The Thai people have a complex relationship with elephants. They are revered animals, adorning the exterior and interior of Buddhist temples across the nation and serving as a symbol of good luck. Asian elephants are entwined in Thailand's history, the country was literally built with their strength. They are also legally considered livestock and treated as such by most owners.
In planning my trip to Thailand, I knew I wanted elephants to be a part of my experience, but it only took a bit of research to realize riding an elephant would not be on my itinerary. If you are feeling up to it, google Phajaan, colloquially known as 'The Crush', a breaking of the spirit ceremony that all young elephants endure to make them submissive to humans. The owners and mahouts perform this ritualistic procedure so the elephants can then be used for illegal logging, tourist trekking, performances or forced breeding. How is it that a country reveres an animal they simultaneously treat with inhumane disrespect?
In my research, I found several other alternatives to the normal tourist experience, rehabilitation parks and sanctuaries that take elephants away from demeaning work and allow them to roam free. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) was started by a woman named Lek Chailert with the intent to provide a safe home to some of Thailand's working elephants. In just 20 years the organization has grown to be a home to 70 elephants; their ages ranging from a two week old newborn to an 80 year old grandmother. Each elephant has its own story, their pictures and narratives adorn the main lodge of the park for volunteers to read. The common thread is tragedy, logging accidents, land mines, forced breeding and years of trekking, but the end of each story is now happy.
I'll admit my initial decision to visit the Elephant Nature Park for a week was slightly selfish, I wanted an excuse to be near these impressive animals. However, after spending just a few days at this park, I have a deeper love and respect for the ENP mission, the volunteers who give their time to the cause, and most of all, the elephants themselves.
For more information on ENP go to saveelephants.org.