A Day with the Gentlest of Giants

It’s like being in a storybook, spending a day with elephants — meandering through a forest with them, feeding them, playing in the mud, bathing in a stream all together to wash off said mud… They are sweet, curious, and always hungry. They are also surprisingly quiet. I expected the earth to shake beneath them with every step, but instead it just shook beneath me with excitement.

Three of the four elephants I will spend the day with at Banpakangdoi, a camp of the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), are rescues; the fourth was born here, safe. The three had endured horrific treatment either as unwilling circus entertainers or as abused riding attractions for tourists. They sustained great injuries and trauma that they’re still recovering from. At least now they are protected and in the loving hands of ENP, whose work in this area of elephant rehabilitation is simultaneously stunning and critical.

There are many different ways that you can spend time with elephants at ENP, and I choose the Karen Elephant Experience.

The day starts off firmly in the grip of man’s world… traffic, vehicles, road construction. Coming out of Chiang Mai, the drive is like in any city. Among my merry group, I am with two Spanish men and a French woman — they’re lovely — and our cheery guide is appropriately named Smile. Far from town, we pull into a very small village where we trade our air conditioned passenger van for a rugged, mud covered 4×4 pick up truck. I feel like this swap is somehow ominous and wonder if perhaps I didn’t read the description of the day very closely. If you know me at all, you know that I’m not a particularly rugged girl… at least not yet.

My new European friends and I climb into the back of the truck, and the next hour or so tests a little fear I have: falling off the edge of a mountain. The narrow road is steep and muddy with crater-like pot holes and sheer drops off the side. Our driver is excellent though, so I’m not really concerned, but much to the way I felt on the side of a mountain in Bali years ago, I realize — did I tell any of my friends or family where I am? If we roll over the edge here, what will happen? I can’t think this way. Instead I go to my default nervous reaction: smile, laugh, and hold on tight. I make eye contact with my cohorts, and we all start giggling with international abandon. I’m also comforted by the fact that there are small groups of children speeding by us — three or four of them piled on individual motorbikes — absolutely fearless. I too must be fearless! I have elephants waiting for me.

When we finally reach the camp high atop a mountain, we are led to a beautiful bungalow overlooking the valley. Here we change into the traditional garments of the Karen tribes — baggy pants and a lose top. I realize later that in addition to adding a touch of “authenticity” to our experience, this wardrobe change will save our real clothes from the onslaught of mud that’s to come.

We’re offered coffee and tea, and as we’re taking in the beautiful scenery, we hear several voices including Smile yell, “They’re coming!” Around the corner, we see our elephants on their approach. The excitement among us is tangible as we run out to the road to greet them.

It’s as if they are walking in slow motion. So calm, so deliberate with each step. Even then, the baby of the group struggles to keep up. Watching them is calming to me — their pace, their ease, their newfound freedom. Asian elephants are smaller than African ones, we learn, and, therefore, much less intimidating. I can’t stop taking pictures.

The first thing we do with the elephants is to feed them. Smile explains that this is not only a nice way to get acquainted, but the process will help the elephants learn our smells, and ultimately it will make them more comfortable with us throughout the day. The local team brings out buckets of cucumbers and baby bananas, and Smile shows us how to feed our four new friends — Pet, New, Boone, and Gayle.

We can either put the food directly into their mouths, or they’ll take it straight out of our hands. This is the only time they move quickly. Feeding one feels like ignoring another, and they are constantly nudging our hands no matter who we are about to give a banana or cucumber to.

They’re also not shy about showing their thanks. At first their “kisses” take me by surprise. It’s a very different sensation than any kiss I’ve experienced before, and that trunk moves way faster than you’d expect.

After this meet and greet, we start to take a walk into the neighboring forest. The elephants like to wander and collect grass (the always hungry part of their DNA). It’s hard to keep track of which elephant is which, but Smile and our other guides have no trouble at all.

It’s Gayle, I think, who takes a special liking to me. I keep trying to take an #elphie of us, but her head is just so enormous, it’s virtually impossible. Eventually Smile comes to the rescue. My #elphie cohort starts getting frisky almost immediately — let’s just say that her trunk is wrapped around me with great affection.

After our leisurely wander, it’s time for the people’s lunch. We return to the bungalow where a beautiful spread of Thai delights is ready for us. And there’s a cat. There’s always a cat.

Over our fortifying meal, my European friends and I chat about our travels. They are all on holiday and assume I am too. When I explain that, no, I’m a digital nomad (a term I still can’t get used to) living out of a suitcase and working while I travel the world, they try to keep their jaws from dropping. “Wow,” one of them says, “I wish I could do that.” This is a very common reaction to my current state of being. I find myself trying to downplay how great it is, and I’m not lying. It is a really hard way to live, especially when you and your clients are separated by at least twelve hours and all you want to do is explore, not worry about when your next assignment will come in. But I catch myself. I sound ridiculous trying to make it seem as if this life sucks in any way because it absolutely doesn’t. Even with all the struggles, this is my freedom.

When we finish our meal, the real fun begins. MUD! We all amble down to the mud pit, and start rolling around. The elephants spray themselves and us. We’re throwing mud; they’re throwing mud. It’s a dirty business, for sure. In fact, I’ve probably never been so dirty in my life. The mud is incredibly squishy and slick, particularly under our feet. I’m sliding all around and almost falling into hidden potholes. There is no way to remain composed, I’m not even sure why I’m trying to — instinct, I guess. But instinct be damned. I must surrender, and then I feel true joy.

Now that we’re good and caked in mud, we walk to the nearby stream to wash off. The elephants eat more tall grasses on the way. Even in their dirtiest form, they’re elegant to watch. Once we arrive at the water, the elephants march right in — they know this drill. We follow and are handed bowls to help us wash the elephants off. In this moment, I’m so grateful for cameras because I never want to forget what’s happening. The absurdity of it, and the majesty.

With the elephants clean and us clean-ish, we make our way back to the bungalow for our goodbyes. I am relaxed and quiet, just taking in the scene. We have a bit more play time together, and the elephants (not surprisingly) eat more tall grasses. We humans take actual showers and change back into our regular clothes. As we snap our last photos and the essential shot of us with the great crew who made this day possible, I find myself not wanting to leave.

I decide that someday, when I have tons of money and can afford a long volunteer trip, I want to spend time working with elephants. Growing up as a city kid, I never spent time with any animals other than dogs, and even those were of the small, not-so-serious Lhasa Apso and Poodle variety. To be in the presence of such amazing creatures and in an environment where they are free to be themselves is transformative for me. It slows me down and makes my bullshit seem inconsequential — they actually get me out of my own head for a while, which is no small feat. I never knew how special elephants were before, but now I’ll never forget.