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Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai, Thailand

15 Feb

When you think of Thailand, an elephant almost automatically pops in your head doesn’t it?  This majestic creature has been the symbol of this country for decades and interacting with one is the main tourist attraction for many of those visiting – especially in the north of the country.

But the question you want to ask yourself is this…. How do you want to engage with this elephant?…  Ride one?  Walk with one in nature? Observe or take photos of it in the wild?  Care for one and learn about their way of life?  We chose the latter and headed to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park (www.saveelephant.org) – located in the gorgeous Mae Taeng Valley – just about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai City.

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The view, while enjoying our morning coffee

Elephant Nature Park or ENP for short, is the best known sanctuary for elephants in the region – due to the vision, dedication and animal love of one small but very mighty Thai woman called Sangduen or “Lek” Chailert.

Lek grew up as the granddaughter of a Khmo hill tribe medicine man, in a remote mountain community in Northern Thailand.  Often, he brought back sick and injured animals from the jungle for healing. When he cured the Chief of the local Karen tribe – he was given an elephant.  This animal called “Golden One” became Lek’s close companion and started her affection to work with these majestic creatures.  It was early on in the forests where Lek first observed the suffering of elephants, engaged in logging.  The atrocities she witnessed here compelled her into her mission of rescuing Asian elephants from all over Thailand (and now also Cambodia and soon Burma) from logging, street begging and tourism (riding, elephant painting, etc.).

We felt honoured to meet Lek during our first orientation day in the Park. She explained to us what kind of abuse elephants go through to be able to welcome riders on their backs or perform e.g. a “painting show”.   A century-old ritual in northern Thailand (still legal to this date), designed to domesticate young elephants is called the “crush”.  Elephant calves, 4-5 years old, are put in a very tight cage while village men stab nails into their ears and feet for days. In addition to beatings, handlers use sleep-deprivation, hunger and thirst to “break” the elephants’ spirit and make them submissive to their owners.

The video we were shown of this “crush” ritual was unbearable to watch and I kept trying to shield the children from the gruesome images shown, but they insisted they wanted to see and learn.  Honestly, I don’t know anyone that in good faith can go ride an elephant after seeing that video (we are certainly “cured” for life and know better now).   Our orientation brought home right away why we were at ENP to volunteer!

Lek was on her way to Burma that evening (she recently opened an elephant sanctuary there – kudos to her & her staff for being the first foreign NGO allowed in Burma and trying to be ahead of the tourism industry that is just developing in that country)….but she was extremely gracious in allowing us to talk with her and seeing her interact with the animals.  As soon as she appeared, the elephants seemed to wrap themselves around her like a cozy blanket. Many of them, she cared for since they were very young – and her love for them just radiated.  Amazing to watch!

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Elephant Nature Park founder Sangduen “Lek” Chailert with her beloved elephants. They wrap themselves around her when she appears on the scene.

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Emile with one mighty inspirational woman and award-winning conservationist

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Lek showing the boys not to be afraid of the elephants

Following our interactions with Lek, we learned what our week at EPN would look like.  Days would start at 7 am with breakfast, followed by morning “duty” from 8-10:30 am, then lunch at 11:30 am and afternoon activity from 1:30-3:30 pm. Dinner at 6.  The park only serves vegetarian food – of the very best kind – wow what a variety, absolutely loved it! (Emile told me that if I could cook vegetarian like that, he would be able to give up meat for good…o my, the challenge is now before me!)

So what were our volunteer tasks at EPN?

Banana Trees and Grass Cutting

Our work on day one involved cutting (mostly done by the locals) and carrying banana tree leaves & stems into a truck for transport back to the park.  Emile and Filou quickly jumped in and had great fun carrying the heavy cargo.  Anthony also did his fair share of heavy lifting!

We skipped the grass cutting activity with the kids as it apparently involved large machete knives, burning sun – standing all day on a sloped hill (group members came back with cuts in their necks and arms from the razor sharp leaves – bless them for their hard work!).

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Banana tree “duty” was fun (and heavy)!

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Elephant Kitchen and/or Food Preparation

The sheer quantity of food for the elephants, stored in the kitchen, was amazing to observe – and each day more would come in! Every afternoon, we would unload another huge truck of bananas, pumpkins or watermelons for these vegetarian gourmands.

