As I start ensuring that my persona of “The Suitcase Kid” takes on a new meaning, a positive meaning, I would love to share with you my latest journey.
Two weeks ago, myself and my family were uber busy on the trip of a lifetime. In a whistlestop week-long trip, we headed off to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we were volunteers at Elephant Nature Park.If you’ve never heard of this place, trust me, at the end of this post, you’ll be wanting to book a flight.
Why ENP? When my Mum turned 60, she decided that it was now or never to do something that she had always wanted to do. As a lover of elephants and someone who has always donated to elephant charities, she wanted to do something proactive and get up close and personal to her favourite animal. As a result, and with not much arm twisting obviously, my whole family went along for the ride.
Elephant Nature Park was set up by Lek Chailet, as one of her projects under the Save Elephant Foundation charity umbrella. ENP is primarily devoted to rescuing abused, tortured and ex-working elephants who have suffered unspeakable pain. These elephants have been blinded, tortured, chained, whipped and have had their babies stolen from them. Their souls have been broken. They have no energy, no reserves and some have been known to even try and take their own lives by standing on their own trunks.
Where possible, the staff of ENP, with amazing handwork and dedication, try to buy these elephants from the cruel, evil individuals who make their lives such hell. They transport them to their sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai. Here they will know love, peace and will never work another day. Here they will be trained and guided with positive reinforcement and not pain. They will be provided with medical care, warmth and will be doted upon by hundreds of volunteers per week, alongside the truly amazing staff that reside here.
Alongside the 70+ elephants that call ENP home, there are also over 350 dogs that have been rescued from the streets, from flooding and natural disasters. 100 of thee roam free and live in harmony, however those unable to roam live just as happily in specially selected packs in large enclosures and are walked for miles numerous times daily. Alongside this, there are rescued water buffalo and hundreds of cats who roam free around the 270+ acres that ENP owns, and lay their heads in their own, aptly named, “Cat Kingdom”.
And so, knowing that we were going to one of the most wonderful places on earth, the almost 24 hour journey from Newquay to Chiang Mai didn’t seem half as bad as it should have!
If I’m honest, I didn’t really know what I had signed up for. Being a student veterinary nurse, I knew I wanted to get involved and up close and personal to different animals and help out in any way I could – it’s my life’s work and what I will always aim to do. Upon arrival, the volunteers were given a briefing about how the week would unfold, about the jobs that we would be undertaking and the safety rules associated with being around elephants. From then, it was only hard graft.
Day 1: Cutting and loading corn
Day 2: Cleaning up elephant poo from all enclosures and walk around the park learning about every elephant followed by bathing the elephants in the river.
Day 3: Unloading elephant food (4 tonnes of watermelons and 5 tonnes of pumpkins), washing the food and prepping it before feeding the elephants, followed by fire break – building and clearing a path in the rainforest to prevent fire spreading
Day 4: Cleaning elephant poo from all enclosures, going to a local school and teaching English to the children, followed by unloading melons and making rice balls for the elephants
Day 5: Travel home!!
Due to our very tight schedule and quick trip, we only got 4 whole days at the park, which truly wasn’t enough.
We were placed into a group of around 15 people and have made friends for life. The team work needed to complete each task meant bonding and working together with people from all walks of life and all over the world. We will now call these people friends for life and they truly made our experience wonderful. We were brought together by a common interest in animals and their welfare and bonded together by cleaning up poo…amongst other things! It was amazing to share the experience of meeting the elephants and being up close to these surreal, majestic and gentle creatures with truly amazing people.
Hearing the individual stories about each elephant from our extremely knowledgeable, humble and frankly hilarious co-ordinators was absolutely heart breaking. We heard of those elephants who had been blinded by hooks as they had refused to do what they had been told, those who had had their babies stolen from them, those who had arrived at the park with visible bones, cuts and open wounds, those who were disabled due to standing on landlines and those who had broken backs. Despite their horrific pasts, the overwhelming sense of happiness exuding from these elephants is magnificent. With their individual carers (official term is mahout), the elephants have an unbreakable bond with someone who will never hurt them again and who dedicates their every moment to making sure that their elephant is well looked after. These men don’t earn much and have moved away from their families to work with these amazing creatures, sending money back home whenever they can. These men are humble, kind, caring people who ask for nothing in return.
