Tag Archives: Elephants

Lampang and Elephants

After a relaxing day in Lampang, we immersed ourselves in the world of elephants. A century ago there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand, with several times that in the wild. Today only about 4000 remain, with more than half in captivity. We spent five days at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), dedicated to increasing conservation and knowledge about elephants.

14 December – Lampang

We had free time in the morning, so I took a walk with Sharmon and Suzette. We found a shimmering temple, crossed a bridge, walked along the Wang River, and went to see Wat Ponc Sanuk Nua. On our way back we came across what was once a beautiful teak building, now decaying. We reconnected with Judith-Kate and Valerie who had been having massages, and got a van ride to lunch to meet Richard Lair, a renowned elephant expert. He regaled us with stories about his 40+ years in the elephant world, starting at Marine World when it was in Redwood City. Since, sadly, there are more domesticated than wild elephants in the world, he made them his specialty and has worked hard to train mahouts and others in the proper care of this amazing animal. Perhaps due to their long lives, about sixty years, elephants have not been selectively bred as have other domesticated animals, so they retain their wild nature.

After lunch those of us who had not had massages in the morning got dropped off at the Herbal Center for one-and-a-half-hour balm massages. The first half was like a traditional Thai massage; in the second half we got padded with hot balls of herbs. My legs remained yellow for several days thanks to the tamarind they contained.

Jami and I got dropped off at an ATM on our way back to our hotel, for one last withdrawal from my checking account. On the elephant tour part of my trip, most of my cash has been spent on souvenirs since meals are included. I immediately made a purchase on my way through the street market, spending about $3 for a cute cotton jacket. We ate dinner on the patio cooked by our host’s staff: delicious chicken, fish, jackfruit salad, vegetables, and a couple small meat dishes.

15 December – meeting our elephants

It took about an hour to get to the primary destination for this tour, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC). The center has about 120 elephants and more mahouts; each of these men paired with an elephant. We sang a few songs on the way. When we reached the center, we unpacked at Home Stay, my bamboo hut is dark and musty, and changed into mahout suits: large, baggy, denim outfits.

We were then introduced to “our” elephant, all female. Mine is named Wanalee, she is 22 years old, and one of the shorter elephants. Her mahout, Tiam, is one of the older ones. The elephants were happy to get a break in their routine. Four of them, including Wanalee, are usually in the elephant show, and the fifth is a “taxi elephant” giving rides to tourists. They eagerly greeted their friends as we headed to the forest, one of them trumpeting goodbye to an elephant temporarily confined due to a leg injury.

We hiked about six miles with Wanalee bringing up the rear, eating the whole time. One of her favorites was bamboo. She pulled down the stalks, stepped on them and stripped off the leaves. She weights 3000 kg (6600 lb); this is more than three tons, about the weight of two cars. For her size, she has been deemed to be a bit overweight, so she and a few other elephants now have a daily walking routine so they can lose a couple hundred kilos.

The elephants were staked out in various spots in the forest while we had our lunch break. For our walk, most wore a chain around their right front foot which was draped across their neck much of the day. We were served sticky rice and chicken, tofu for the two vegetarians, wrapped in a banana leaf. I saved the leaf and much of my rice for Wanalee. The elephants were dusty when the mahouts gathered them, so they had them lay on their sides and we helped sweep them off with leaves. On our way back to the village, the mahouts climbed onto their elephants and walked them into the water to bathe them. They liked that.

We got back down in the mid-afternoon and the elephants were returned to their overnight spots. We picked up cold beverages and snacks at the tiny village market and changed out of our mahout outfits. I must be jinxed when it comes to showers because for the third place in a row, I had no hot water, so my hair is still dirty. Someone reset the heater afterwards, so hopefully I’ll get a warm shower tomorrow. Dinner was delicious: green curry, vegetables, and rice, with sweet potato balls for dessert.

16 December – learning about TECC

Jami lent me a Thermarest pad to add to the hard mattress so I slept fairly well. A few roosters started crowing around 4:00 a.m. but they stopped soon and I got back to sleep, until the whole chorus began at 5:30.