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As some of the young or abused animals do not have strong enough teeth to eat the skins of the fruits provided, we were on peel duty – I must have peeled 75 watermelons by the time the week was over! Emile and Filou enjoyed peeling bananas, mashing them up and turning them into “banana balls” (mushy bananas mixed with grains and medicine). Very fun!

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Two lovely Australian ladies in our group who said that the young and the old work well together!

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Filou with his “banana ball” 

Filou was also great at entertaining the crowds in the kitchen with silly dances and jokes….he even got himself buried in bananas by the volunteers who loved his playfulness!

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Filou clowning around and getting himself covered with bananas

Elephant Poo

Elephants eat an enormous amount of food (300-600 pounds of food a day!) and consequently eliminate an incredible amount.  In the centre of the Park was a “mountain” of elephant poo – which apparently was only 1 month’s worth; mind-blowing!

Emile quite enjoyed helping to scoop poo; he volunteered for this task several times (to spare others, perhaps?).  Together with his buddy and fellow Canadian Andrew Pye and other volunteers, he hauled wheel-barrels full of the smelly stuff from the premises – you stopped smelling it after a while he said!

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Emile and Andrew Pye, carrying barrels of poo and riverbank debris

Tree protection

Filou and I helped make pillars out of concrete and stones, used to protect some park trees against the hunger lust of the elephants.  The work that went into building these structures – 6-7 of them to protect one –  tree was truly noteworthy!

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Pillars to protect Park trees, made out of concrete and stones

Emile also did his part in protecting the trees as he joined a group of volunteers into the nearby forest.  They tied sacred saffron cloths around individual trees to protect them from being cut down. Locals are reluctant to cut these trees as they fear it will insult the jungle spirits.

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Tying sacred orange cloths around individual trees to protect them 

ENP’s Dog Shelter

ENP does not only house elephants but also over 500 dogs (as well as 30 cats, 50 buffalos, 2 horses, 2 pigs and a monkey), which have been abused, or rescued from floods. Filou became greats friends with Robyn Fowler, a real sweet animal lover from Australia who taught him how to handle and care for these four-legged friends. He got obsessed with the dogs and was at the shelter every day to pet the sad and little ones.

It was somewhat ironic for Anthony and me to be around these dogs as my husband is very allergic to dogs and cats and I am extremely afraid of dogs (as a child, I was bitten by a large German Shepherd).  It became Filou’s mission to get me over my fear and into the shelter with Robyn. I wanted to make him happy and made it as far as entering a cage with 4 dogs, picking up one soft, adorable puppy.  Unfortunately Anthony was not as lucky – on day 4 he had to leave ENP as the dogs seriously affected his breathing.

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Trying to overcome my fear of dogs; first step was ok – picking up this adorable, little puppy!

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Filou and Emile with Robyn Fowler at ENP’s dog shelter

Elephant Feeding & Washing

The afternoons were the time to help feed the elephants and/or head towards to river to see them bathe, and wash off the mud from their backs. A super fun activity and nice little reward!  As the days progressed we got better and better at it…

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Washing the elephants while being careful not to get water in their eyes (as it causes serious infections)

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What an opportunity to be up so close to the elephants and feed them!

The week at ENP was not only work and no fun. On the contrary…some volunteers were actually “complaining” that they could have taken on more work (everyone was just so happy to help!).

Emile truly enjoyed the daily 5 o’clock soccer games with the volunteers and children of the mahouts (elephant care givers), on a field right next to the elephants – so very cool!  I loved the yoga and martial arts class – kindly put on by the volunteers in our group. And we got to give back a little to the local community.  Lek had great difficulty gaining the support of the locals when she started her foundation and ENP (local villagers were afraid that the elephants would destroy their crops etc.), so she worked hard to find ways to engage and support them.  For our stay, she had local women offering massages for a small fee, little girls providing entertainment by performing traditional dances, as well we visited a school that she had helped built. We were also encouraged to donate some clothing that was distributed to local tribal villages.

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Emile playing his 5 o’clock soccer game with volunteers and children of the Mahouts (elephant caretakers).

