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"The lasting revolution comes from deep change in ourselves."
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In the river at the Elephant Nature Park, Thailand
Amanda with Jokia
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Elephants | Elephant Journals | Jan. 13-17 | Jan. 18 | Jan. 19-20 | Jan. 21-22

The Elephant Journals

Thailand, January 2006

In January, 2006, I flew from the San Francisco International Airport to Tokyo, Japan, and then on to Bangkok, Thailand to meet up with my new friend, Amanda de Normanville. Amanda and her husband, Gary Soden, are the founders of All For Elephants. Amanda was to be my trusted guide into the world of elephants.

January 13, 2006

Dave and I got up early this morning and drove to the San Francisco International Airport for me to catch a B747 to Tokyo, which then goes on to Bangkok. We arrived at the airport four hours early. When the time finally came for me to board, Dave walked right up to the front of the line with me. His kiss good-bye was full of caring and messages of concern and his missing me. I was calm, calm as the ocean on a breathless day.

January 14, 2006: Tokyo

It is raining very hard out and it appears to be windy, too. I’ve boarded the second plane on my 22 hour journey.

January 15, 2006: Bangkok

There was such bad weather in Tokyo that our plane was delayed two hours, stretching that 22 hour journey into a 24 hour journey. We had to sit in the stuffy cabin of the plane and wait for clearance to take off along with 40 other planes. The delay had us finally exiting customs in Bangkok at 2:45 a.m. I was exhausted but relatively unscathed when I left customs and turned left to find Amanda. We took a taxi to her friend’s house and crawled into bed finally at 3:30 a.m.

River view from the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok

Up at 7:15, Amanda and I crammed a lot into our first day. Riding on the Sky Tram to the river, we had lunch at The Oriental, one of the more upscale hotels. Then a taxi took us back to the apartment to nap before going to have tea with Amanda’s friend, Bill. From there we buzzed over to China Town, had dinner, walked through the open market and then hailed a Tuk-Tuk (a covered motorbike with a back seat) to take us to the train station for our ten-hour ride to Chaing Mai in Northern Thailand. Taxi ride or Tuk-Tuk, the driving techniques I have witnessed are hair-raising. Lines on the road merely hint at the idea of going straight. Motorbikes, trucks, Tuk-Tuks and pedestrians weave in and out, horns beeping and exhaust billowing. Having no control, I just look out the side windows to avoid hysteria. Now I am safely nestled on the train writing away. We have about 20 more minutes before we depart. Tomorrow I may see elephants!

January 16, 2006: Chaing Mai

The train left Bangkok on time with Amanda and I safely snuggled on board. Going First Class, we had our own private room with two beds and a wash basin. We were provided towels and around 9:30 p.m. the service came around to make our beds. By the time our beds were made I was so sleepy it was only a matter of hitting the mattress for me to be out like a light. I slept very soundly in my lower bunk on the train, waking at 6:00 a.m. to see it was still dark. I sat up in bed and, pulling the curtains back, watched dawn approach, the sun rising over rice paddies and banana trees. We went through numerous small villages, stopping only once. We’d come to hills and the train seemed to labor up and then fly down each one.

Amanda with her blind elephant, Jokia

We were an hour late to Chaing Mai, which made no difference at all. We had no plans other than to check in to our hotel and meet Lek. Lek owns Gem Travel and The Elephant Nature Park, which was where Amanda and I were ultimately headed. Amanda actually owns a blind elephant, Jokia, who now lives at Lek’s Nature Park. Lek has been featured in Time Magazine, National Geographic and many TV programs, as well as numerous other magazines. She is a lovely woman, small with a resonant, strong voice. Articles about Lek line the walls of her travel agency. I read that she was born in 1961 and grew up in a Hill Tribe village. She grew up with elephants and for a time in her life she had to leave them to go to school. Eventually she was drawn back to the elephants and the area she grew up in. Lek strikes me as a woman with many ideas who very passionately follows her heart without much planned action. That is not to say she doesn’t act, but rather that her passion dictates the action

 Lek, owner of the Elephant Nature Park

After visiting with Lek and her entourage of young volunteers, Amanda and I checked into our hotel and lay down for a much needed nap. We woke just before sunset and Amanda suggested we head for the rooftop to watch the sunset. We discovered the most glorious thing! On the rooftop was an outdoor BBQ and bar! So, we settled in to watch the sunset, sip some beer and nibble on French fries and spicy cucumber salad. It was so wonderful. There was a band playing a mix of Thai and American songs, the air was soft and warm and the food fabulous. Our rooftop sunset was followed by a hot bath and a soft bed. Nothing better!!

