Elephant time!

Warning: this post may induce squealing and proclamations of “Aw!! Elephants!!”

For my Asian Elephant experience, I chose not to ride the elephants, but to go visit them in a preserve that’s dedicated to providing a safe haven for elephants that have suffered from exceptionally hard lives: Elephant Nature Park.

Elephants play an interesting role in Thai culture. They are the national symbol of Thailand, and have long been used in religious ceremonies and art, for transportation and logging, and most recently for tourism. Logging was made illegal in Thailand in the late 80s, meaning that those mahouts (handlers, companions and owners) with elephants once involved in logging were placed in the desperate situation of needing to care for these massive animals, which eat 300 kilos of fruit and veggies per day, without a job. There were extremely limited options: illegal logging on the Burmese border; breeding camps; trekking camps for tourists to ride the elephants; and begging in city streets with your elephant.

So the elephants definitely get the short end of the stick here. Working elephants are considered domestic animals and have no protections despite being a part of a seriously endangered species; it is the sole responsibility of the mahout to care for the animal. Many cities have made begging illegal, but in others, elephants are exposed to car pollution and occasionally hit by cars, the stress and noise of a big city, and malnutrition. Logging and trekking can lead to serious injury, and mothers barely get time off when they give birth; offspring must follow their mothers through the days work without breaks to be fed. Occasionally there will be a lucky break, and the ENP will be able to buy the suffering elephant.

I was with a group of 9 visiting the park on a sunny, beautiful morning. We first got to breakfast with the elephants. That is, elephants wandered over to the visitor building, and we got to feed them watermelon, pumpkin and bananas. The elephant I fed was named Lucky.

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She was purchased from a circus earlier this year, and is blind in both eyes from the bright spotlights used there. Because she can’t see, you have to guide her trunk to the food, placing the fruit into the space just behind the trunk opening. Lucky then curls her trunk around the fruit and inserts it in her mouth, crushing it with a juicy smack. You will be coated in elephant trunk drippings.

We walked all over the park, meeting some of the 30 elephants living there. They are given fairly free range, but are accompanied by mahouts (walking beside, and none use a bull hook or even a stick) to help avoid any issues. We came upon Mintra and her 9-day old calf, Yindee, hanging out with auntie in a shady shed. While we fed mom some juicy fruit, baby had breakfast too.

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This is Mintra’s first calf. She’s suffered from hip problems likely from being hit by a car, and is nervous about nursing due to an old chest injury. When the little one startled, we caught a glimpse of protective maternal instinct: immediately, auntie and mom shielded baby between them. The scare didn’t last long, and soon the little fuzzy guy was out to play again.

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Look at that smiling face!!

Elephants are social creatures, and the park has many family groups and friend pairs that have formed. We met Dani and Lucky at breakfast; the family group of Malai Tong (a land mine victim), Dok Ngern and her 5 mo calf Dok Mai, and Sri Nuan swimming in the river;

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and Tilly and Jokia making their way down to the river bank for a bath.

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Tilly on the right, and Jokia

Jokia’s story is one of the most heart-wrenching in the park: she is blind in both eyes from mahout mistreatment. She was a logging elephant, and miscarried while working at nearly full term of pregnancy, and Jokia never had the chance to check to see if the baby survived. She became depressed, and when she wouldn’t get up to work, her mahout shot a slingshot into her eye to force her. At another time, she became angry at the mahout and swung her trunk to hit him. He in turn blinded her other eye with a bull hook- a blind elephant is more docile, and swings can be avoided. Jokia was eventually sold to the ENP.

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She looks so sad, but she has a good home here, and great elephant friends

I got to spend several minutes just talking to her and rubbing her trunk and jaw to scratch itches as she leaned into my hand in pleasure. When I went to move away, she followed and pressed her trunk to my hand again. It was the best part of the day, being in intimate contact with this wonderful lady and getting to provide some small comfort.

Bath time was a lot of fun- splashing water all over the elephants (and each other!) while they trumpeted in the river. Lucky was our customer again, and while she doesn’t like to be touched (remnant of treatment in the circus), she does enjoy a good bath!

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Banana snack during bath time

Immediately afterwards, the elephants cover themselves with dirt again as a natural sunscreen and bug repellant- so much for the clean feeling!

We just spent the afternoon watching life on the preserve: family groups eating together, including 10 mo male Navaan;

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It’s hard to tell who mom is, the family is so close knit

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some feisty elephant behavior;

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one more chance to feed them.

