You are currently browsing the daily archive for October 8, 2009.

Visibly Soulful on the River

Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.

John Dunne




The summer following my completion of graduate school I decided in both a mix of over exhuberance and impulsivity that I would go on a solo backpacking trip to Thailand and Laos for a month.   I knew little about either country besides having heard that Thailand was very traversable alone for a backpacker and a female. 


The little I knew about Southeast Asia as a whole was from various filmic references including “The Beach” and “Brokedown Palace”.  My friends and family must have had similar filmic references dancing through their heads because everyone was certain I would end up in some Thai prison after having drugs shoved into my bag when I wasn’t looking.  I was certain this would not happen and certain it would be a cinch of a trip.  I had backpacked through Europe and Latin America prior with friends and I thought how much harder could it be to backpack alone. 


I underestimated every element of this trip from the start.  It was the most profound, painful, breaking and stretching, weakening and strengthening, powerful, and beautiful trip I had ever taken–much more a pilgrimage than a vacation in  many ways.  I traveled through myself and into myself and came out the other side more self-aware and far more humble than before I began.




One of the most profound experiences from that trip (besides my experience with “Mama” in Laos that I spoke about in a previous post) was my experience at The Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Taeng Valley just north of the city of Chiang Mai.  I have had a reverence for the mystical, magical, graceful and grand elephants since I read Babar as a child.  I wanted to have an intimate pachyderm experience while in Asia with them.  I didn’t know how exactly but research led me to The Elephant Nature Park where elephants were treated like elephants rather than carnival rides or service beasts. 


A few Elephant “Tours” I found on my way to discovering the Nature Park touted things like elephants that could paint, riding tours atop elephants, and various “animal tricks” these creatures would perform for paying customers.  The more I read the more sickened I became–the cruelty and mockery seemed to drip from every sappy word of their ads and something ugly hid behind the surface of the  glossy packaging, I just wasn’t certain of what.  My trip to the Nature Park fully informed me of what was being hidden and what they were doing to prevent it.



Lek With One of the Park's Babies 


A woman, one who was unfortunately omitted from my “strangers who impacted my life” post, named Lek created the Nature Park in the 90’s.  The park was created to be a refuge for abused elephants that had been used in the tourism or logging industries. 


The major issue with these industries was not, primarily, that they were using elephants in their business but rather the manner in which they trained these animals was cruel beyond imagination.  They utilized an old cultural ritual of training called “The Pajeon” (literally translated it means “the crush”) which includes whips, a cat-o-nine tails type device, sleep and food deprivation, and the kind of abuses that leave lifelong emotional and physical scars of unendingly painful proportions. 


They say an elephant never forgets but I think no creature could forget the kinds of horrors I witnessed in videos of Pajeon “trainings” of baby elephants who had been taken from their mothers at very young ages and seemed so weak and fragile that tears could come to anyone’s eyes watching the footage.  And no one watching could ever forget the sound of frightened baby elephant screams. 


Lek’s conservation project to protect these elephants expanded quickly from one or two rescued elephants given up by owners to a large park with wide open valley spaces for elephants to roam free of torture and shackles.  The beautiful part as a volunteer and visitor is being able to walk into this valley that seemed too mystical to be true; an observer and participant to grace walking among tall grasses.  And to be a witness to a place that is covered with mist and speckled with herds of untethered elephants roaming free. 



                           Elephant in the Morning Mist



I remember my first night in the elephant park waking to the sound of a large, heavily breathing shadow stalking around my mosquito netted bed.  I was certain whatever was in my room was ready to pounce and was further rattled by the crashing sound of the wood door flapping against the think hut walls.

 The extreme winds from the storm had blown through the metal latch and exposed my wood shack to all the elements and all the creatures.   There were just enough flashes of bright white lightning to quickly make out that it wasn’t a deadly mountain creature but a dog seeking refuge. 


There is a “No dogs in your room” policy at Lek’s park but I was not about to argue with a somewhat-rough-nature-park dog at midnight in the middle of a raging storm. However, I also did not sleep quite as soundly for the rest of the evening.


The next morning I woke up to the sound of clawed feet on my roof that were so heavy I was certain the corrugated tin roof would cave at any moment, and that was enough incentive to get up.  I realized as I searched clumsily for my clothes that the creature on the roof was a dog, not my bedtime companion who had begged to leave the hut at dawn, but a much larger and apparently hut scaling mixed breed resembling something like a cross between a pit bull and a Shepard. 



Elephants with Canines Underfoot


It is important to mention here that besides 30 elephants at any given time on site in the Nature Park there were multiple packs of dogs that had wandered on the property or been brought there, perhaps it had gone through the doggie grapevine that this lady does not turn away animals in need, but nonetheless it was a surreal image to see dogs weaving in and out amid elephant toes, nobody leashed and everyone quite content. 


That first morning I woke after a stormy night and a roof dog alarm clock I thought I could not be shocked further but as I opened the door and breathed in the misty valley morning my eyes rested about 50 feet away at the base of a waterway where a large female elephant stood amid the mist and valley grasses and rich purple flowers with her mahout (or trainer) by her side.  It was one of the most majestic and privileged natural moments I have been privy too–like something secret and ancient that I should never have been allowed to see.


I spent 3 days in huts, in secret moments, and amid nature that had been released inside these once shackled majesties.  I saw how elephants in the park had created their own foster family units and how the babies became the community’s baby that they protected like they bore them.  I saw how elephants fell in love, and created friendships, and forgot trauma and pain deeply rooted through affection and freedom and trust renewed in people and in themselves.  I saw a beautiful trauma recovery center that was as holistic and natural as any treatment could be.


     Living Free in The Valley


I heard the horrible tales of each elephant and the even sadder stories of elephants the Nature Park couldn’t afford to buy from their owners due to lack of funds as a nonprofit or elephants that had been sent to the center by local business owners to heal after one abuse or another but whose owners refused to sell after they were recovered.  I heard the story of one elephant who had left the park with her abusive owner in the back of a truck and how the sounds of her elephant screams could be heard long after the vehicle went out of sight. 


I heard things I still can’t imagine now.  When I reflect on these instances of such extensive cruelty I well up with tears–even now it makes me well as I write this.  And I saw what kind of cruelty, pain, and torture an elephant could heal from–body and heart and soul.  And what a beautiful soul an elephant has–pure as light and white as the lightning that rains down on the Mae Taeng Valley. 


I left the park, about 3 years ago, vowing that I would write their story and tell people about the pain of these creatures and the amazingly inspiring work of Lek and all the staff at the Elephant Nature Park–I suppose this is my literary treatise to them all. 


Lek went through death threats and the horrific poisoning and murder of some of her first elephant rescues to get to where she is now and she has created a true homage to and refuge for the Asian elephant.  She has become a powerful voice for elephant conservation and a fearless heart empassioned for a cause that few know of or hear of. 


I will always hope and dream of making it back to the park someday.  It was a heavenly oasis for elephant and (wo)man in an anonymous, quiet piece of land in Northern Thailand.  Trauma treatment and healing recovery in its purest and most natural form.


Homeward Bound

My doctrine is this: that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and we do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.

Anna Sewell

October 2009


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