Looking into the deep, round and long lashed eyes of a Jurassic, gray creature so close, made me smile so deeply and genuinely my cheeks ached all afternoon. A vision of a two year old elephant dancing, hopping from one side to the other, head bopping and ears flapping as he congo’ed between two small trees will forever be ingrained in my mind. The nearly 6 foot baby’s mouth hung open in a perpetual smile as he grabbed at volunteers water bottles to quench his thirst of 50 gallons a day. His bristled hair stood straight like a cold wind wrapped around him between layers of humid jungle air; still protective compared to his mother whose wrinkled, hanging skin smoothed over years. Tangled trunks reached around for old bamboo shoots and leaves.
An hour’s ride from the center of Chaing Mai in the front seat of a hooded tuktuk, a load of backpackers unloaded to the sanctuary, a short walk through a jungle of wide green leaves and bubbling from the mountain like the sound your mouth makes when you let your jaw slack and breathe while your tongue moves from side to side. Breaking through to open air and red dirt, were where we met the two families of elephants we’d be spending the day with. The day would include feeding, bathing, coating and learning about these kind souled animals. On a trek I’d gone on two days earlier, the first activity we would do was to ride elephants! Its owner loaded two or three people atop the iron seats mounted and strapped to the elephant’s backs, a rusting chain was tied loosely around the creature’s neck and wrapped round and round a stake in the ground. Elephants do not, by nature, have strong backs and their spines are not strong enough to hold the weight of a human.
Looking back at pictures now, these elephants are visually different than the ones at the retreat. Their faces sunken, trunks slack brushing the wet clay, and darkened and wet patches under their eyes. The first thing I was told coming to Chaing Mai was if I was offered a ride on an elephant to refuse and walk instead. But only walking up to them, small beads of jungle mist and sweat slowly slipped down my temples was when I saw the treatment of these animals first hand. It seemed ironic, a cold joke that I would look up from the ground I carefully walked on so to not slip in the mud that stuck to the grooves of my sneakers to be surrounded by such word-stealing beauty of Thailand andthen to be jolted to look to my right by an abrupt order in Thai to the elephant and watch his long iron hook prod be shoved into the slack skin of its neck and pulled so that his head and body would follow suit and walk down the manmade path in the direction the trainer chose.
“It probably doesn’t hurt them,” said the oldest of a family that was on the trek with me as she mounted to the neck of the elephant and her sister and brother sat tall on the metaland cloth throne. It’s easy to want to think that, and as the saying goes: ignorance is bliss. But elephants in the wild won’t let you mount them and ride around. In order to have these elephants as a stop on your tour, they need to be broken in, so to speak. The elephant as a baby is forced to go through a process called Phajaan, or “the crush”--which is as exactly as it sounds. The calf is taken from its mother, and goes through a series of methods to force the animal to do what the owner chooses. These supplications include pulling and pushing the baby into small spaces, being swung and hacked at with the long iron hook prods and clubs, simulated hangings where rope is tied around the baby's neck and pulled upwards. Other horrific strategies including being simultaneously starved and sleep deprived for days. Burmese elephants near the Thai border are smuggled into Thailand and broken for profit.