My first day at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and life just couldn’t get any better. I was so in my happy place!
I got picked up at my hotel at 8am by their shuttle and taken (eventually) to the ENP office to get processed, given a tee-shirt and a water bottle in a sling (must be hydrated at all times). The office was full of people all excited about going to the park and full of animals excited about having all those excited people around! Happy chaos!
A quick 1 hour jaunt lands us at Disneyland for animal lovers. The place teems with animals and the people who love them. And can you believe it? It is vegetarian only! Yah! So we are shown around, allowed to feed the ellies fruit and get introduced to the 2 moth old baby, Navann!
The food is killer, I am not going to lose weight here. … 😦 and 🙂 . There are 30 + volunteers, hard to say exactly because there are always people coming and going. The main building is a sprawling Thai styled beauty where the offices, kitchen, dining room, gift shop, elephant food prep and general hang-out area are located. It is completely open on the elephant side so you could be eating or reading and look up and see them wandering around, eating and visiting. I soon started getting up early, grabbing a coffee and sit with my computer facing the morning, waiting for the elephants to wake up and join me.
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Finally we gather down at the river… the big moment had arrived! We were going to bathe the ellies! Now I have seen enough elephants documentaries to know they are really good at bathing themselves. Apparently not here. Nary a trunk was raised to help us. Now picture a bunch of giddy tourists with buckets of water in the middle of a river. We were as drenched as the elephants. It was wonderful!
The realization of how strong these animals are was a gradual one for me. Intellectually I knew it but to really know you need to experience it first hand. Like when they leaned into you for starters. Another lesson was while I was feeding them. They curl their trunks in at the tip, creating a cup. I placed the fruit in it and they wrapped their trunks around my hand for a moment. The strength is staggering and that’s when they are being gentle! The staff and the mahouts are more vigilant for our safety than we are and are quick to whisk us away from any potential danger. After all a dead tourist does not make for good press.
That night the local village elders and shaman performed a blessing and luck ritual for us newbies to welcome us. They asked for four volunteers and when no one was jumping up for the last spot, I grabbed it!. We sat on cushions on the floor facing each other with the Shaman at the head, chanting and sprinkling water on us with a flower. Then one by one he wrapped our wrists (left for women, right for men) with white twine and knotted them. We were to leave them on for seven days to get the greatest luck – but no longer. Then, while he continued to chant, the elders moved around the room performing the same ritual for everyone.
After dinner that night I walked back to my room through the parking lot, which was the only lit area on the way to my room. It was the purview of most of the 200 cats who called ENP home. As I crouched to pet everyone, I listened to the shaman still chanting somewhere in the valley.
The volunteer accommodations were four, two-story buildings set in a square. The showers, bathroom stalls and sinks were in the middle. The rooms were spartan with two single beds and a couple of chairs, that served as our dressers… and the floor.
That night when I did my middle-of-night bathroom visit I was startled to hear what sounded like purring, elephant purring. Some of them had a sleeping shelter just behind the brush. I could just I see them silhouetted by the fires their mahouts kept to keep the elephants warm. Swinging their trunks they rumbled their contentment, occasionally reaching up to the thatched roof for a midnight snack. I looked up at the brilliant stars that littered the sky. Then one of the ellies trumpets loudly, likely pissed at the dogs barking. In the background I can still hear the chanting. Seriously, am I dreaming this? It was a ritual I would repeat for two weeks.
I eventually succumb to sleep listening to the elephants purring. I am blessed beyond measure.