Half a dozen elephants wandered around the compound as I dug into my delicious vegetarian lunch at Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand. Earlier that day I’d fed and walked among many of the 37 elephants that the park had rescued from circuses, logging operations, and street begging, but at the moment I was watching a big female who was rubbing her rump against a tree hard enough to make its yellow blossoms fall.
“Elephants have very thick, but very sensitive skin,” explained my guide. “They often use tree trunks and the concrete columns scattered around as scratching posts.” The big female lumbered out of the trees and deftly picked up a broken tree branch her mahout had tossed in the dirt road. “The theory is that she will use it to scratch herself,” my guide continued. Sure enough, she wrapped her trunk around the stick and used the broken end to scratch her thigh, chest, back of her leg, and a couple of toes.
It was an epiphany moment. I began blogging in November of 2006, in preparation for a six-month round-the-world trip that began on March 11th of the following year. It was a journey that irrevocably changed my life. By the time I returned to the States I knew there was no way I could ever return to corporate life. For years I had denied my true passions of travel, writing, and photography but once whetted they could no longer be denied. Long-term, independent, solo travel would become my new life.
As 2013 drew to a close I fretted about my upcoming anniversary. I began blogging at a time when few people even knew what the word meant and it was more than two years before the blog earned a dime. There were tough times when I didn’t know if I would have enough money to stay on the road. There were other times when I was so tired that I didn’t think I could possibly keep going. Yet each time I considered quitting, something happened to change my mind. More often than not, that ‘something’ was an email from a reader, who told me how much my blog meant to him or her. So, I persevered, despite aches and pains, bouts of food poisoning, the occasional horrible hostel or guest house; through getting lost, being in places where no one spoke a word of English, and bouts of freezing cold weather in developing countries where the homes were unheated. Now, seven years later, I was itching to celebrate this landmark, but I had no idea how.
Watching that elephant wield her stick made everything fall into place. I recalled how, during my initial trip in 2007, I had visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia, where I had ridden an elephant up a hill to see the sunset from one of the temple ruins. Halfway up I turned in my seat to take a photo of the procession behind me, only to see a mahout repeatedly jam a pointed metal rod into the forehead of an elephant, forcing it to climb the hill. Appalled, I vowed to never again ride an elephant. I had come to ENP because I had been asked to support a fundraising event for the park and I wanted to thoroughly vet the operation before agreeing to help.
Elephant Nature Park is the inspiration and passion of Lek Chailert, who fell in love with elephants at the age of 16 when she saw a bull elephant with deep gashes in his chest from ropes used to drag logs out of the forest. The poor creature was angry and screaming in pain, and Lek knew she had to do something. She washed dishes and waited tables until she had enough money to buy medicine for the elephant. Before long villagers and mahouts were telling her about other elephants that were suffering. Eventually, with the help of donors, she purchased acreage and built the camp that now cares for 37 elephants, as well as a plethora of abandoned or abused dogs, cats, goats, cows, buffalo, and more.
Visitors to the park spend the day learning about elephants, feeding them, and bathing them in the river, but unlike many ‘elephant camps’ in the surrounding area, Elephant Nature Park does not allow guests to ride the animals or the use of bull hooks to break and train elephants in their care. Though Lek was taking delivery of elephant number 38 the day after I visited, she told me the park was at capacity and would not be able to accept any additional residents until enough money had been raised to buy additional land and complete new shelters that are currently under construction.
As I continued my tour, I realized the importance of this center. Seven of the elephants are totally blind. One who spent years in a circus was blinded by excessive flash photography. Others lost their eyesight when cruel handlers used slingshots to control their behavior. One elephant walks on three legs, her fourth crippled by a land mine. Yet another has a broken back. All the elephants at the park are incapable of living in the wild.
Later that afternoon, Lek arrived and walked into the center of the compound where a dozen of the pachyderms were munching on whole watermelons and pumpkins. Immediately, they surrounded her and poked their trunks into bags slung over her shoulder, seeking the treats she always brings. At her invitation, I accompanied the herd as they ranged toward the lush foothills surrounding the park. We stopped at a series of trenches, where the elephants dug up red dirt with their trunks, spraying it over their leathery rumps in an effort to stay cool. But the moment Lek sat down in the grass they again began caressing her hair and bumping her gently on the back with their trunks. One planted a wet kiss on her nose, while another balanced an enormous foot on her shoulder. Through it all, Lek showed no concern. She insists that she feels most safe when she is sitting beneath the elephants.
“When I am under them, they think I am one of the herd. They think that I am one of their babies…or that I am mommy.”
I knew that supporting this park’s fundraising efforts would be the perfect way to celebrate my anniversary. And this is where my readers came in. After all these years of writing stories and taking photographs for your enjoyment, I offered them the opportunity to help me scratch my seven year itch. A group of more than 20 travel bloggers banded together to raise $5,000 for the Save Elephant Foundation, the entity that runs Elephant Nature Park.
