July 18, 2011

the beach

Talk to you all in a few weeks, I'm off to explore Thailands beautiful islands for the next few weeks. 

Take care

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July 15, 2011

elephant haven

Elephants. Gentle giants. They never forget. Elephants aren't found in the wild in too many counrties, except Africa and Thailand. So, when you go and visit Thailand you make sure you see one. That's easier said than done, because there aren't a lot of wild elephants left in Thailand and you won't likely come across one. Other than that, what are the options... elephant trekking, elephant shows with elephants playing football and the lot. But honestly, that doesn't sound all too animal friendly. As I was keen on seeing an elephant, I did some research and came across the Elephant Nature Park, north of Chiang Mai. A sanctuary and rehabilitation center for abused elephants, who were rescued and now have found their new friendly home. That's where I want to go. The option of volunteering at the park itself was even better and so, I signed up for it immediately. That's where we went after two days in Chiang Mai... working with the elephants. 

The Elephant Nature Park is a unique project in Northern Thailand. The park was established in 1995 with the aim to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants from all over Thailand. The park is now home to 37 rescued elephants, about 70 or so dogs, 21 water buffalos and 20 cows. There is no elephant riding at the park, nor are they involved in any show, visitors can spend the day or overnight there and are involved in feeding and bathing them, as well as just watching them wandering around the park.

Volunteering at the park means hard working as well as interacting with the animals. Elephants eat up to 250kg a day, that meant a lot of hands on for us. We were washing tons of pumkins, watermelons in the ele kitchen, unloaded tons of the above veggies from arriving delivery trucks, cut grass, sugar cane and corn, planted banana trees, repaired some fences, cleaned the ele shelters, helping stem the depletion of the forests and had tons of fun doing it. Nothing beats just watching them do their thing, really. Oh, hearing them trumpeting in the middle of the night, is the best really. Quite sureal in the beginning.

Even though these animals are very big, well, compared to their African rellies, they are really small it is said, they are soo gentle. The feed with their trunks and when they take the food from you, it's always really gentle and soft. We learned that elephants communicate not only via their loud trumpeting sounds, but more with their "enigne"-like gurgles which cause vibrations and travel over distances to the other elephant, which "reads" the sounds through the soles of its feet (they are soft instead of hard, as you would think). Elephants sleep only a few hours a night, therefore we had to go to bed or be quiet at 10pm, didn't stop them waking us up with trumpeting in the middle of the night though. ;-)

We were also shown several documentaries showing us the reality of how elephants in Thailand were and are still treated and a lot of the individual sad stories of the parks elephants.
Some of the stories are very distressing and it seems impossible how those animals could survive. For instance, one of them stepped in a land mine and lost half her foot. Tilly, was made to mate with an overweight male elephant and broke her back. Jaan Pen got stabbed a hole in her ear by her abusers. Jokia, 100% blind in both eyes was working at a logging camp. After she gave birth and her baby was taken away from her - normally they would stay with the mum until the age of max. 4 - she refused to continue to work, resulting in her having both eyes stabbed with a stick. Jokia was rescued by park staff and found a friend for life in Mae Perm, nver leaving her side. Jokia is one of the most gentlest and friendliest of them all, next to cuddle-me Mae Perm. Dok Ngern was a street begging elephant and was sent to brutal training to learn more tricks, so the owner could earn more money with her. And so on and on. It's very depressing, when you hear the stories and then also meet the elephants, but seeing them happy again, as they obviously are, it quite soothing. After feeding time, they are let to roam free, while the mahouts sit up on the plattform, and there you can get a glimpse of their happiness as they play together in the river or do their own thing, silly stuff to entertain themselves really. They really look as they are having fun.

The best thing that I was able to be part of at the park was meeting Lek, the parks founder. Lek truly is an elephant whisperer, if you could call it that, but she has that special aura around her and they seem to sense it as well, when she first encounters them in their miserable past lifes. One day just before lunch we were still hanging out at the ele family's pen and watching the baby doing silly stuff, as Lek arrives at the park and comes over. The elephants already sensed her a while ago, as they were getting really excited and their trunks wouldn't stop moving around. The baby was thrilled. Lek stepped into the pen and sat under the baby, started petting him and sang a song. Immediately the whole female bunch closed in on the baby to share the Lek's love. We were invited to come into the pen as well, as the aunties wouldn't harm us, due to Lek's presence and us standing close to the baby as well. So, there we were standing in the middle of the elephant pen, next to the swaying happy baby elephant, surrounded by the other females, eacht touching us with their trunks and being very friendly. That was truly amazing.

