All day, we dance from one side of the elephants to another as they move around us. We try, as our guide, Anucha Jiwju, tells us, not to stand on their blind side. We realize just how blind they are when one elephant lopes off into the open field and runs smack into a concrete scratching block. Often the animals form pairs at the sanctuary, the seeing ones linking trunks with the blind, but this chang bolted too fast for either its partner or the mahouts — their human caretakers — to help guide it.
The elephants roam free across 250 acres of parkland, though they have such big appetites that many of them hover near us and our buckets of fruit all day. They eat even during their baths. I feed bananas directly into one elephant’s mouth and feel her huge tongue and wet gums against my hand. It makes me giggle like a 5-year-old. Others nudge acorn squash out of my hands with their trunks and feed it to themselves. But nothing makes me laugh as much as when the elephants crunch into half a watermelon, rind and all. It’s the biggest, juiciest, most joyous chomp.
One of the chang is so old that two young men beside me — they quit their jobs in New York and Washington when they saw cheap around-the-world plane tickets on Groupon, they tell me — are instructed to feed her only peeled bananas, because she has no teeth left.
Lek has also brought more than 200 dogs to the park, most rescued after the 2011 floods around Bangkok. Several of the dogs tease a separate herd of elephants that we’re also feeding by the riverside. They particularly like testing a 3-month old calf, Dok Mai, barking and darting around her stumpy legs. Too young to eat fruit, she’s running around crushing any stray melons lying on the ground. The fuzz on her head is still new enough to stand on end. She’s one of the few domestic elephants in Thailand that will escape phajaan, which is intended to break the animals’ wild spirit.
As part of the brutal ritual, owners force the baby elephant into a makeshift cage, starve it for a week and beat it bloody until it reaches a sort of purgatory where it isn’t fully dead, but its will to resist is. Only then does the beating stop, when the owners are confident that the elephant will always understand that humans are its ultimate master.
As I stand in front of one elephant, her trunk grasping my hand for a moment as though we’re old friends, it seems a ridiculous thought — that beasts this big could be submissive to something as small as me. Then she inches the trunk out of my palm, angling it toward my face. And blows. A rush of water and air and dust splatters my skin, and the Canadians and I fold over with laughter.
The mahouts actually like to see the elephants misbehave. They take it as a sign that the park is doing something right. Living unworked and untethered in this green bowl of the mountains is reviving their spirit.
Elephant Nature Park
209/2 Sridornchai Rd.,
A guided day trip (from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.), with round-trip transportation from Chiang Mai, is $80. Those interested in volunteering can spend the night for $185, which includes lodging, meals and two days at the sanctuary. Week-long stays are $383. Reservations required for all visits.