It’s taken a few days to process my elephant experience – due in part, I will admit, to a killer hangover yesterday. But that’s a separate story.
On Tuesday I visited Into the Wild Elephant Camp. It was, in short, extraordinary.
I’m beginning to wonder if this is what my travels will be like. Whether I will just continue to find myself doing beautiful things that I can’t find the words to describe. I’m willing to bet that it is.
A visit with elephants is something that’s on most people’s list for Southeast Asia, but it can be an experience riddled with quite a bit of doubt. As the years have passed and we’ve discovered the darker sides to elephant rides, we’ve begun looking for alternatives. We try to find places that are ethical. Places where we can come into contact with these creatures without disturbing their peace too much; without betraying any trust they may put in us.
By chance, Into the Wild was recommended by my hostel. I did a little bit of research and decided based on reviews on TripAdvisor that this looked like something I could trust. I decided on a full day experience. If I’m going to hang with some elephants, I’m going to do it well.
The day started with an 8 am -read: 8:30 ish- pick up at the hostel. Pai, who I have since learned is the manager, is an energetic, kind, funny guy. Another traveler and I hopped into the back of a pick up and we were off. We picked up a couple more people, making us a group of 4 with 2 accompanying guides.
On the way to the camp we stopped in a village to visit the market. 20 minutes later and with 4 newly purchased pig heads, assorted vegetables and plenty of bags of sugar cane placed at our feet, we continued on the winding roads up, up, up into the mountains.
I began mildly regretting not taking a motion sickness tablet.
After turning off the paved road and bouncing, –seriously, boun-cing– down a gravel road, we parked the truck. A quick change into our “elephant clothes,” and we were ready for the short hike down to the camp.
Descending down, you cross a wooden bridge over a rocky river and then there they are. Four elephants. Two big ones, 40 and 35 years old, and two little ones, 4 and 3 years old. Just grazing, just hanging out. Hi, you’ve officially left reality, welcome. It’s beautiful here.
The camp is basically a haven tucked away in the jungle. It’s very low key. A simple structure for cooking and eating lunch, a few small buildings as living quarters, and mainly a lot of roaming space for the elephants.
The moment we walked in, Pai began to call to them. He has certain sounds and names he uses to let them know he’s arrived and what they can expect. Knowing that he came bearing the good stuff (sugarcane), they came ambling over with little hesitation. Surreal.
We were each given a bag of sugarcane and bananas to feed them. Let me tell you, these girls are hun-gry. We laughed through the feeding process, enjoying their voracious appetites and never ending enjoyment of all foodstuffs. I’m telling you, they’re bottomless pits.
After the feeding, the elephants walk up into the jungle to graze more. This time, on trees and leaves. It was surprising to me that they particularly eat vines, roots and bark. “Fiber. It helps them digest,” Pai says.
One of the older elephants is mother to one of the youngsters. This means that she is never far away from her. As her baby girl stumbles and explores every tree, rock and vine, her mother patiently waits before moving on.
“It’s so sweet,” I said.
“Yes,” says Pai, “they are having much emotion. Her just big body, small heart.”
The tenderness with which he said it struck a chord. I wrote it down immediately.
We spent a lot of time in the jungle, watching the elephants graze, listening to the snapping of branches and the shaking of the trees as they ripped vines down. Leaves come fluttering down like snowflakes when they do.
Walking back, we enjoyed a lunch of massaman curry and rice. By now it’s been an hour or so and the 4 pig heads have also transformed into a delicious tom yam that Pai shares with us.
After lunch, we make a multivitamin of various roots and fruit and feed it to the elephants. By now it’s early afternoon and getting quite hot. “Time to cool down the elephants,” Pai says.
We all walk to a mud pool and quite quickly they begin to pick up mud and slap it onto their backs. The mud cools them down. We join in, rubbing mud unto them, throwing it up onto their backs. After you get muddy though, you’ve got to get clean, right? And so into the river we went, splashing water and cleaning the mud off these gorgeous ladies.
Watching the youngsters roll around in the water, lying down in it and basking in the touch of kind human hands, you’re soaring. There’s just nothing like it.
After our wash, they wandered away to graze again –seriously, they eat all the live long day, and we dried ourselves in the sun. Our visit came to an end –as it must- and we walked back towards the wooden bridge. They all followed; ducklings in a row.
Today, two days later, it still seems unfathomably wonderful.
Today, two days later, I am still thinking about “big body, small heart.” This afternoon I started wondering whether that was the way I would say it. Whether it is correct –as if that matters. The thing is, I feel like I’ve mostly heard references to someone having a big heart. We say that so-and-so has a big heart and that’s a good thing. A big heart is a particularly loving one, it’s a heart that feels. It’s an emotional heart. So I began to question Pai’s word choice.
But as I’ve written and continued to think, it has dawned on me that his way is absolutely the right way. I appreciate his way so fiercely much.
I appreciate “big body, small heart” because there is something so valuable in recognizing the enormity of a creature’s size and yet speaking to the vulnerability of its soul.
There is something incredibly surreal, intimidating and humbling about having a creature of such size and strength walking towards you out of a jungle. Hearing the weight of her footfalls. There’s honor in being allowed to share that space.
But more than anything perhaps, I am appreciative of having been able to share in the safety of their space. Even now, as I remember her eyes, her eyelashes, as I reimagine her protection of her child, I think to myself: yes. She really is just big body, small heart.
And what a beautiful thing to be.
I’ve gotten several questions on how the elephants end up at the camp. This is such a valid question and it deserves answering. As I understand it, elephant sanctuaries have different methods for “rescuing” elephants. Whereas some simply rent them from the owner for a longer term, others save their money to buy out elephants from owners that use the elephants for riding purposes. The process is, of course, slow and expensive, as buying an elephant from one of these other places means offering a level of compensation that somehow balances out the money they would have been earned otherwise. This means that it can take quite some time before an elephant is “rescued.” Of course we can make the argument that captivity is captivity and that these creatures would be better off roaming free. I agree that in a perfect world, I would much prefer that. Given the reality of it all, however, I feel that purchasing elephants from other owners so that they can lead a more peaceful existence than they would otherwise have enjoyed, comes in at a solid second place. If anyone has any other insights (as far as things I’ve overlooked in particular), I would love to hear about it in the comments section or via email. I am always interested in learning more, I hope we all are.