What Emile enjoyed the most at ENP were the conversations during meal times with all the super nice and committed international volunteers. My oldest was truly in his element (he loved the animals, worked diligently all week and was a charming conversation partner for many).  He said that this week will probably go down for him as the best week of our travel year!  He is right that our time at ENP was very unique!

As heartbreaking as it sometimes was to see the abused elephants (they had broken backs & legs from forced breeding, logging or over-use for tourism purposes… were blind from abusive slingshots to their eyes… or still had open wounds on their feet 5 years after stepping on a landmine), there was also lots of hope and joy in the Park.  Happy and relaxed elephants bathing, elephants that found new family groupings and received such loving care that had turned them from aggressive to hopeful, playful and full of joy.

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Elephant with broken back, hip and leg – broke my heart to see him walk with such difficulty!

Elephant Nature Park is a wonderful place of recovery for the close to 40 elephants that Lek & team have saved there so far.  We salute this “Hero of the Planet” and thank her for creating an exceptional eco-tourism, family volunteer opportunity where we got to see her inspiring work up-close. In return, we make her the promise to never ride an elephant – but instead admire its magnificence from a distance – in the peaceful natural environment, where it belongs!

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Thailand – Bangkok and Chiang Mai with the grandfathers

1 Feb

How lucky we are as a family to still have all four grandparents enriching our lives, able to enjoy Emile & Filou growing up. It goes without saying that the kids miss their grandparents very much during this year away and it was important for us that, where possible, they join us on our world tour.

So the idea came about that it would be a unique experience for all of us to have both grandfathers come at the same time! They were quickly game (my Dad ADORES Thailand and was dreaming of travelling there one more time, and Jichan just took his first trip to Japan which he LOVED, so was eager to travel to Asia again)…..and so Opa jumped on an aircraft in Düsseldorf and safely reached Bangkok via Abu Dhabi , and Jichan boarded a plane in Toronto and headed to Bangkok via Seoul. Here in the capital city, we were delighted to see our Dads and Granddad’s again!

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Reunion in Bangkok

It was an interesting time to be in Bangkok.  Demonstrations against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and the upcoming elections in February, led opposition camps to block off the streets, and march to express their dismay about the current political situation.  The Sunday we were there, two explosions and some gunshots killed 1 and injured 28 people (which is rare for the very peaceful Thai people!).

We are not easily scared, and went about our way to enjoy the city. With Opa we took a nice boat tour of the Klongs (the waterways that snake through the city) during which Emile and Filou were thrilled to see a huge water monitor lizard.

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Demonstrations on the blocked streets of Bangkok.  Declared “State of Emergency”!

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This demonstrator was all over the news the day I took his picture. He was leading the pack and near the explosions that went off.  We were close to the action, for sure!

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With Opa through the “klongs” of Bangkok

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A huge “water monitor lizard” (komodo dragon family), on one of Bangkok’s riverbanks

And the next day, when Jichan had arrived – we all took the local mode of getting around – a transport boat that grazed the canals at high speeds (fun experience of boarding this busy vehicle that only stops several seconds to let people on and off – kudos to the granddads for joining into the jumping on and off madness!)…and went to Siam Ocean World (http://www.siamoceanworld.co.th). 

This stunning aquarium houses 30,000 different species and is located in the basement of the equally beautiful Siam Paragon shopping complex (http://www.siamparagon.co.th) The boys were super excited to see the many unique, aquatic species like the humongous octopus and giant crabs.  As well, the aquarium houses a 270-degree glass tunnel where the many, large sharks seemingly swim right towards you!

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Big sharks at Siam Ocean World, Bangkok

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After a fun night of exploring the Bangkok local night markets and eating delicious street food – we were all happy to leave the “troubled” city and head for the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai or “new city” is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. This “Rose of the North” has several hundred historic “wats” or temples, intriguing diversity among hill tribes, many cooking and massage schools, numerous elephant camps, a variety of cultural performances and fun shopping at its famous night bazaar.

So, we were excited to make this city our home base for 2 weeks and stay at the lovely Villa San Pee Seua (http://www.villasanpeeseua.com).  Our large, 3 bedroom, 2 level “hometown” bungalow with view over the river (at a calm location on the outskirts of the city), was the perfect place for us all.  Prae, the lovely owner certainly helped at making our stay as wonderful as could be!

