Ganesh – The Remover of All Obstacles. The God with a head of an elephant and body of a man. He was tucked into my carry-on luggage just in case, and Geoff and I have indeed had phenomenal good luck in our tightly-packed journey so far. The signs were evident for our trip in everything from this at the Dulles Airport in D.C. (how often do you see an elephant in an advertisement?)to the incredible good fortune of having fun and interesting seatmates for the 14 hour trip across the globe. Seatmates on planes are such a roll of the dice. We spent our first surreal night in the Novatel hotel next to the airport in Bangkok which we shared with King of Thailand’s son which explained the tight security out front. In the morning after a couple of hours of sleep, we had the most delicious breakfast spread I have ever had, anywhere…guava juice, pineapple, etc. Over breakfast I read the paper and realized that demonstrations were planned in Bangkok over the weekend which last year had turned violent. We ended up leaving Bangkok just a few days before they closed down the airport because of security issues.
Geoff and I had five hours to spend in Bangkok before our flight to Chiang-Mai and were incredibly lucky to find a taxi driver named Wat who spoke decent English and was willing to drive us around Bangkok and translate for us before our flight. In the cab we recorded him telling us about the situation with elephants in Bangkok and what he thinks will happen to the elephants in Thailand.
That night we flew to Chiang-mai and were greeted by a driver from the Porn-Ping Hotel and the next morning we were off to the Elephant Nature Park for two days to learn more about this incredible sanctuary started by Lek Chaillert. I had first encountered Lek’s work while researching elephant issues back in 2005. The Elephant Nature Park, ENP, is one of the few places in Thailand where there are no rides on the elephants, no circus type tricks for the tourists, no forced breeding, playing instruments or painting. Lek wanted to create a place where elephants could roam freely during the day in herds as they would in the wild, and prove that tourists would come and pay good money for time spent with elephants in this sort of environment. This is one of the main reasons why ENP is a for-profit organization. She has been so successful at attracting people from around the world to come to the park that she has created two other programs, Elephant Heaven and Jumbo Express.
Geoff and I were immersed in activity from the moment we arrived at the park which is approximately one hour west of Chiang-Mai. We arrived in time for the mid-morning feeding of the elephants who amble over from the 150 acres to the main house where they wait patiently for the buckets of mangoes, bananas, pinapples and corn cobs that have been prepared by the squadrons of volunteers who come to the park to help. They need 200 kilos of a diverse diet per day which is one of the reasons why taking care of domesticated elephants is so hugely expensive. Not only taking care of what they eat, but also dealing with what comes out (I’ll leave that picture to your imagination). The park is home to at least 80 abused or abandoned dogs and cats which Lek has adopted. Many of them find homes with some of the volunteers who come to the park. At the left is one of the park’s most fascinating people, Jody Thomas. Jody came to ENP eight years ago as a volunteer and fell in love not only with the place and the elephants but with a Burmese mahout who was working there. Each elephant has its own mahout. Some of the more challenging elephants need two mahouts. More on that later.
Jody lives in an open-aired hut in the center of the park where she gives tattoos to visitors and leads in-depth walks through the park to the overnight guests. She is so fascinating that one could easily devote an entire program to her. At left are a few examples of her artistry.
Because there are so many stories to share already, I have decided to create a youtube channel for shorts from the two days of our film shoot (and the rest of this trip) since we won’t be able to include all of this, obviously, in the film or the live performance.
There are 33 elephants in the ENP and all of them have varying degrees of tragedy in their lives before being brought to the park . Below is Maedo, one of the elephants who despite her broken hip and arthritis is now living a safe and nurtured life in the company of her best friend, another elephant who befriended her a few months after she arrived at ENP. Maedo had been working like most of the elephants here in the logging industry. She had injured her leg logging and her owner decidedthat, since she was no longer able to pull logs and wasn’t able to give rides to tourists, that he would use her to breed. He chained her to a tree where she was raped repeatedly and eventually gored by a male elephant in musth. She was then sold to an owner who kept her in isolation for more breeding for fifteen years. When she arrived at ENP she had not seen another female elephant for 15 years and was very nervous around the other elephants. It is very hard to watch her painstaking gait to and from the river, but Jody says that she thinks she is basically in good mental health.
All in all, Geoff and I recorded several interviews with people here, including the veternarian, three people who have spent almost a month at the park working with the elephants, Antoinette van der Water who started an organization called Bring the Elephants Home (BLES), some of the local Thai helpers and mahouts, gathered some fairly spectacular footage with our different cameras and have managed to find ourselves at the most spectacular jungle paradise here in Pai which is where I am writing this post. In a few minutes we’re traveling to Thom’s to learn more about the tourist trade in elephant riding and an elephant named Panom. One of the most powerful messages I have learned so far is that people following their dreams inspires others and can become a magnet for great shifts. I’ll post some of Antoinette’s stories of people who were involved in using elephants on the street for begging who are now her biggest helpers. More soon.