We walked up to collect elephants at 7:00 and watched the mahout routine. Tiam gave Wanalee a pile of hay to eat while he raked the area around her. Lots of food in means lots of dung out. He unchained her and had her lie on her side so he could sweep her off; I helped by swatting her with a rag. We walked down to the body of water, nicknamed Poop Pond, where the elephants got bathed. I rode with Tiam and we walked Wanalee into the water. I got soaked to my waist, while he rolled up his pants and stood on her back and stayed dry. I continued my ride to showgrounds, where she and others were stacked and fed, ready for the three short performances they do each day.

I took a hot shower before breakfast and changed into a new mahout outfit. We had rice soup with bowls of chicken, egg, cilantro, and garlic to add. A truck picked us up to give us a ride to the mahout training center, a few of us rode in the cab instead of the back. The muscle I pulled in Chiang Mai bothers me most when I sit on hard surfaces. Our first stop was the camp where they keep the dangerous elephants (16 males and two females), those who have broken their chains and frightened or harmed people. They are handled by experience mahouts, with a team of two each time they are moved. Male elephants in musth must also be handled carefully. During these hormonal periods even the most placid elephants can become aggressive.

At the mahout training center, Pune (“Bun”), a retired mahout, oversaw our production of medicine logs for elder elephant: rice, roots, bananas, and lot of herbs crushed together with a foot-pumped pestle. We also stopped by the hospital. TECC provides free medical care for any elephants brought to the center. Two elephants were recovering from surgery. Both had been overfed unhealthful foods and their babies died in the womb, too big to be delivered. Giant slings were available to hold the elephants upright while anesthetized.

After lunch, we watched the elephants bathe again, this time with paying tourists riding in and getting soaked, then saw the elephant show. The show is more educational than entertaining. It demonstrated how elephants were used for logging, and some of the things they can do with their trunks which contain thousands of muscles. Afterwards we walked or road with them back to their night spots. The rest of the afternoon was spent resting, drinking beer (some of us), chatting, and enjoying another tasty dinner.

17 December – another forest walk, baby elephants, and a museum

This morning we collected our elephants at 6:30, ate breakfast, and headed out into the forest. I road on Wanalee for the first fifteen minutes just to have the experience of seeing the world from that vantage point; it was more comfortable than I expected. On our way to our lunch spot, a bamboo platform in the middle of forest, we stopped to visit two baby elephants, each in a large pen with their mothers. Moonbeam is two years old and Baiboon is one. We played with Baiboon for quite a while. She is so cute! (There is a chance that Wanalee is pregnant, since she had a “honeymoon” with a male a few months ago. Her first calf died after birth about five years ago.)

After a leisurely lunch break we got picked up in a truck and went to see the TECC museum. It has exhibits about the different types of elephants and their history. Mammoths, African and Asian elephants have a common ancestor. Asian elephants are the smallest ones, though I wouldn’t consider them small by any other definition. The ones we are meeting are of the Indian subspecies. Based on a small carving found in Pakistan, elephants have been domesticated for at least 5000 years. They have been part of the Thai culture for centuries and used for many purposes, including war, transportation, and logging.

We went to a few markets and while the cooks purchased dinner ingredients, we shopped a bit. Judith-Kate bought one of the brooms we’ve all been admiring. Back at TECC we helped with a bit of chopping for dinner: yellow chicken curry and delicious veggie soup. We then had a party. The mahouts rolled out a couple bamboo mats in the middle of the street and the Mahout Band played for us. Val joining in with the drumming. There was singing and dancing in the street, with shots of white whiskey (the worst I’ve tasted yet) passed around. We all laughed watching the mahouts perform the elephant dance. Great fun, all rolled up and quiet by 21:00.

18 December – camping

The camping portion of our visit was almost canceled due to drought and we would have missed a wonderful day. Instead it was shortened from two nights to one and large barrels of water were trucked in for the elephants. The elephants wore long lengths of chain around their necks so they could move about while staked out in the forest overnight. We reached our camping spot before noon. Our gear was delivered by truck so we didn’t need to carry much. I walked almost seven miles today, possibility the furthest since I started my trip.

