their trunks as I passed the food from my hand to them! They are such grand creatures that it was downright awe-inspiring and it made me giddy.After that, we all headed to the forest to walk with the elephants as they grazed even more. Elephants pretty much just eat all day long; in fact, they usually eat for 18 hours during every 24-hour period and they can consume between 150-200 kg of food on a daily basis! Being that they are such large animals, they need to consume a lot of food to maintain their metabolism.
We continued walking with the elephants through the forest until we came upon a large pit of mud. The elephants headed straight for it! While covering themselves in mud is actually a very practical way for the elephants to cool themselves down, to us, it just looked like a bunch of elephants playing in a mud bath. They all stepped in and continuously sucked up large amounts of mud using their trunks as a sort of straw, then blew all that mud all over themselves. Over the top, under their bellies, to the sides–every direction they could come from to cover their entire bodies. Another method elephants use to lower their body temperatures is flapping their thin ears; because the surface area to volume ratio of elephant ears is so high, it is the best place on their bodies to release heat.
At that point, we took a lunch break and were served a delicious Thai meal of chicken lemongrass coconut soup with large plates of stir fry vegetables and rice. We discussed all of the excitement of the day so far and some of the neat things we observed about the elephants. For example, considering how ginormous elephants are, they impressively walk through the forest on their large, spongy feet hardly making any sounds. We also noticed that each elephant had different pinkish markings mainly on their ears and trunks; we were informed that it is just pigmentation (which is why it almost looks like a patch of freckles) and it can help to tell the elephants apart from one another.
Right after lunch, we changed our clothes, preparing for river time, then we cut up a couple more buckets of watermelon and pumpkin that we were going to feed the elephants as an afternoon snack. We went back to the forest for more walking as the elephants grazed, followed by a second mud bath. The fun behavior that they were exhibiting post-mud bath was that they were using trees as scratching posts and rubbing up against them slopping fresh mud all over the bark. They were acting like how cats and dogs do when they need to be scratched or rubbed–it made me want to help them relieve that itch! (Except for the fresh mud factor. Oh, yeah, and the fact that they are so tall I probably couldn’t have even reached the itch to scratch it!)
Another really cool thing about the day’s experience was learning about the mahouts’ relationships with the elephants. The mahouts are responsible for tending to the needs of the elephants as well as training them. There is one mahout per elephant and this sets the stage for developing a life-long closeness between the mahout and the elephant. It’s like a pet and its owner, a dog and its master. The level of trust and ability to understand each other become increasingly greater over time. When an elephant dies, its mahout is responsible for arranging its funeral. (Elephants have several sets of teeth that come and go during their lifetime–I think it is 6 sets total–and when the last set of teeth falls out, it quickly leads to the end of an elephant’s life as they can no longer eat. No such thing as elephant dentures!)
Elephants are extremely sensitive animals and they are known for having incredible memories so they remember well how they are treated. If someone hits them very hard or digs a hook into their skin, they will forever remember who administered the blow and caused the pain despite the fact that they have thick skin–which is literally one inch thick. Luckily for these pretty pachyderms, their days of being hooked are long gone and they seem to be happy to just have love, nurturing, protection, and freedom now.
Finally, we headed down to the river with the elephants. Because the current was relatively strong at that part of the river, Christie, Jason, our guide, and I suited up in life jackets. As soon as we were in sight of the water, the elephants went straight for it! They were like big dogs who see a pool/river/ocean and instantly make a run for it! While this was an opportunity for the elephants to play in the water and cool down some more, for Christie, Jason, and I, it was our best chance to be really hands-on with the elephants, splashing them with buckets of water, then scrubbing all the dirt and mud from the day off of them.
We could tell that the elephants really enjoyed this process as they literally just plopped themselves down and even rolled over in the water, completely dunking their heads under and staying there for extended amounts of time. One elephant even wandered a little deeper out and just started floating down the river, letting it take her for ride like it was no big deal! (She eventually got out and walked back to us.) At one point, I was standing between two elephants, but I had to move quickly as they were rolling all around and could have easily squished me without even realizing it. But the experience of bathing the elephants was so fun as they they were all so playful and cute and happy! I wanted to wrap my arms around them and give them big hugs because I was so happy!
Right along the river’s edge, we got another opportunity to feed the ever-hungry elephants an afternoon snack of the fruit that we had cut up earlier. This time, one of the mahouts motioned for me to try placing the fruit directly in [his] elephant’s mouth, rather than at the end of the trunk so I tried it and felt a big, squishy, slimy, but grateful elephant mouth. The teeth are pretty far back so there was no danger of my hand being chomped on and obviously the mahout trusted his elephant with me otherwise he would not have recommended it. It was neat to get that close, knowing that she and I both had to trust one another.
After an afternoon tea and coffee break for us, Christie and Jason took off because they had a 3-hour drive back to Bangkok, but it was only a little after 2 and the program was scheduled until 3 so I went with the mahouts and our guide back to the forest to hang out with the elephants more. Talk about a personalized tour! The mahouts started opening up and joking and chatting and interacting with me more, and they let me get pretty close with the elephants, who seemed to be getting more comfortable with me as well. Even though they had just bathed, they kept throwing dirt on themselves–the guide said they do that to “powder themselves;” it’s similar to how dogs and horses will go roll in the dirt or on the grass after being bathed. I think it is an instinctive thing to help protect their newly exposed skin from bugs, sweat rashes, sun exposure, etc.
