Time in Chiang Mai

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Long Journey for a Short Trip

5:15 AM in the airport is the time of bleary eyed travelers. That’s what time my whirlwind journey to Thailand for my friend’s wedding started. In the next 40 hours, I would spend 35.5 hours in airplanes and airports.

Denver to San Francisco was mostly spent sleeping. Except for the screeching child in the row in front of me. I’m forgiving of children crying on takeoff and landing because I’ve had times as an adult where the air pressure change was almost unbearable. This child felt that mid-flight was the optimal time for a tantrum. After a few sleepy hours in San Francisco, came the long haul to Beijing.

Walking off the plane in Beijing was like opening the door to a freezer. Outside the temperature was -1C or 30F. Inside the airport wasn’t much warmer. In an effort to stay awake and warm, I spent most of my layover walking around and around the duty free shops. And just in case I wasn’t cold enough in the airport, our departure gate was actually a bus that takes the passengers to the plane where you walk across the tarmac. I was the last one on the first bus and the first one into the plane after the flock of passengers heading for Thailand made a mad dash through the freezing cold. Only once I sat down, ready to pass out from exhaustion, did I realize that the time for my flight to Bangkok had actually changed by almost 2 hours (24-hour time format and a sleepy brain are to blame). So instead of arriving at 11:45 PM we arrived at 1:45 AM. I slept.

Heat and humidity were the ambassadors in Bangkok. 28C or 86F and a wall of humidity, even at 1:45 am. Following my well established routine after 11 trips to Thailand, I cleared immigration and customs, got a sim card for my smartphone (first time using a smartphone in Thailand instead of a simple travel phone), picked up a snack at 7-11 for the morning and went to get the shuttle to the hotel. Checking in at 3 AM, I begrudgingly requested a space in the 8 AM shuttle to return to the airport for the last of my flights. A shower, 3 hours of sleep, another 2.5 hours in an airport and a 1 hour flight, I finally arrived in Chiang Mai.

A Country in Mourning

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Memorial to the King at Suvarnbhumi Airport.

In October, King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away. At age 88, King Adulyadej was the longest reigning monarch, having reigned for 70 years. The King was deeply revered and honored by all of the Thai population, not just symbolically. He was their father, attaining something of a saint-like status for his support of the commoner and the advances he brought to their lives. For most of Thailand, King Adulyadej is the only king they have ever known.

All of Thailand is a portrait of black and white in mourning. Government buildings, schools, temples, bridges and shops are graced with black and white bunting and black and white portraits of the King. As a show of respect and mourning, the people are dressed in black, or black and white. At the very least, a small black bow is pinned to their shirt or dress. Even the clothing displayed in big stores and night market stalls alike are predominately black and white. To see the love and honor bestowed upon the King is such a dichotomy from the current political situation in the United States.

Chiang Mai Routine

Visiting a destination multiple times becomes more about routine and less about adventure. I check in, get a motorbike, and go to the specific places I need to go to get the things that I know I need to get. Especially this trip where time is in short supply.

My days of staying in the Old Town Chiang Mai are over. A few years ago CM Blue House, where I had stayed since my first trip in 2008, closed. Finding a new place is not necessarily easy. Not that there aren’t plenty of guesthouses and hotels to choose from. It’s about location and bed firmness. Easy to determine location on a website, impossible to determine bed firmness, even from reviews. Asian beds are a level of firmness ranging between marble floor to firm soil.

Baan SongJum Homestay was my home for my 2 nights in Chiang Mai. Despite the beds having the firmness of linoleum flooring, I am glad to have found this new home. Located down a narrow soi (alley) just off of Kaew Narawat road, Baan SongJum is a lovely oasis where you definitely feel at home. Still close enough to walk down the small streets and sois to get to the Old Town to rent a motorbike but far enough away from the tourists and heavy traffic. Nui, the owner, makes you feel at home the minute you walk through the gate (which is always kept shut since her dog Lanna is a fast escape artist.)

Instead of having a motorbike delivered, it was better, cheaper and faster to walk to the old town. 15 minutes of uneven “sidewalks” down narrow sois (alleys) and I was at the old town. Seeing a new area on foot was actually a welcomed change. I found the Lanna Thai Massage Medical School and cataloged it as a place to potentially get a massage later. At the moment, I had more pressing activities to attend to.

A distinct advantage to having a smartphone on a motorbike is the ability to pull over and access the Maps application. This feature alone has made my tried and true, heavily taped together map now obsolete. Having the Maps application does not negate the fact that I still missed at least one intended turn. A small 30 minute and several kilometer detour later and I finally found where I was going.

