by Anna Idler
“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.” – John Donne, Poet
“A big truck, with people!”
The representative at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (EJS) enthusiastically tells me this on the phone as Rachel and I wait to get picked up. A few minutes later, I see what he means.
The EJS truck looks like a pick-up, but with a roof over it. The back, however, is completely open. It parks outside the condos we’re staying at in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Rachel and I climb in and introduce ourselves to the six others lining the backseat. We all joke that if our moms were here they’d work together to make a body barrier so none of us fall out.
We hold onto bars above us to steady ourselves and fly down the highway, pulling onto a steep downhill dirt road. We hop out, and are handed fruits and waters to take to the sanctuary. I’m so excited I can barely focus on my steps, narrowly avoiding loose rocks because I’m too busy scanning the trees for the elephants we’re going to be with all day.
After a brief overview of the Sanctuary, the guides name the elephants we are going to meet, listing facts and sweet characteristics about them. Everyone who works at the EJS care deeply about the elephants there; in fact, this sanctuary does not allow visitors to ride the elephants because elephants aren’t designed to carry weight on their back. They have sharp bones that extend up from their spines, making them very sensitive to pressure coming from above.
We put on traditional Thai knitted shirts to meet the elephants, and stuff the pocket in front with small bananas. After a short walk to a clearing, we see them.
There are no fences, no boundaries. We are all able to walk right up to these majestic, massive animals, touching their trucks gently and stroking their ears. They are so beautiful. I love how they stay together, often bending toward each other as if they’re sharing a secret.
Everyone in our group is smiling and laughing interacting with these creatures, taking them in. We say “bon bon!” and the elephants open their mouths and extend their trunks, eager for bananas.
We make “medicine balls” for the elephants later. They are made of rice, bananas, and a special bark the locals say has healing powers. We grind the ingredients in a bowl with a wooden mallet, and take turns crafting the oatmeal-like mixture into balls to feed them.
Then comes the best part: MUD. We’re all in our bathing suits at this point, running down the pathway to the elephants. We follow the guides’ lead and gather mud to pat onto the elephants’ backs to cool them off. The baby elephant, called affectionately “Naughty Boy” by the guides because he’s known to run off, lays down and playfully rolls around and around in the mud. Soon we’re all flinging mud at each other, completely covered in dirt. We make our way with the elephants to the river to wash off. The guides hand us scrub brushes and plastic buckets that we use to softly wash the elephants. Rachel and I are so exhilarated, wading to and from each elephant making sure we interact with every single one.
Here we were, strangers from all over the world starting out this day in the jungles of Chiang Mai, and now we have this unbelievable experience in common. I will remember my time at EJS the rest of my life, and will treasure all of the little details. Seeing the elephants’ wrinkled, gray, freckled skin up close for the first time. The long eyelashes and curious eyes. The wisdom they so clearly carry with them, shining out.
If you’d like to learn more about Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and how they work hard every day to inform others about and save elephants, please visit their website: www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com.
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26 year-old Anna Idler lives in Montgomery County, PA and is a freelance writer for Montco Happening. To learn more about her travels, check out her website Outlaw Summer.