Emile’s burning desire (he couldn’t talk about anything else for days….) was to have a fishing trip with both his grandfathers – as each one of them has taught him some angler tricks and ignited his passion for this sport!  So the three of them went off for a day of fishing with Big Game Fishing (http://biggame-fishingthailand.com) – expecting and hoping to catch some giant Mekong catfish.

The day, guided by Suvit and his capable team members, was beyond their wildest imagination – together the boys caught a total of 130 kilos of catfish – with Emile catching the biggest one of all – a 35 Kilo/77 pounder!  This fish was as big as he was… and so heavy, he could not hold it standing up.  From the smile on his face, you can tell – this is not an experience that can be topped easily!

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Emile’s all smiles; with the big one, a 35K/77 pounder (that he could only hold up sitting down!)

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Memories for a lifetime: Emile’s dream to have a fun fishing day with both his grandfathers! 

After some fun times walking the colourful streets of Chiang Mai, buying souvenirs for those back home at the lively Night Bazaar and enjoying some great, local Thai massages, we set off for a day of cultural sightseeing.

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Street vendor at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

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Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a Theravada Buddhist temple that is still very sacred to many Thai people. The temple is located high up on a mountain called Doi Suthep, and although getting there was less fun (the ½ hour drive on sharp, curved roads combined with gas smell, made half of us feel like vomiting for a while), it was worth getting there.  At its base, we had the choice of climbing the 309 steps to reach the pagodas or take a tram (you can guess which one we chose!).

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Once inside the temple grounds, we took off our shoes and started to explore the site that has many pagodas, statues, bells and shrines. I think Emile was taken by the serenity and spiritual vibe of it all and joined the Thai women in prayer – perhaps a conversion to Buddhism is in the works?

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Emile converting to Buddhism?

The copper plated Chedi (the most holy area of the temple grounds) – together with the five-tiered golden umbrella, were truly impressive (and shiny!).

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The copper plated Chedi and five-tiered golden umbrella at Phra That Doi Suthep

The Wat draws many Buddhist that come to serve, bring food offerings and pray. Even though they are not of the Buddhist faith, Emile and Filou were welcome to receive a blessing from one of the monks, and receive a string tied around their wrist for good luck (together with the monks’ blessings from Angkor Wat, Cambodia, they are gathering quite the collection of blessing bracelets!).  Also, my Dad had a lovely chat with one of the monks, who came to pray and rub a large bell for good luck.

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Rubbing a bell for good luck, a monk is praying at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

After enjoying some graceful, dance performances by beautiful Thai girls, we headed further up into the mountains.

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Thai dance – starting at an early age

There are a number of different hill tribes living in Northern Thailand such as the Thins, Lawa, Karen and Meo for example.  They live about 4-6 hours north of Chiang Mai in the mountains although several hill tribe tours are offered in and around town.  Apparently those close by are Burmese refugees posing as tribal villagers so we weren’t going to engage in this kind of tourism– but the Meo Tribe Village happened to be close to the temple and the grandfathers thought it interesting, so we made a stop.

The Meo Tribe, also called Hmong come originally from Western China and claim their name from the word Mongol. Their village consisted of a large centre surrounded by several commercial areas, where they displayed their craftsmanship – mostly needlework and sewing, jewelry (fake diamonds and all) – and weaponry (bow and arrow).  The boys enjoyed some archery, learning from the local experts and we visited the small Tribal museum where we learned about the history of these people.

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Bow and Arrow shooting at Meo Hill Tribe Village

On top of the hill, in a large, beautiful garden – Thai tourists dressed up in Meo tribal costumes and took pictures of each other (and us with them!).  And little children in tribal costumes stole our hearts – especially the one in the bathroom that was trying to spray me with water as I was attempting to take a picture of him (who could blame him?). He was full of laughs till his mother came barging in and gave him heck!

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Little Meo tribal villager in the bathroom – having a ball trying to spray me as I was attempting to take a picture of him 

The boys also enjoyed some great times with the grandfathers at the Chiang Mai Zoo (http://www.chiangmaizoo.com), where they saw many colourful flamingos, hippos, giraffes as well as the amazingly beautiful white tiger and panda (we missed the pandas in China, so they were happy to have an opportunity to see one up close).

