The Elephants of Chiang Mai Have Captured My Heart

Chiang Mai, Thailand – We spent Superbowl Sunday with Lady Gaga – but not at the game.  Rather Lady Gaga the 3 month old Asian elephant and she captured our heart along with the rest of her family.  

Visiting the elephants will go down as one of my top events ever!  Before we arrived in Thailand I had heard from friends how amazing the elephants are. I had seen ‘rides’ when we were in Vietnam, but it was nothing we had ever taken part of.  We were advised to book early as they fill up quickly.  But when I researched I discovered the bad side of elephant tourism and held off on planning anything.  Hesitating to even consider doing anything.

But when we arrived and started talking to friends and other tourists we met, they all spoke about how the elephant jungle sanctuary was the highlight of their trip.  After more research and cajoling Dave we booked our ‘Elephant Date’ for an early morning start.

With a 6:30am pickup in a songthaew (a passenger vehicle in Thailand and Laos adapted from a pick-up or a larger truck and used as a share taxi).  We packed 8 people in the back and 3 more in the front of the truck and headed off on a 90 minute ride to the sanctuary. We had a delightful group that included our Alabama friends Anne and Andrew, a young married couple from Austin on vacation before she started with E&Y, and a young couple from the Netherlands.  We had great conversation and really enjoyed the bumpy ride through the countryside.

We finished up the ride bouncing down a long bumpy dirt road as we approached the camp. No fences, no gates.  We gathered for an introductory information talk about what to expect and how to feed.  We got a history on the elephants and the Thai people, the rise of elephant tourism and all about the sanctuary and their efforts to purchase and save the abused elephants. For feeding, we learned what to feed and how (peeled for the babies and with peel for the adults). We put on the village shirts – so everyone looks alike and can be recognized by the elephants as ‘nice people who feed’.

And then we moved down into another area (no fences but a large shaded area) and picked up our bananas.  And then they started coming — running toward us.  It reminded me of the horses coming home when they know there is food.  No whips, no yelling or herding.  Just the elephants running toward us to get some food.  It was delightful and a little intimidating.  The babies, oh the babies!

Rihanna (10 months old) and Lady Gago (3 months old) Auntie keeping an eye on us

We had been warned not to touch the ears, stomaches or feet.  All areas that had been abused by trainers in their prior lives.  However, everything else was fine.  We fed, we rubbed, we got head butted (by Little Lady Gaga) and had our bananas stolen.  At one point Dave was feeding one elephant and another came up behind him and stole his bunch of bananas from behind his back.  His look was priceless as he was surrounded by 3 large elephants all wanting more food!  One wrapped his trunk around him and gave him a stinky sloppy kiss.

Dave attempting to hide bananas – meanwhile another elephant comes up behind him and steals the bunch

We had Lady Gaga who was 3 months old and a feisty little toddler.  She would occasionally just ‘frap’ like a puppy and start running around head butting, kicking and pushing.  She liked constant attention and really was no different (except in size) than your average toddler.  Rihanna was about 10 months old and was a little calmer. She and Gaga often held trunks or just rubbed up against each other or rolled around.  So cute!

We had 3 large females.  The mother of each of the babies and a protective older Auntie. All kind, gentle with wonderful soulful eyes.  We fed bananas, sugar cane and corn stalks.  The babies could not eat sugar cane, but they had small pieces of banana and handfuls of cooked corn taken off the cob.

Moments before little Lady Gago gave Dave a loving kick and shove – done standing for pictures I want to run around!

There was a 3rd young male just over a year old that had only been in the sanctuary for 20 days.  He was rescued from a terrible situation and had healing scars all over his head from the bull hook that had been used to beat him into submission.  In just the short time in the sanctuary we saw the healing of his wounds. He had a human ‘companion’ that did nothing but hang out with him and follow him around.  As a social animal, he wanted to be with the heard, but he wasn’t so sure about the extra people around.  So the sanctuary allows him to just do whatever he wanted.  He would float in and eat a few things and then wander off and wander back.  When we was over stimulated, he would wander off into the bush.   It was great to see the recovery and see first hand how these animals are saved.  

Getting a hug — or is that a smooth move to steal my bananas?

We moved from eating down to the mud bath.  Yes we got in the mud and threw and rubbed mud all over the elephants.  We actually voluntarily walked into a couple of huge muddy and pits and the elephants wandered in for mud baths.  Digging my fingers through the mud was seriously yucky!  But anything my new friends needed, I was a willing participant.

Once you have your beautiful mud bath going, nothing better than a dip in the river.  So off we went following the elephants into the river.  We rinsed everyone off – elephants and people.  Dave and I hang at the back and ended up with our own elephants as the mama and babies jumped and rolled in the head of the river.  We had a little one on one time with Auntie and got her all cleaned up.  She laid down and helped out in the rinsing process. And when the ladies were clean, they just got up (after a good roll in the river) and wandered off for more food.

Breeding is part of the sanctuary mission to ensure the health and longevity of the currently threatened Asian Elephants

Imagine that pedicure!

The average elephant is purchased for $30,000 and costs $20 a day to feed.  I would bring one home in a second – but they are social animals who like to be with a herd.  Typically a matriarchal society.  Not sure the RV or even our house would allow for a herd of elephants in the backyard.  Typically an elephant will need 330 pounds of plant matter daily and about 150-300 liters of water.  Historically the elephants bonded with their mahouts (trainer) and foraged at night returning of their own accord each day.  But as farming and industrialization increased, the elephants ravaged crops and were often executed for roaming.  Deforestation has eliminated their trade and their environment and terrible practices just as phajann take place to break their spirits and end up shortening their lives.  Now just one group of wild Asian elephants remain.   Captivity has not been good for the Elephants and the number are declining with 50% of all births resulting in death within the first year.

The creation of the sanctuaries is a wonderful way to educate the public and ensure the survival of the species.  The elephants have great memories and form deep relationships. Apparently you can volunteer at the camp for a week, create a relationship and return after 2-3 years and the elephants will remember you.  That is a relationship I think I wouldn’t mind creating.

Cooling off with a dust bath

If you want to learn more about the elephants check out Elephant Jungle Sanctuary with great information on elephants, current conditions and what you can do to help.

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