The Elephants

Location: Baan Chang Elephant Park, Chiang Mai
Soundtrack: Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance (Marches 1,2,3, & 4) 4min55sec onwards

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There’s a majestic power about elephants.

They’re the largest land animal on Earth – to see them up close is nothing short of breathtaking. The first time you see an elephant will stay with you forever. They just have this ability to turn even the most jaded humans into tiny spectators, gaping at the wall of grey in front of them in wide-eyed wonder.

But the elephants at Baan Chang Elephant Park aren’t display animals. They’re not there for show, or to do a little dance in front of you, or for you to sit in a big basket tied to their back as they walk 100metres up a road from one bamboo roadside stop to the next.

They’re there to live their lives in happiness and peace, and you just happen to be given one day to be a part of it.

I use given correctly. We may pay to spend a day with the elephants. But the guides explain at the start of the day exactly where the money goes: to the elephants. To feed them, to upgrade their park, and to rescue more elephants.

Baan Chang Elephant Park
Baan Chang is run by Ittiphon Kantanaul, or Pom to his friends, with his wife Tinar. He even brought his mother in to cook meals for his family, staff, mahouts, and guests. The park has been running as an elephant rescue park for seven years, and has been open as a commercial enterprise for the last three years to enable the camp to earn more money to grow it’s preservation work. It’s situated well outside of Chiang Mai on the slopes of a nearby national park.

The 14 elephants at the park eat between 100,000 (AUD$33,000) to 200,000baht (AUD$66,000) of food a month.
250kg of sugarcane, bananas, banana leaves, and grain crops per elephant, per day. Seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Elephant + mahout = winning combination.

Each elephant can cost upwards of 1 million baht (AUD$333,333) to buy from their current owner, assuming the owner is willing to sell.

So the AUD$80 for the day wasn’t a fee to visit a park: it was a donation to a worthy cause. I donated my money, and in return the park gave me the gift of living with the elephants for a day, and educating myself about what it means to truly care for an elephant.

Onwards and upwards!

We fed the elephants and helped them to exercise. One exercise method consisted of us learning how to ride the elephants bareback (grab their ears, and hold on tight). Then, riding bareback with one rider behind the head and the other on the back, we took them up the mountain to a wooded area. The elephants were left to roam and play as we learned more about their lives in Thailand.

We were tasked to guide them back down the mountain, which isn’t as easy as it sounds when you have nothing to hold onto but an elephant’s two ears. We guided them to their “bath tub”, a large pond near the front of the park. Dodging the many balls of floating elephant crap, we jumped in the water and scrubbed them down.

We were all merely doing our parts to help: the mahouts do this same routine of walk, play, and scrub every day of the year, twice a day.

When you’re a mahout, or elephant trainer, there’s no such thing as a holiday or time off. You are with your elephant permanently. It’s almost a monastic lifestyle choice: you are either with your elephant, or you aren’t. Transitioning between mahouts and developing that relationship with an elephant can take anywhere from six months to a year.

I stayed overnight, and after dinner I talked about the park with my guide Lulu, and with Pom. After a while, Pom’s wife Tinar arrived from their travel agency in Chiang Mai, said hello with a stunning smile, and quickly started packing a few bags. Pom looked at me and smiled.

“We’re going away for a day and a half. That way,” he said, waving in a vaguely eastern direction. He couldn’t suppress his smile.

“We’re going to go rescue our fifteenth elephant.”

And with that, Pom vanished into the night, doing what he was born to do: rescue these majestic creatures, and bring them to his park to live a high quality life in happiness.

It’s all any of us could ever ask for, really.

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