And Jichan was so nice to take the bus with the boys (45 minutes north-west of Chiang Mai), and go for a day of zip lining. With The Flying Squirrels (http://www.treetopflight.com), the boys had an absolute thrilling day of biking high in the sky, sliding down the trunk of a massive ancient tree and of course flying trough the tree tops.  The longest zip line was about 600 metres – so long that they had to put the boys together in one harness to have enough weight to reach the other side!  Of course, our daredevils loved every minute of this adventure!

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Jichan took the boys zip lining; a thrilling day with The Flying Squirrels

With Opa, Filou and I were happy to join in with an international group of backpackers and learn the unique style of Thai cooking. With Smart Cook (http://www.smartcookthailand.com) we learned to put together some delicious local dishes (as well as pick the ingredients from the nearby market) – from Coconut Milk Soup with Chicken to Pad Thai and Sticky Rice with Mango – it was all fun to make and scrumptious!   Ps: Mam, make some room in the kitchen as your hubby is coming back with lots of enthusiasm, some local spices and a Thai cookbook in hand!

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The two master chefs at work, learning to cook Thai style…

While the grandfathers were having some one-on-one bonding time with their grandsons, Anthony and I took advantage, rented a scooter and ventured out to drive the Samoeng or Strawberry Loop; a 100KM rollicking circuit through the mountains of Chiang Mai (well-known by motorcycle and bike enthusiasts as it claims to be the best ride in Northern Thailand – in a region, known for its delicious strawberries!).

Our first stop on this breathtaking ride through lush greenery was Doi Suthep-Pui National Park in which the well-known Mae Sa Waterfalls are located. Mae Sa are actually a series of 10 small waterfalls and cascades spaced anywhere from 100m to 500 m apart from each other. We hiked the winding road up the river and made it as far as level 5 – which was a great location for a rest, a chat and selfie on the bridge!

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From there, we stopped at the restaurant of the Pong Yang Ang Doi Resort (http://www.pongyangangdoi.com). This eating establishment is located high up, amidst lush greenery, overlooking the slopes of Pong Yang mountain. With a beautiful waterfall as our backdrop, this was a wonderful little find with incredible views! The food was pretty good too – I tried a banana flower salad that was really unique in taste.

The next day, we did it again! We took the whole family for a picnic lunch at the waterfalls and enjoyed the spectacular views at Pong Yang Ang Doi restaurant, while having a refreshing beverage.

Ps: We also quickly saw a crocodile show, both to please the grandfathers and to instill a teaching moment.  Emile was so taken by the animal cruelty (the animals looked like they were drugged and were pushed around and stepped on), he left crying within 5 minutes.  We are proud of how he’s developing his critical thinking skills.

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Good times at Mae Sa Waterfalls, Chiang Mai

So, after having enjoyed a multitude of great “adventures” with the grandfathers, it was time for one last Y.O.L.O experience.  I took my Dad on a motorcycle ride through the back roads of Chiang Mai.  Probably, not something he would ever do at home, but he LOVED it!

En route we stopped at a beautiful estate (we are nosy and wanted to explore a little!) and found out that a Thai princess was living there with her family. She had just given the rights to a British-Thai couple to open up an upscale restaurant on the property.  It was gorgeous and I am sure they will do well. The owner was happy to chat with us and we enjoyed a delicious, complimentary coffee.

It is these kinds of unique experiences that you have while touring around – and the exact reason why travelling and experiencing the world is so great!

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Cruising the back roads of Chiang Mai, with my 75-year old father on a motorbike. Y.O.L.O!

It was amazing to share some of the incredible experiences we are having on our Regeneration Tour (http://the-regeneration.com), with our Dads-Granddads!  Together we created some very dear memories! Thank you Opa and Jichan for your love, support, many laughs and great conversations. We had such a great time and will miss you both.  Safe travels back home!

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We will miss you Grandfathers….It was an incredible time of creating priceless memories together!

And now it is time for some poop and scoop as we are off to the Elephant Nature Park for a week of volunteering.