One person truly can make a big difference in the world, and for many Asian elephants in Thailand one woman has literally made a world of difference.
We wanted to experience something other than the usual tourist traps during our adventures in Thailand and that's how we discovered the Elephant Nature Park. Situated just north of Chiangmai, it is a unique conservation centre that one woman created for rescued elephants.
Lek Chailert is the hero behind this project.
She was born in a small hill tribe village in Northern Thailand. Her grandfather was a healer, and her interest in elephants began when he was given an elephant as a gift for saving a man's life. Her faith and hard work have helped to create an internationally renowned ecotourism initiative that brings people and elephants together in a positive and natural way, no rides or performances.
We went for a one-day volunteer visit but you could also go for a week or longer. Our guide from the center, Por, was passionate about the elephants as she spoke about their painful histories.
As we watched one group of elephants walk close to us I noticed one seemed to have a leg that was terribly deformed.
"He stepped on a land mine in Burma when he was eight months old," said Por, her voice cracking with emotion as she pointed to his limp leg.
"One older female elephant is completely blind, as the logger she worked with gouged out her eyes after she refused to work following the death of her baby. Another elephant had its hip and leg broken due to massive trees falling on top of it while logging. That younger elephant over there was paraded cruelly up and down the streets of Chiangmai in all the traffic and noise to beg for money."
Adds Por, "It is hard to imagine the emotional stress these creatures have endured."
I never really realized how sensitive elephants were until Por told us that the staff found that when the elephants first come to the centre they don't respond to the names they had in their old life. Giving them new names when they arrive helps them heal painful memories.
Suddenly several large elephants appeared on the other side of the platform slowly waving their trunks. They were exploring the food baskets filled with squash, bananas, pineapples and watermelon. Several staff members told us to not be shy and to start feeding them.
I have never fed an elephant before, but I was keen to help out, so I grabbed a bunch of bananas and held them out to the closest enormous trunk that was uncurling in front of my outstretched hands. The elephant proceeded to daintily stuff the entire bunch of bananas into her mouth with much smacking of lips — she didn't wait long to roll out her trunk for another snack.
One of my favourite moments was witnessing a group of elephants taking a mud bath. They sprayed the mud all over giving the impression they were chocolate-covered. I stood very close to the mud pit and watched two babies play and intertwine their muddy trunks in a fun game of tag. The pure joy and enthusiasm was contagious.
By far the highlight of our day was giving a partially blind female elephant a bath while she sat in the river in complete contentment. I laughed as I threw my bucket of water, along with all the others in our group, over the elephant's massive body.
There were about four elephants rolling in the river looking extremely pleased as we tossed water over their backs. One elephant completely submerged its body, leaving only its head above the water and seemed to thoroughly relish the whole experience.
The feeling of love, and helping to care and heal the elephants was the best part of my trip to Thailand.
They say that an elephant never forgets, and I know I won't forget the happy feeling in my heart after spending time with these endangered gentle giants.
If you want to help out you can visit their website www.elephantnaturepark.org
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