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.

Up close and personal with the elephant that our group had just given a bath in the river

Up close and personal with the elephant our group had just given a bath in the river

“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.

Mahout rests his head against his elephant, demonstrating the extremely close relationship between the two

Mahout rests his head against his elephant, demonstrating the extremely close relationship between the two

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.

Elephants enjoy a feast of fruit as guests look on from a viewing platform

Elephants enjoy a feast of fruit as guests look on from a viewing platform

Guests are allowed to descend from the viewing platform once the elephants are feeding

Guests are allowed to descend from the viewing platform once the elephants are feeding

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.

Bathing the elephants in the river

Bathing the elephants in the river

Mahout rubs the elephant's tongue after his bath at the river

Mahout rubs the elephant’s tongue after his bath at the river

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.

Entry fees and donations are helping to build facilities at the park, like this new enclosure for the elephants

Entry fees and donations are helping to build facilities at the park, like this new enclosure for the elephants

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.

Elephants use their trunks to cover themselves with dirt from these trenches, which helps to keep them cool

Elephants use their trunks to cover themselves with dirt from these trenches, which helps to keep them cool

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.”

One of the rescue elephants plants a kiss on the face of Founder "Lek" Chailert

One of the rescue elephants plants a kiss on the face of Founder “Lek” Chailert

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!

Scratching My Seven Year Itch at Elephant Nature Park