Chiang Mai, Thailand; Day 19

Today these 5 Adventurers headed off to the Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. It was a great experience and got all of us closer to these animals than we had ever thought we’d be. The elephants we were visiting are either rescued, retired or unemployed. It used to be common in Thailand to use them in logging or keep them as domestic pets. Neither is legal anymore but it sometimes happened anyway. There are several sanctuaries now in Thailand that protect and house these elephants – and basically employ them in the tourism industry to ‘donors’ like us who come to ‘volunteer’ for the day.

We knew we had a 90 minute ride out to the Sanctuary but were surprised that it was on bench seats in the back of a pickup truck – we’re living dangerously in Thailand with no seatbelts!

Once we arrived we were asked to put on traditional hill tribe shirts. The guide told us since every group wears these when they come, the elephants get used to the pattern and are more comfortable with each set of strangers. We were there with about 20 other people all pretty much dressed alike with five elephants to fawn over.

As we listened to an introduction to the sanctuary – how it came to exist, what our time there was going to be and how we should interact – the elephants started coming into the feeding area.

Soon after that, it was time to eat. Squash and banana were on the menu for lunch. Elephants have to eat at least 350 pounds of food a day so there are many meals. We had lots of food so we all got a chance to feed them as much as we wanted. You had the option to hold the food out and let them take it with their trunk or you could hold it up to the side and call ‘Bon Bon’ and they would open up for you to put it right in.

After the hand feeding was done the elephants went out in the yard for second lunch. This course was jungle greens and something similar to sugar cane. While they focused on getting their calories, we got to observe their behavior and snuggle up for some photos.

We spent several minutes watching one elephant pick up a branch, put the end in her mouth, expertly strip the leaves off the branch with her trunk and then grab another one and do the same. We assumed she’d eventually drop the branches and eat the leaves, but instead she ignored the leaves and after she had 4-5 stripped branches held in her mouth she ate them and started again.

Our next activity was helping prepare a special treat comprised of salt, fiber, hard pellets, rice and more bananas. When the elephants are sick, the vet uses this mix to give medicine but the staff feed this treat every day so the elephants are accustomed to it. The group was assigned to grind the hard ingredients with a mortar and pestle, smoosh the rice and bananas together, add the ground ingredients to the smoosh and then shape it all into tennis ball sized treats. The boys were a little weary from the heat but Suaram jumped in to help.

Next it was time to head to the river to bathe the elephants and then to the mud spa to cover them back up in mud which keeps them cool and is good for their skin. We enjoyed this immensely and the elephants seemed to enjoy it too.

We ended our day with a pretty decent boxed meal (stir fried chicken and vegetables, rice, potato curry and fresh fruit) and then jumped in the back of the truck for the return trip to town.

We really enjoyed our day. That said, we’re confident all these activities were just for the Sanctuary ‘volunteers’ to enjoy our time there. We’re quite sure the elephants are perfectly capable of feeding and bathing themselves. Regardless, they seem well taken care of and well treated. That is apparently not the case with all animal tourist attractions in Thailand so we did some research before we went and were pleased with what we saw – because after all WE GOT TO SPEND THE DAY WITH ELEPHANTS!

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