There are so many things that happened at the park that are too many to tell really. Seeing two elephants running towards each other across the field, trumpeting wildly, expecting a fight but seeing them "running into each others arms" more or less, greeting and trunk hugging after being apart for a few days, is one of them. Witnessing Jokia literally following Mae Perm blindly around the park. Inseperable and really looking after each other. Standing next to each other at feeding time, with just one pumpin left and Jokias trunk searching around for it, as Mae Perm pushes the pumkin towards her trunk. Mae Perm coming over to check out what's happening, laying her head almost into one of the girls lap, but realizing that she won't fit under the shelter for real. The baby elephant acting cheeky and trying to outsmart the mahouts, but not realising that up the wooden stairs to the plattform isn't just for him.... but then being too stubborn to let it go. Cheeky Jungle Boy chasing around his mahouts. Elephants really having a blast rolling around in the river and slpashing on another. .....

More impressions here

The reality facing Thai elephants

Staying at the park, you learn very quickly how the sad reality looks like for those lovely creatures. We were shown several documentaries, which were quite distressful to watch. You see, as every elephant has a sad and depressing story to tell, the question of "How can it be, that the elephant is a highly respected religious creature and deeple anchored in the Thai culture, but being treated so badly and so wrongly?" arises immediately. This is not right and it doesn't make sense to me, either. The sad thing is, that after logging was banned in Thailand, these elephants were now without work and either left to die in the jungle - as being domesticated, they weren't able to survive on their own - or sold to trekking camps for the tourists to ride or worst of all, sent out begging in the streets of Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Despite the fact that street begging is illegal in Bangkok, in parts of Chiang Mai it still is legal. Mostly little baby elephants are sent out with their mahouts (elephant care taker) to beg for money by selling little packets of fruits, which the innocent tourist then can feed to the cute little elephant. The lack of food, the bad living conditions and the traffic and overall city noise distress the animal so much, that they eventually die. 

So, what do I, as the tourist preferrably do, if I want to see elephants?

Well, other than visiting the elephant nature park, do some proper research. In general elephant trekking wouldn't be such a bad thing, wouldn't the animals be treated so miserably. Being chained up on short chains and barely food, or beaten by their mahouts. If you really want to ride on an elephant, the best and most comfortable way for both animal and you is to ride bareback on the ele. Make sure the elephants are treated good, see if they are looking chubby, meaning they are properly fed, and chain free is a bonus as well. There are some camps out there, that really treat them well and if you read through some reviews online, choose wisely. The thing is, if the tourists are favouring the "ele friendly" camps to the other ones, more and more will follow their footsteps and slowly but surely, the animals will face a brighter future. It's a slow process though and not that simple at all, but education is the key, so spread the word. 

Having asked Lek, what she thinks of the turn out of the park at the moment, she said, that it isn't something she really wanted it to be like. In her dream, the elephants should be free to roam without visitors, this is just a step to finance the running of the herd and to educate people about elephants and their situation, spread the word. In the near future, elephant jungle will be established for some of the elephants who are still wild at heart, so they can be set free there without anyone bothering them at all. For some elephants on the other hand, without the park, they wouldn't survive... for the blind and badly injured ones the park is their lifeline. 

July 14, 2011

next stop... Thailand

After four weeks of travelling in Malaysia, a change of scenery was called for, so we flew up to Thailand, to travel around there for another month or so. First stop was Chiang Mai up in the north. After having spent the night at Kuala Lumpur airport because of the super early morning flight, we weren't really up to much on our first day there. Except for an excellent Pad Thai from the street stall for 30Bht.... nom nom.

Chiang Mai is known for its many many temples and old city centre. We ventured out and went up to the most important temple, Do Suthep. Brilliant. Not so charming was the ride up the slopy mountain road in a shared taxi aka in the back of a pick up truck. I always have to see where I am going when going uphill, otherwise I tend to feel rather sickly. After strolling around in this beautiful temple with its shining golden statues and breathing in lots of incense, we headed down to the city again.

Buddha statues at Do Suthep

Sunday markets and a tradtional Thai massage was called for. Felt so relaxed. So good. Browsing the market stalls and our first attempts at bargaining for some accessories and dresses was really fun. So much to see and look at.