One last walk back to the main area and then I had to bid these beauties farewell. I was sad to go but feeling so filled up inside. How freakin’ cool to hang out with elephants for a day?! From that, I was on a high for the rest of the day and for the entire day after. I think I might’ve even missed them! There is something so very grounding and healing about working with or just being around animals, especially when it is with the majestic matriarchs of the jungle. We are so connected to them which is why education and awareness are crucial to conservation efforts in this day and age. Spending that day with the elephants was an unforgettable experience (that put me on Cloud 9 for a bit!), and I would recommend it to anyone who has the interest, urge, and opportunity.
Elephant Haven Videos
1. Elephant Haven Feeding (26 seconds): http://youtu.be/aeSVoTNv4RA
2. Fruit Snacks for Hungry Elephants (31 seconds): http://youtu.be/XREcn9c-tPE
3. Elephants Grazing in the Forest (41 seconds): http://youtu.be/z3andiYa90E
4. Elephant Mud Bath (2 minutes): http://youtu.be/9_mPBm2FURw
5. Elephant & Their Mahouts Walking in the Forest (1 min, 30 seconds): http://youtu.be/feTVkns9lEw
Another activity that Camila and Cris had recommended I do while in Kanchanaburi was to go out to Erawan Falls and hike around. I almost didn’t do it. The bus trip alone out there and back was going to take an hour and a half each way and I still needed to get to Bangkok (a two and a half hour trip) before sunset. In a “seize the moment” decision, I went for it, and while I felt slight time pressure, it was worth it. Erawan Falls is a national park with guided trails through the forest to each of the seven layers of waterfalls that the area is named for. The hike was a lot longer than I was anticipating and I was sweating bullets by the time I reached the seventh and final waterfall–the perfect place to jump in! I met some Spaniards along the way, Marina and Josep, who were traveling together so I hung out, chatted, and swam with them for a while. Anyone was welcome to get in the water at any of the pools and some of the waterfalls were busier than others, but we were satisfied with our swim spot. By the time I got back to the bus, I calculated that the entire hike with swimming took 3 hours and 15 minutes. I ran the last 10 minutes of the trail back and made it to the 2:00 bus with only enough time to spare to use the restroom really fast. Not only are “sight-seeing” activities like this enjoyable, but they are also great exercise; my family would have loved to have done something like this!
I made it back to Bangkok just after the sun went down, but it was all right because I was back in the busy business area that I know relatively well now. Before making my way via my favorite train system toward the original hostel I stayed in, I decided to take a small detour to stop by the Erawan Shrine–the place where the bombing occurred in August. I was just curious and wanted to see the after-effect of the traumatic event… What I saw was touching: besides being guarded by tight security up and down the block, the shrine had a constant flow of visitors coming to pray and make offerings of flowers, candles, incense, and money in honor of the lives that were lost on that fateful evening. The quiet, but strong community support system speaks volumes about these people, this city, and their faith. I am glad I got to witness it. While it appears that the root of the bombing has yet to be confirmed, the Thai police have identified and detained several suspects linked to incident.
Back at S1 Hostel, my friends (a.k.a. the staff) remembered me and helped me to arrange the best airport transportation for the following day. (Unfortunately, the trains don’t start running until 6 AM, so being that I had a 6:15 flight, I needed to have a taxi pickup at 3:45 in the morning instead, but the price wasn’t bad at all–only about $7.) I ate dinner down the street where I had another “friend,” a sweet, young girl who worked at the hole in the wall restaurant–she hardly speaks English, but we bonded when she taught me how to peel a rambutan (the spiky red fruit) on my first night in Bangkok. Then I went back, cleaned up, repacked my bag, and slept for a couple hours. This was the official end of “Phase 1” of this journey which was 6 weeks of gallivanting through Southeast Asia mainland (Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia). To kick off “Phase 2,” I was bound for Bali!
TRAVEL TIP: For any smartphone users (or tablet/iPad owners), there is an App called “maps.me” that will change your world of travel navigation. Cris and Camila told me about this app and I have used it almost every day since. The beauty of this GPS app is that it functions without using data on your device–it will even locate you and create a route to your destination while your device is in airplane mode. All you do is download the map of the country (with routing) you are visiting when you have data or wifi; this will take up some space on your device, depending on the size of the country–for example, Cambodia took 10 MB and Indonesia uses up 200 MB. It allows you to navigate, search for specific points, pin point “bookmarks,” and even share your location. It is simple, easy-to-use, and convenient. You can zoom in to browse the area you are visiting and locate restaurants, lodging, ATMs, banks, the post office, shopping areas, transportation, etc. While sometimes there have been places I was looking for that were not yet registered on maps.me, 95% of the time, everything I need is right there. The only downside is that it might reduce the possibility of having a “getting lost” adventure…but you could always decide not to use it and get lost anyway!