When we arrived, we honored the spirits of the land, lighting incense and putting food in the spirit house. Lunch was served at a picnic table with large banana leaves as a tablecloth; I later fed some to Wanalee. We set up our bedding on a bamboo platform inside mosquito nets, two women per cube. I shared one with Val.

After a welcome siesta, the fun began. We helped cut wood for the fires and bamboo for everything. We admired the mahouts carving ability as they made bamboo cups and stirring spoons for us. Dinner was served in bamboo troughs on a large tarp, and with translation from our guides, Fern and Amnat, we learned move about the mahouts’ lives. Most had never finished school and came to this work due to lack of other options and a love of elephants. They would like to see more trips to the forest and less time in the elephant shows. They toasted Jami for all the joy she has brought over the years. This is going to be her last year leading tours in Thailand; she will be missed. The dishes were shoved to the middle and singing and dancing began. We observed and half-way learned some crazy dances, including a chicken dance and one about fruit, each one speeding up as it progressed. They got a kick out of the hokey-pokey and when Shar mentioned that we don’t go faster and faster, that’s just what we did, laugher all around. The fun switched to card games after we farangs (white people) retired around 9:00.

19 December – goodbye to the elephants and all the wonderful people at TECC

I had a rough night, even with a Thermareast on top of a thin pad, my hip hurt. Fortunately, I was spared the biting ants that got into Shar’s bag. Pune, who never stops working, had a fire going by the time I got up at 5:00, and boiled water for us in large bamboo columns. It was scooped out with bamboo dippers. We ate breakfast, rice soup again, just after sunrise, packed up and headed back. Tiam took a video of me walking through the bamboo with Wanalee following behind. I am definitely much more comfortable around her, and the other elephants, than I was when I first met them. We posed for a group pictures and bid a sad goodbye our elephants and mahouts. I left my sandals with Tiam.

It felt great to remove my mahout clothes and take a hot shower. We had a final meal, kao sai, with our guides and I got an iced Thai tea for the road, yum. We said our final goodbyes, climbed into the van, and headed off to our last stop, Chiang Dao.

Elephants and Sukhothai

My almost two-wek elephant tour in Northern Thailand has begun. I’m traveling with five other women, including our tour leader, Jami. We are all from the west coast of America: California, Washington, and Vancouver. We loaded into a van and headed south from Chiang Mai. We started with a couple days observing elephants in the forest at the Boon Lot’s Elephant Sanctuary, and toured the ruins of Sukhothai, capital of Thailand before Ayutthaya.

Published late due to lack of WiFi.

9 December – a travel day

Our driver, Khack, picked us up after breakfast and took us to Suan Doi House (Garden Mountain House), where Jami lead us in an opening ceremony. I’ve had an affinity for elephants for decades, as evidenced by some of my home décor. Asked about what attracts me to them, I replied their wisdom and compassion. They live long lives, have great memories, take care of each other, and their intelligence ranks up there with chimps and dolphins.

One of our first stops was 7-Eleven for change. ATMs dispense 1000 bhat notes (about $33), but most vendors don’t have enough cash on hand to accept these. On Jami’s advice, I bought a spicy tamarind treat which I really like. We also stopped to sample goi, a.k.a. yam yam, a tasty treat made with yam, coconut, sesame, and sugar. I liked both the hot cooked version (which we requested with less sugar) and the thin crispy chips. After photographing dozens of elephant statues, I saw my first live one when we stopped for lunch at TECC, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center which we will be visiting later on our tour.

I sorted Chiang Mai photos in the van as we continued south towards Sukhothai. I wish airline seats were this comfortable. We had dinner at Boon Lotts with Katherine (Kat), a Brit who founded this elephant sanctuary along with her non-deceased Thai husband. She, with the help of her five young children, mahouts and staff, provides a home for about a dozen rescued and retired elephants and many other animals. She told us a beautiful story of an elephant who spent the last year of her 60-year life at the sanctuary, grateful for the welcoming fruit she received, and departed on the wings of a butterfly. We also heard about the python that she found in her house this year; that would send me packing.

