I scrubbed mud into the large cracks of her blue grey skin and watched as her eyes slowly drifted shut. She seemed to love the feeling especially after the 40 years she spent carrying logs out of the jungle; stripping the natural resources from a place she and her herd might have called home. I remember sitting in a restaurant with my dad and talking about whether animals have an internal life or if they are merely driven by instinct. My dad believes the latter but I think his beliefs would change after spending the day with an elephant.
We awoke in accommodation that we had found only the day before. There were five of us who all planned on the long weekend to pay a visit to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Pattaya. Craig and Lauren, a couple who have helped me maintain my writing ability through a few weekly writing workshops, were both were in attendance. While Amy and Hannah had ventured with me to Koh Phi Phi. The four of them initially became friends the term before I arrived and it would have been easy to ignore the influx of new teachers but thankfully they were welcoming. I would even describe them as kind people but as Hannah likes to say, “If I am being nice to you it means I either don’t know you or don’t like you.” A concept that I have become very familiar with after 25 years in the Butler family.
When first arriving to Pattaya we experienced an accommodation hiccup. We had chosen a hotel on Booking.com that turned out to be an apartment complex. We sketchily gave our money and booking confirmation to what seemed like the snack shack by the pool. We went to the back building where they said the room was only to find a banner in the lobby saying that subletting is strictly forbidden and could end in jail time or serious fines. We got our money back easily as if this wasn’t the first time that this had happened and made our way down the road in search of a new place to stay.
Homeless is better than in prison that’s for sure.
After a much-needed beer we discovered the Lotusland Resort, aptly named as it seemed that lotus’ made up most of the décor including the bed linens. It was a nice place to stay that was set back a bit from the main road down Jomtien Beach making it quiet. I curled up like a cat in the twin bed under the window with a belly full of delicious Indian food and dreams of elephants.
We were picked up promptly at 7 from our hotel the next morning. The five of us getting in the back of a converted pickup truck that wasn’t quite a songthaew. We only had one other hotel pick up before the sanctuary, a couple who had come to Thailand as a part of their honeymoon. We all got to know them as we made our way out of Pattaya, and into the green hills surrounding. The ride was a little bumpy and there were a few times where I thought someone was going to end up in my lap.
In all honesty, it didn’t look like much when we arrived. I thought it had the aura of an abandoned summer camp with three small pavilions and a metal outbuilding outfitted with toilets and showers. We put the recommended change of clothes, towels and bags in the lockers provided while one of the Program Leader gave us a brief overview of the program and information about the Sanctuary. He instructed us on proper ways to interact with the elephants even mentioning some of their personal preferences.
The Elephant Jungle Sancuary in Pattaya in home to five elephants who all came striding out and into the smallest structure. Asian Elephants are the smaller cousin of the African Elephant but even as they don’t stand as tall they have an enormous presence. We approached them with caution and gentleness as they ate bananas whole right out of our hands. I kept coming back to one elephant. There was playfulness behind her eyes as she cheeked large pieces of watermelon. She would only gulp it down after there was the equivalent of two full watermelons in her mouth.
The Program Leader dove into speaking about the elephants we continued to feed and their lives before the sanctuary. Each of the 5 had either come from a riding camps or had worked in logging. They were magnificent creatures and the thought of them being used for solely entertainment purposes seemed wrong. While the elephants at the sanctuary are a delight to watch, and interact with they also help educate those who visit. It is not my place to make ethical judgements for others but to me this seemed like an ideal place for them to end up since they can no longer return to the wild.
PSA: There is a lot of information about ethics of elephants in Thailand so please do your research. My biggest tip is to avoid any tour operators who are marketing elephant rides. Their spines are not made to carry weight on their backs especially for long periods of time.
He told us their names the one I had been feeding and would later bathe was named, Boon Me. While Wassana brought laughter because of her fear of dogs. Imagine a 4 ton creature walking away from food because the stray dog was eating the bananas and chunks of watermelon that had fallen on the ground. I wondered for a while what it meant that like people, elephants could have something as unique to their personality as a fear. Did it also mean that they enjoyed different things? Do they have favorites?
After they ate there fill, the group of us changed into our bathing suits and walked with our new wrinkly friends to the mud pit. I was ready to get covered but that didn’t help from the yelp that escaped me as one of the guides poured a bucket of mud over my shoulders. I stood next to the front leg of Boon Me scraping the mud off my skin and wiping on her. She seemed so at ease. As soon as I was done perfecting my elephant mud bath technique it was time to rinse off.
It is an incredible sight to see an elephant swim. The Program Leader informed us to be careful about the depth of the water but as a girl who had grown up next to a lake that didn’t stop me from plunging in. I swam next to Wassana’s head playing one of my new favorite games, “Where is her trunk?” The water was a murky brown and disguised the trunks so knowing where you are in relation is difficult that is until she raised it out of the water and sprayed.
Once most of the mud had been washed out of my bathing suit and hair in the shower I got changed. There was a delicious lunch waiting for us but none of us wanted to sit still too long we wanted to get back to feeding the elephants. We had another hour with them before we had to say goodbye and we made the most out of it. This time we got large stalks of sugar cane and watched as they would curl a piece in their trunk and chew on the end. They were a joy to just watch.
The end of the program we got to learn about how to make paper from elephant dung. They didn’t show us the initial process but rather how to spread out the already dyed and treated plant matter in a tray. You must pat the tray when it is in the water so that it sticks together when it dries creating paper that reminds me more of linen fabric than what I print on at school. We got to take handfuls and make cards.
Overall, I thought the tour was ethical and well put together especially for somewhere other than Chiang Mai which seems to be the Elephant capital of Thailand. I do hope to make it to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai to spend more time as all Pattaya offers currently is half day excursions. In the meantime as my Mother and I always say to each other, keep your Elephants calm.
With Love and Wanderlust,
The Exuberant Traveler