Jan Peng is eighty years old and has a marigold wound through her ear. She is blind in one eye, a wound from an old handler when she reacted to some slight or another. She is enormous and still strong, and grows cautiously used to our presence, mostly because our presence necessarily includes all the watermelon and banana she can eat.
Most of the elephants here have seen hard lives. They’ve been broken and worked from a young age, either used for logging or corralled into the tourism industry. There are broken bones, ruined limbs, blind eyes. They are mighty creatures, but that has not meant safety from cruelty. Still, the park is safe. The mountain is safe. They have this forest, and this river, and this field.
The local use of elephants as work animals is deeply embedded in the culture, and it is hard, as foreigners, to be critical yet not feel nosy and like cultural imperialists. The road to Elephant Nature Park also features a variety of other elephant themed tourist spots, where you can ride around on their backs and try not to notice when they get hit or hooked behind the ears. Is it our place to impose ourselves here and tell them right from wrong? All we can do is be conscientious, to decide where our money and our words go. The owner of the park is local, too, and has spent her adult life rescuing these animals, building them a safe home, and trying to maintain the local habitat for them.
The first elephant rescued, Mae Perm, is a local den mother. She spends most of her days caring for Jokia, a blinded elephant, keeping by her side for guidance and comfort. The mahoots never keep them from each other. Mae Perm is practically the welcoming committee. Every new elephant is greeted by her, is protected by her, kept safe and watched. When they grow accustomed, when they are capable of socializing, when they show independence, Mae Perm backs off and returns to Jokia. Is it possible to want to be best friends with an elephant?
We are handed buckets, and told to get into the river.
Yes, the river is probably 50% elephant urine at this point, but then we have spent the last five or six hours dodging mammoth turds hiding in the fields, enormous dung landmines waiting for the unsuspecting foot. We are going to hang around giant mammals all day – did we expect litter box training?
A large, middle-aged lady elephant waits for us in the water, her mahout guiding her in and hanging off to the side. She is quite used to his aid by now, and is happy to get such regular full-service bathing. We dip buckets into the water and hurl them atop her enormous back, cooling and washing her, and when she feels we have done a sufficient job, she rolls suddenly into the water, and he must run to get out of her way.
Moments later she waddles onto land, directly into the dirt, and proceeds to shellac herself with mud. It is hot out, after all.
The Park allows single-day trips, all the way up to week long “volunteer” engagements (it’s costly ecotourism, but you get to spend time with elephants, and it is expensive to keep these elephants in sufficient watermelon and beautiful mountain vistas). A bunch of teenagers have arrived the same day for their week of quality elephant mongering.
They are the most annoying kids we have ever heard. I knew I avoided teaching high school for a reason. A boy mentions how he always thought he’d meet his future wife on this journey, to which a girl thankfully retorts, “We are eighteen.” Later, they argue about whether or not one of them would really say that another one has too-small hands. Their words feel like icepicks being jammed in my ears.
The Park has also become an impromptu rescue centre for stray dogs, a huge influx coming after flooding in Bangkok. There is a facility across the road, but some of the dogs also hang out among the elephants. These are the dogs that learn quickly, as we do, that elephants are enormous and could kick your ass.
I don’t even have a really good through-line for this post, you guys. Just elephants. ELEPHANTS.