Sanctuary

The trip of a life time came after I booked dirt cheap tickets to Thailand and Cambodia. The opportunity seemed too good to pass. I snagged up round trip tickets to Bangkok from New York for $630! Little did I know when booking the tickets that I’d lose my job just a few months after. The news came out of nowhere and after the initial shock, I was faced with the decision to cancel my trip or carry on. Luckily, I had saved enough money and thought that if I had to go abroad, better now when I didn’t have a job. Who knew that my decision would lead me towards sanctuary?

Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, was one the last stop on my 3 city tour. The relatively cool November days contrasted against the sweltering heat and congestion of Bangkok. Life seemed to slow down in Chiang Mai. The beautiful mountains nestled in the background complemented the rich tribal culture of the region. Tourists typically flocked to Chiang Mai to experience nature and the abundance of animals, particularly the elephants.

A while back I had seen some photos of tourists riding elephants through the forest and rivers in the outskirts of Chiang Mai. I was keen on experiencing the same excitement for myself. The last time I rode an elephant was years ago in India and I couldn’t wait to do it again. However, as I was conducting research prior to my trip, more and more articles started turning up about the cruelty that many of these elephants faced to please the ever increasing demand of tourists. The problem was not just local but spanned the region. Some elephant trainers, otherwise known as mahouts, would inflict pain on the elephants to force them to engage in entertaining tasks for humans, such as painting, circus acts, and of course, elephant riding. At this point, I was conflicted on what to do. The tickets had been booked and my desire to spend time with the elephants was growing more and more as I counted down the days to Chiang Mai, but by the end of my research, I had no interest in financially supporting and participating in such harmful activities.

As I was giving up hope, I stumbled across the website for Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for elephants. The organization not only rescues victimized elephants but teaches mahouts across the region how to treat the elephants with dignity and respect, while being able to earn a living off of tourism. The first and foremost lesson was that elephant riding was forbidden. As an alternative, Elephant Nature Park offers and encourages independent mahouts to offer nature walks with the elephants. The concept intrigued me as it would give me an option to enjoy the company of these beautiful creatures in an ethical way. I quickly signed up for an all day tour offered by Elephant Nature Park that would include a visit to the sanctuary, walking with the elephants on a nature hike, and giving them a bath in the river. Definitely an opportunity not to be missed!

The day came when I was anxiously waiting in the hotel lobby for the minivan to come whisk me away. Joined by a handful of other tourists, I embarked on the 45 minute ride towards the foothills of the mountain. Although my excitement grew, I was worried about my right leg. It had been feeling weak for a few weeks but felt weaker than usual. I brushed it off as over exertion from the 9 day tour and traveling half way across the world. Nevertheless, I had informed my guide about my concerns and he assured me that the hike was very doable and that he would assist me, if needed. My group had a few older couples, so I figured the hike couldn’t be that bad.

My worries dissipated once we reached the elephants. Our meet and greet consisted of being introduced to the herd, 3 of which would accompany us on our hike, a mother, a baby, and an auntie. After our introduction, both elephants and humans headed off into the forest for the hike that at least one species had been waiting for. Armed with bags filled with bananas, our group slowly traversed the lush greenery, while feeding the elephants at certain rest points. As we approached a hill, my smile disappeared. I quickly grabbed our guide and told him that I definitely will need help going up the hill. He didn’t hesitate and held my hand as everyone started ascending. I couldn’t tell you how much I had to walk up, but the majority of our group got to the top of the hill within 2-3 minutes. Slowly I followed, but the weakness in my right leg grew and I was stopping every 10 feet. I felt bad for my guide and told told him to go ahead and join the rest of the group, but he didn’t leave me. I insisted on at least getting me a walking stick so he could go back and forth, so he scanned the forest floor and brought me the perfect broken branch fit for any hiker. He kept an eye on me as he rushed ahead to instruct the other mahouts to wait on top of the hill. The weakness was almost unbearable and I could see my leg going limp. I was determined though to finish the hike and conquer the hill, so I kept pushing. It took 15 minutes to get up that hill. I felt bad that the group had to wait for me, but they assured me it was a well needed rest for them. Back on flat land, I was just thankful that I didn’t fall. However, I knew something was very wrong and that I would have to address it when I returned to the United States.

I pushed the worrying thoughts aside as the group settled down for a beautiful Thai lunch feast. I was convinced that our guide was the jack of all trades as he educated us about the elephants, while making fresh Thai papaya salad, one of my favorites. After a wholesome lunch and learning more about my fellow travelers, we set off again on a comparatively easy hike towards the river to bath the elephants. By mid afternoon, we reached a beautiful river where we found our new elephant friends already splashing away. My group started heading one by one into the river with buckets that our guide had provided us to bath them. The river wasn’t too deep, only waist high, but even the gentle current made me uneasy. I found myself waiting on the bank of the river with another girl , who just didn’t want to get wet. My guide saw me and told me to get in the water. I explained to him that I was still weak and didn’t know if I could stand up against the current. The friends that I made on the tour offered to hold me, but the last thing I wanted was to actually fall and create a dangerous situation. That definitely was not on anyone’s bucket list. Soon everyone went back to enjoying bathing the elephants. I watched from the side smiling and taking pictures of the others, but was internally devastated for not being able to participate.

I watched from afar the mother, baby, and auntie elephants enjoying the buckets of water being splashed on them from every which direction. All of a sudden, the auntie elephant broke from the group and came my way. I was confused as I saw this huge creature coming towards me. My guide shouted to grab a bucket and start bathing her. She had come all the way to the river bank and although I may never know for what exact reason, I felt humbled and honored to have the opportunity to bath her. Slowly I balanced myself in a little over ankle deep water. I grabbed my bucket and started bathing her by the river’s edge. All the surrounding noise seemed to wash away, as well. She was so majestic, calm, and beautiful. Something you wouldn’t be able to see riding an elephant and for those few moments bathing her, I forgot all about my weakness and found sanctuary.

To learn more about Elephant Nature Park, visit https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/.

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