January 17, 2006: Chaing Mai

Chains constrict movement (handcuffed)

Lek had a driver pick us up the next morning at 7:45 to take us to the Elephant Conservation Center, about 1-hour from Chaing Mai. I was very excited. Upon arriving, one sees a grand entrance-way with huge statues of elephants and colorful flags waving in the breeze. A shuttle takes you from the parking area to the main area where you are directed to view the baby elephants. Amanda started crying right away with deep empathy for the mother elephants on display with they babies, but I did not feel any deep emotions initially. I saw two mothers in separate pens, each with a baby. The pens measured about 12 X 20 feet and the mothers were on chains about three feet long. One was “hand-cuffed”, obviously restrained more than the other. We bought bananas and sugar cane in small bundles to feed to the mothers and babies. The situation for them seemed to lack stimulus. I enjoyed my first touch of an elephant; the first sensation of feeling the wrinkles and coarse hair, looking into mother elephant’s eye, the long lashes shading a quiet expression filled with nuances I have yet to learn.

We moved on to watch the elephants get bathed. I took many photographs of the “bull hook” being wielded by the mahouts (elephant trainers). There was much sensual beauty in the bathing; colorful uniforms of the bathers atop the glistening wet, dark bodies of the elephants, the splashing and low rumbling of the elephants joining the higher pitched laughter of the people mixed into a gentle song and dance.

The “bullhook” held by mahouts

After the baths, Amanda and I took a one-half hour ride in the jungle, riding in a basket that was strapped on the elephants back. From a platform, I stepped in to the basket first and felt it list heavily to my side. Concerned for the comfort of the elephant, I slid to the middle until Amanda climbed in and it balanced out. The mahout kept motioning for me to slide back over to my side, but I waited anyway. The ride was peaceful, but so detached from the elephant that I found myself desiring even the most cursory of connections. I tried to reach down with my finger tips outstretched to just touch the elephant that so kindly carried us, but try as I might I could not reach her. When the ride was over and we dismounted, I bought a picture of us that had been taken at the onset.

From there it was off to the elephant show where the entire show spoke of what the elephants were trained to do. It was impressive in that the elephants seemed to be keen to perform and each step was shown flawlessly to my untrained eye. At the end of the show, the last “act” was two elephants painting. I liked one in particular and remembering that my friend, David Gary, had purchased a painting, decided to ask if I could. However, by the time I got up to the podium it had been sold. I must have looked very disappointed as the woman followed me and told me they would have the elephant paint one for me after the show. I was then able to take pictures of my own painting as it came to life. I was ecstatic!

My painting was dried and delivered to me at the little coffee shop central to the entire operation. Amanda and I had a delicious Thai lunch, talked to Gary briefly on the phone, and planned the rest of our day.

After lunch, we walked over to the elephant hospital where six elephants stood chained, each with illness or injury. One had cancer, another had been shot, and yet another had stepped on a landmine. The one with the landmine injury kept tilting her foot up and touching the wound with her trunk. I bought a shirt for my son, Alex, to support the hospital.

 Elephant touches her land mine injury

We then walked back to shop in the little stores at the center, including and elephant dung paper making factory, if you could call it that. One man stirred a vat of elephant dung and two women were working in another vat that held colored dung. Rows of screens with drying dung stood in the sun. I bought an elephant dung poster holder tube for my new painting. Before leaving to return to Chaing Mai, we stopped at the FAE Hospital, which claims they were the first ever elephant hospital to be established. The feel of the place was peaceful, especially after the hustle and bustle of the Conservation Center, but we really did not see much, nor did we talk to anyone. We headed back to Bangkok in preparation for our trip to the Elephant Nature Park the following day.

Elephant Journals: January 18, 2006...




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