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The family group with 10 mo old Navaan

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Little 5 mo old Dok Mai gets some watermelon from her mahout

I found I didn’t really need to climb on their backs to have an experience with these creatures that I will never forget.

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Saying hello to Mae Perm, the park’s 90-year-old grandma!

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Wat’s cookin’, good lookin’?

This week brings me to Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, and the historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom from 1296 to 1775. The Lanna Kingdom at times comprised parts of Burma, Thailand and China; at various times, it was controlled by each of these. The old city of Chiang Mai, found in the center of the modern city, retains the moat and parts of the walls that provided protection from enemies including the Burmese and the Mongols.

I had three major things to do in Chiang Mai:

1. See temples, aka wats. There are only 300 of them scattered throughout the area!

2. Learn to cook Thai food. What better place to do it?!

3. Hang out with some elephants, natives of Thailand’s jungle highlands.

Well, success! I’ll cover 1 & 2 here, and 3 next post (it will be worth the wait!)

Chiang Mai’s most famous temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, found just outside the city on Doi (meaning mountain or hill) Suthep. Legend has it that a Lanna king was presented with a relic- Buddha’s shoulder bone. The relic was broken in two, with one piece enshrined in a temple; the other piece was placed on the back of a sacred white elephant and released into the jungle. The elephant was said to have climbed Mount Suthep, trumpeted three times at the top and died. Wat Doi Suthep was build on that spot.

309 steps lead up to the temple from the road, lined with matching dragons:

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These set the tone for the splendor of the temple complex itself. In the main temple building, a large walled square with an open courtyard, you find the golden chedi (also known as a stupa or pagoda).

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It is surrounded by gilt Buddha statues in all poses, fresh flower offerings and yellow candles, and shrines in the middle of each of its four sides.

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The surrounding walls, which are covered in mosaic depictions of the lives of Buddha, also have large shrine rooms, some with monks offering blessings to supplicants. People walk around the chedi three times, offering prayers to Buddha and requests for blessings.

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Outside this area, you find massive ceremonial bells and other smaller shrines- smaller, but no less elaborate.

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I do wish I’d had a guide to describe the parts and functions of the temple, but I certainly can appreciate the artistry on my own! And, I ran into some one I know!

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And her twin!

Just kidding.

After the temple, I returned to Chiang Mai for a cooking lesson- How to Burn your Tongue 101, with Baan Thai Cookery.

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I got to concoct 4 dishes, plus we visited a local market and discussed the essential ingredients for Thai food: lemongrass and kaffir lime, ginger or galangal, basil, chiles, fish sauce and shrimp paste, cilantro, rice and noodles, and chiles, plus eggplants of all shapes and sizes, mushrooms and mushroom sauce, oyster sauce, and chiles.

First up: stir fried rice noodles or Phad Thai. Baan Thai provides all the ingredients in the perfect amount for 1 serving; all I had to do was chop my tofu, cilantro, scallion and garlic. Stir frying itself took less than 5 minutes, but there was definitely some prep we newbies didn’t have to worry about- cutting up chicken, softening the rice noodles. And it came out quite good (I are it before I took an iPhoto tho)! I think mine needed a bit more fish sauce, but that’s something I get to play with as I make Thai food at home.

Next up: soup and appetizers. I chose to make coconut soup with chicken, and this is when the chilies really came into play. They suggested 1 if you don’t want spicy; 2 for medium, and 3 for tourist spicy (10 for Thai spicy! How do they taste anything after that!?). I did 3; you just smash them with the flat blade of a knife and throw them in the coconut milk to boil with the lemongrass, kafir lime and ginger (the holy trifecta of Thai cooking).

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Plus lime, tomato, cilantro, oyster mushrooms, onion and scallions

The whole object of Thai food is to balance sweet, salty, sour and bitter; my soup did it well, and was probably my favorite dish.

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Awkward selfie, with soup!

My papaya salad was a little heavy hitting on the spicy, though!

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Turns out, when you smash three chilies with a mortar and pestle as a part of a dressing, they release ALL the heat- I had trouble eating more than half of my creation, and even the gal teaching me said it was pretty spicy (but not Thai spicy, still, and she liked it). I did like that salad, too- I’ll have to try that out at home, I guess you can substitute carrot and cucumber when green papaya isn’t available (and when is it?).

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Last but not least was the Penang curry- a red curry for which we made our own chili paste, chopping red chilies to a paste-like consistency and combining those with other pulverized spices and shrimp paste. Penang is quite a mild curry made with coconut milk, but I think it could have used just a touch more heat.

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Wok time!

Overall, I was delighted with my Thai cooking class- anyone up for a dinner party?