Visiting the Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary has been the greatest experience of this trip so far. I’m going to attempt to put into words the vast spectrum of emotions I experienced during the half day visit to the sanctuary but I’m going to have trouble. The experience begets the emotion that I’d like to portray and I don’t think I’ll do a perfect job portraying that emotion. In short, you absolutely must witness these amazing, walking goliaths for yourself. Let’s get into it.
The journey began with an hour and a half long ride up to the mountains outside of the urban Chiang Mai. Eight of us were jammed into the back of an open cab with nothing but the body next to us or the tailgate stopping us from flying out onto the road. This is important information because the last fifteen minutes of the ride took us through the dangerous terrain of the jungle with potholes that made New Jersey look like a bitch. All of us were holding onto whatever we could so that we didn’t fall out of our seats and get injured. It was exhilarating and a great beginning to an adventure. Not to mention the road would twist and turn while descending and the cab was never more than two feet away from toppling over the side and plummeting hundreds of feet. A small price to pay for seeing such great examples of the beauty of Earth.
After we arrived and felt the sweet touch of jungle soil post rain we were given a bundle of bananas, which are smaller and taste ten times better than any banana I’ve ever had. We’d use these to feed the elephants once we reached them. The anticipation was building and after a few moments of regaining our composure there was a piercing shriek of an elephant’s trunk in the distance. It was as if the note had entered my body an electrocuted all of my nerve endings and sent my body into a euphoric overdrive. What a welcome! I was about to witness an elephant. Our group made our way down a slippery hill with these bananas, crossed a rickety wooden bridge over a flowing stream reminiscent of watching George of the Jungle as a child, and then arrived at a little shack where the locals began informing us of the saftey rules. In the background not 100 feet away stood multiple elephants, just waiting for the lunch time snack. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what the local’s instructions were, I was too fixated on the elephants. After the lecture we trekked up another slippery hill with the bananas in our hands. At the very top was the moment we were all waiting for, our first interatction with the elephants.
The first thing I felt was fear as a four ton female beast which saw a delicious snack in my hands started barreling towards me. I didn’t have enough time to take one banana off the the stalk and so the next thing I knew the trunk was coiling around my hands still clutching the bananas.
“Oh fuck! Oh fuck! Oh fuck! Please don’t eat my hands,” I thought, panicking.
She was as gentle as something that size could be. As if she sensed my panic and hesitation and let loose a little bit, enough for me to break a few off actually feed her.
“Bon, bon! Bon, bon,” I spouted out, which lets them know I’m offering them a banana. The trunk opened up and I saw the split nature of it, similar in design to the human septum. It clutched the bananas and lifted them straight into its mouth and without sparing a moment reached for more. At that moment another elephant saw that I still had a lot let so she made her way over to me as well. However, they were both on path to squeeze me in between them since a third elephant was using her trunk to try and sneak some bananas from behind my back, causing me to lose my balance and get pushed a little bit forward. I was excitedly laughing and I didn’t know whether it was because I was nervous, fearful, happy, or all of the above. I sort of jolted out from in between the three of them like I was carrying a football past the goal line. As I emerged I noticed a friend that I went with had witnessed the whole debacle and she and I were sharing the exact same facial expression. One that pairs well with the thought, “Is this really fucking happening?” I busted out a strange mixture of unintelligible words and multi-pitch screams to which she responded with “I know!”
For a few moments in time I stared at the body and the face of these massive creatures, unable to pull myself away from my thoughts. If you were to describe this animal without using adjectives the description could be mistaken for a human, or an uncountable amount of other species in the world: They have ears, eyes, legs, feet, toes, toenails, a mouth and tongue, a nose, and skin with hair. However, when you become more descriptive and add emotion to your words they’re almost alien-like: They stand ten feet tall, towering over those that care for them, with ears as large a small human’s abdomen. Their stomp reverberates throughout your body even though their toenails may be the most sensitive part of their bodies. The hair on their coarse skin is sparse like cacti in the desert which flakes off dried mud as you sheepishly pet what can sneeze and kill you. The orginzation of hairs at the end of the tail makes it resemble the oversized leaves used to fan and cool down the royalty of ancient Egypt. The elephant’s mouth will snap your bones with ease just as it’s nose will coil around your arm like a constrictor. Yet despite all of this they graciously show compassion, excitement, enjoyment and all emotions. It was a truly humbling experience to stand face to face with them, so much so that at times it didn’t feel real.
We continued feeding the elephants for around thirty to forty five minutes and then went to a different area to give them a mud spa bath. The elephants would take the muddy water into their trunks and shoot it out directly above them. The water would fall down all over us and we would shout out because of how cold it felt compared to the sweat on our bodies. We would submerge our hands into the spa and collect as much mud in our hands as we could, then rub it all along the skin of the elephants. At times we would splash the water onto them if they weren’t dirty enough, so their would be fifteen people bent over splashing muddy water onto elephants as they bask in the glory of it all. Occasionally they would gather in a butt scratching circle with one elephant rubbing its side along the back of another elephant. After the mud spa we took them into a river a few feet away and bathed the mud off of them. The youngest elephant, and only male of the group, Peter, was having the time of his life in this river. He would submerge his entire body except for the end of his trunk and then splash around with it, playing just like a human would if he had a snorkel in a pool.
Everything about these elephants was an eye opening experience. I gained a strong sense of relation to them as I watched them do everything that I would if I were ever in their situation. They truly are one of the world’s most magnificent animals. You must see them.
Here’s a slideshow of pictures taken.