Our favourite relationship was between mahout, Patti, and his elephant, Mai Jan Peng. This 70 year old gentle giant has a hole in her ear where her previous owner had forced a hook into it when she was not compliant. Patti now puts a flower in this hole as a way to make the horrors of her past the beauty of her present. We got to handfeed this girl melon and banana – she was so strong she nearly took our hands off! We then watched in awe as she broke a stick in order to hold it with her trunk and scratch herself to soothe her itches.
Patti carves Mai Jan Peng out of wood to sell for money to send back to his family. We brought three home with us!
The elephants of ENP are released from their very spacious enclosures at 7am and head to their chosen areas and herds to spend the day eating, having mud baths, bathing in the river and just being free elephants…something that most of them sadly have to learn rather than something that is just a regular state. They scratch, interact, bathe, roll and play with toys and tyres. They are truly at peace and this is the overwhelming feeling when you see them. At around 4.30pm, the elephants are walked into their enclosures for the evening. The reasoning for this is that they are allowed time to just be, without human interference and without restriction. These large enclosures are padded with sand for the elephant to get their essential 3 hours of sleep, sometimes have fires next to them to ensure the elephant is warm overnight, and contain plenty of food for the elephants to graze on (elephants eat for 18 hours per day!!).
And it is not just the elephants who live in pure harmony at ENP. The free roaming dogs that I had the pleasure of spending time with and giving lots of attention to are truly happy. They run for miles, they have constant food and water, they play, they rest, they bathe in the river and they are inundated with human adorers. Unfortunately, due to an outbreak of distemper, I was unable to see and walk the dogs within the enclosures. This was for their safety and mine and to attempt to contain and manage the life threatening disease which actually saw 2 puppies die in the week that I was out there. There is an overwhelming sense of urgency to care for these animals, to protect them, and to get the disease under control to save as many of these dogs as possible.
Some of my favourite dogs were: Memphis, a 12 year old dog who has diabetes and other health conditions and every night wears a coat to indicate that he has had his medication – if he is not wearing this, he needs to be taken to have them! Ahn, another 12 year old dog who spent meal times wagging his tail at your feet. Anna, a gorgeous, softer than soft, young dog who loved nothing more than smothering you in kisses and love. Allan, who came all the way to the top of the hill in the rainforest to join us in our fire break duties.
All of these animals live in harmony. It’s quite overwhelming. It hits you like a tonne of bricks how happy and loved each of these animals are. They are all known by name and by character. Their back story is shared. They are truly at peace.
Every night, entertainment was put on for all volunteers. This included a traditional welcoming ceremony on the first evening, a thai culture and language lesson, a thai dancing show and lesson, authentic thai massage and an unbelievable performance from the mahout band, who played on water butts and pipes.
The food was absolutely incredible. An entirely vegetarian menu, it consisted of flavoured rice, the most delicious noodles I’ve ever taste, soups, curried dishes and lots of tasty sauces and veg. I’m missing it already now I’m home!
One lasting thing I will take away, one of many things actually, is to never forget how lucky I am. Some of the people we met on this tip have nothing, ask for nothing, live in the most basic of environments, sometimes are without a flushing toilet, and yet they are happy. And not the happy the world tells us we should be, but the happy that goes right down to your core. The happy you don’t have to work at, the kind of happy that just comes from being at peace, and to be truly in love with your life. These people have taught me to embrace opportunities, to not take for granted the things that I have, to be authentically myself, to be kind and to above all, to be happy.
I cannot begin to explain this experience, the staff, the people we met, the experiences we had, the things we’ve learned and the things we will remember forever. It was life changing, humbling and truly inspiring. I am inspired to do more good, to help others and animals where I can, to donate to good causes in whatever way possible, and to be a better person.
ENP are always looking for donations and help. They cannot function without volunteers and donations. If you are interested in knowing more, or helping out in any little way that you can, please take a look at the elephant nature park website: https://www.elephantnaturepark.org as well as the Save Elephant Foundation website for more sanctuaries all over the world: http://www.saveelephant.org
Sometimes, you have feelings of utter peace in your life, and those suffering with depression and anxiety need more of those moments. This wonderful place provided that for me. An overwhelming feeling of being in the right place, at the right time.