10 December – Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)

We are staying at a guest house a short distance from BLES. Like most places in Thailand, it had no heat and I needed two quilts to stay warm. We got picked up in a van, along with a young couple also visiting there this week. After a simple breakfast, we spent the whole day with elephants. Three females, nicknamed the Gossip Girls, came down from their night enclosure and hung out nearby, chatting with each other, making a purr-like rumble. We prepared rice patties filled with meds for the oldest elephant. She was used to the routine and came over waving her trunk wondering what was taking so long. I’ve never been this close to an elephant before. Next stop: the medical hut, where Kat and the mahouts treated a couple elephants, one for a foot problem and one for a sore that’s not healing in her back leg. Kat injected fluid in the wound and punched the leg to get out puss.

We walked into the forest with the elephants and their mahouts, and spent hours observing elephants. These huge animals are vegetarians, eating grasses and leaves all day long. They don’t like dirt mixed with their greens; I saw one whack a bunch of grass on the ground until all the dirt came off the roots. Lunch was delivered via truck and we ate it in a treehouse. We walked back to the house and climbed in the back of a large truck to run errands: picking kids up from school, cutting banana trees for the elephants, and picking up live fish for the crocodile who only eats weekly. After a vegan dinner, and a few purchases from the gift shop, we sat around a fire, drinking shots of home-brewed rice whisky and listening to stories about elephants. We left around 20:00 and got a ride back to our guesthouse.

11 December – more elephants

This morning we were picked up in the truck and shivered on our way to BLES. Kat shared more elephant stories with us over breakfast, then we walked back into the forest and watched the elephants for a few hours. Kat, her two youngest sons, and the mahouts then joined us for a goodbye snack at a nearby reservoir. We were able to ask questions and learned that the mahouts like both their pay and the elephants. Each is dedicated to one elephant for years, forming a strong bond of trust. We bid farewell and drove about an hour to Sukhothai.

12 December – Sukhothai

I figured out when I’m getting bitten by silent, unseen mosquitos: in bed at night. This explains why the bites are mostly on my neck. I’m going to start using insect repellent in my room.

Today we toured the ruins of Sukhothai, the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom in the 13th-14th centuries, one of several political entities that later joined to form Thailand. Our first stop, Wat Saphan Hin, was reached by a short walk up a stone path. There we were greeted by a large standing Buddha gazing down at a beautiful view, a peaceful way to begin our day. Wat Sri Chum also contained a large Buddha, this one in a seated position; here we spent a few minutes seated below it, next to a huge hand on which visitors had rubbed gold paper. After a quick group shot in front of the elephants at Wat Sorasak, Jami rented bicycles for us and we set out to explore the walled center of this small city. I made it to the main temple area, which I think it called Wat Mahathat, before my rear brake failed and I could no longer move my bicycle forward. Several people, including Val, helped me find the nut and bolt which had fallen off, and a couple security guards helped put it back together. In the interest of caution, I headed back our rendezvous spot early, using the extra time to shop for souvenirs. In this case, I got a small Ganesh carving and a couple scarves.

We had the afternoon free and most of us got massages in our rooms. While relaxing, the Thai oil massages aren’t as deep as the ones in Cambodia; I’ll probably stick with the traditional Thai massages going forward.

13 December – travel day with stops

Heading back north, we stopped at Si Satchanalai, “City of Good People”, founded in 1250 as the second center of Sukhothai Kingdom and residence of the crown prince. We rented bicycles to explore this small, flat city. The weather was perfect and my one-speed bicycle worked fine.

After lunch, which included a steamed fish with a delicious lime sauce, we continued our van ride, stopping at a fabric store where everyone bought something. We reached Lampang in the late afternoon. Our teak guesthouse is in a lovely spot overlooking the Wang River. We had drinks on the patio, took a short walk to a restaurant serving New York style pizza; the owner has never been to that state; he’s from Oregon.