Readers who donated to the foundation through our project were automatically entered into a raffle to win a $3,300 (USD) holiday to Thailand! Flight Network donated a $2,000 flight voucher and the eco-friendly tour company Where Sidewalks End took the winner and a guest on a one-week tour in Thailand (value $1,300) where they visited the Save Elephant Foundation in Chiang Mai. Best of all, one of my readers WON the raffle!
27 thoughts on “Scratching My Seven Year Itch at Elephant Nature Park”
i am currently making my will and am making the elephant nature park one of my beneficiaries. the will requires specific information regarding the name of the park, the principals and how i can insure that my gift is not misplaced. please get back to me asap as i must complete the document before feb of 2015
Hi David: I have passed your name, email and comment on to a woman named Diana, my contact for Elephant Nature Park. Either she or I will follow up with you.
I know the contest is over (and I’m bummed because I plan to win all contests I enter!) but I made a small donation after reading this. It’s terrible the things that have been done to elephants but this provides some hope. Thanks for the post and how the hell have you managed to blog for 7 years? I’m coming up on 2 and it’s taken a lot to get that far! Congratulations!
Hi Kay – thanks so much for your congratulations and your donation, especially since there is no chance for you to win. As you know, blogging is a ton of work, but I’ve always found it to be rewarding, so I keep on going.
Great cause, great article, great life ! I’m a year into my new life as a pretty much full time traveller/writer, and almost done my first 6 month solo trip. I feel the exact same about elephants too. Inspiring website – thank you!
Thank you so much Johanna. Wishing you the very best travel experiences.
I can’t think of a more worthy cause Barbara, I hope the ENP continues to thrive, and that others follow suit.
Me too, BlogDaz. It’s such an inspiring story that I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to help them raise money to buy more land.
Congrats on efforts to save these treasured animals from such a hellish life. I have ridden elephants twice – the first seemed fine (no signs of mistreatment etc, but who knows) and the second at a fort in India, I witnessed the same jabbing with a sharp implement. To boot, the ivory trade continues with little abatement, elephant family groups destructed by people who are so well rewarded for trading in this hideous practice. Well done you for helping promote this wonderful cause.
Thanks so much Mark. We have to do what we can to raise awareness, for sure.
Truly adorable. Are you allowed to touch them hug them?
Hi YachtGuy. There are some elephants at the site which the guests are allowed to feed, touch, bathe, etc. But I think hugging is out.
First congratulations on your seven years! That is amazing and quite a feat. I’d say celebrating it at the ENP is a wonderful way and such a great way to give back. It’s so sad to hear about what has happened to some of the elephants and the abuse that continues but what an amazing woman to create a sacred space for them. I would love to visit here whenever I get a chance to go to Thailand…thanks for sharing this!
Thanks so much Samantha. I can hardly believe it has been seven years! And I hope you get a chance to visit ENP when you go to Thailand. It’s a remarkable operation.
We just visited the ENP in January and, of course, it inspired a blog post. I’ll be over to donate and will share your post on my social media.
Thanks so much Suzanne. Every penny is very much appreciated.
Wow – what a beautiful post! I have always loved elephants so much. They are such beautiful and intelligent creatures and so emotional too. I’ll be sure to donate in the next couple of days. 🙂 Thanks for shining a light on this barbara!
Thank YOU for your donation Bethany. Elephants are such fascinating creatures; you can see into their souls by looking into their eyes. I was very fortunate to be able to get up close and personal with them.
Hi there.. wonderful to learn that you followed your passions just after you had felt doing the same. I, myself, am too fond of writing and traveling… and am still contemplating whether at all I’ll be able to shun my financial worries and solely follow what I believe in or not…:)
“By the time I returned to the States I knew there was no way I could ever return to corporate life”… I am so glad that you followed your passions Barbara. I say this to myself everyday considering how much I love travelling and writing.. some day I wish to follow my dreams as well
Congratulations on reaching seven years of blogging. This is a great story and a great cause.
Thanks so much Steve – for reading my stories and taking the time to leave a comment.
Thanks for sharing your personal story of visiting one of our favorite animal rescue organizations, Barbara! A visit to Elephant Nature Park has been on our bucket list for a few years now (ever since Diana of D Travels Round went to work there). And now that we’ve interviewed Lek for GGT, it feels like we have a personal stake in seeing Lek’s efforts succeed. Now, if only we could win that trip to Thailand… 😉
Congratulations on your seven years in the blogosphere! 😀
Thanks Micamyx/Senyorita. I can hardly believe it’s been seven whole years.
It’s a wonderful cause, Barbara! And congrats on seven years! 🙂
Thanks Jeremy! And thanks so much for managing the fundraising for Save Elephant Foundation this year.