Time with Friends

While in Chiang Mai, seeing my good friends was a priority. Most of my friends here I have known going on 6 or 7 years. Life has changed for many of them. Of my closest friends in Thailand, only one is still working at working for Elephant Nature Park/Foundation.

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My wonderful friend Lek and I at dinner

Wednesday night I got to see my sweet, wonderful friend Lek. Picking me up on her shiny new motorbike, a bigger model than anything I have ever seen her drive before, we went just a short distance down the road before turning into an alley nestled between two buildings. By alley, I mean a narrow spit of sidewalk just wide enough for a motorbike. No farang (foreigner) would have guessed there was a quaint restaurant perched on the banks of the Mae Ping river at the end of it. No farang would have probably even thought to turn there in the first place. We picked a table under a tree literally at the edge of the river bank. Any more erosion and the bench I was sitting on would no longer be at the table. The location was a perfect milieu with the lights of Chiang Mai reflecting off the surface of the river on the warm, clear evening. Lek ordered us a plentiful feast of som tam (papaya salad), tom yum goong (soup), kow pat mu (pork friend rice) and crispy fish with herbs. Over the course of the next hour we ate, discussed life and reminisced about the times we have had together. It was a beautiful evening and a great reminder of how rich my life is with friends around the world.

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Chet and I at dinner eating mugata.

Thursday evening Chet and I went for mugata (literal translation is grilled pork). Mugata is the Thai version of a hot pot and a distant cousin of fondue. A metal pan looking like a small pointy hat surrounded by a moat is placed over a burner. The moat is filled with a light broth water. The pan is prepared by rendering large chunks of pork fat that keeps food from sticking and adds flavor to the broth as it runs down the pan. Then you cook your food, either grilling meats, or boiling vegetables, seafood or other food items. As the food is cooked, you eat it with a variety of dipping sauces. Chet introduced me to mugata several visits ago, so it always seems appropriate that it is our meal of choice. Having not seen Chet in over two years, it was great to see him again. I am happy for him and the opportunities he has had to grow in his work. He dreams of traveling and that dream is coming true.

 

Making New Elephant Friends

No trip to Thailand would be complete for me without at least a little time with elephants. Having been to Elephant Nature Park so many times and wanting to support different projects of the Elephant Nature Foundation, I opted to make new elephant friends going to the Hope for Elephant program. Hope for Elephant is a new day trip program where the Elephant Nature Foundation is working with several elephant camps to change how they use the elephants for tourism. The elephants that are now part of the project are free from saddles and giving rides and are subjected only to being fed, bathed and having thousands of pictures taken of them as they walk with the tourists around the hillside. As with all Elephant Nature Foundation projects, the mahouts (elephant caretakers) have relinquished their bull hooks and now use food for reward and control.

Instead of waiting to be picked up by the van, I opted to go to the Elephant Nature Park office so I could say hello to a few more friends. Once they had gathered the others in the group, we traveled about 1.5 hours southwest of Chiang Mai to the village of Mae Wan. After 7 years of the same video about elephants in Thailand and the Elephant Nature Park project, I was ecstatic to see a new video and an entertaining animated video about elephant safety. So much has changed since my first day trip in 2008.

Once in Mae Wan, we cleaned three baskets full of cucumbers and cut bananas off the stalk as offerings for the elephants we were about to meet. Then, piling in the back of the pickup truck, we headed into the hills to meet the elephants. A narrow road, only wide enough for one truck at a time, climbed up and down the hills. In one place the dirt road is replaced with two cement tracks, the solution to several rainy seasons washing away the road.

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Feeding Fah Sai.

Food is always the way to an elephant’s heart. Elephants eat a tenth of their weight in food each day, which means they are constantly eating something. Banana plants, trees, grass, whatever plant or vegetable available, they will eat it. Our introduction to the group was through feeding them. Three elephants belong in the group we visited. Fah Sai is the youngest at 7 years old, Kahm Mun is 25 and Moyo is 35. To make feeding the elephants on the project safer and controlled, they have built a small low fence that keeps the elephants at bay from the food and keeps humans from becoming the filling for an elephant sandwich.

Walking with elephants is anything but aerobic activity. Much of the time along our relatively short and unchallenging trek, was spent watching the elephants roam and eat. Kahm Mun was the most active of the group in roaming and eating. Fah Sai often was Kahm Mun’s shadow, at least as far as eating went. Moyo stayed close to her mahout and his copious handfuls of food pellets. Along the way we had copious photo opportunities and time to interact with the elephants. Despite a collection of several thousand elephant photos, I still can’t help but take more pictures. You never know when you are going to capture THE shot. Plus, these are new elephants.

Part of the experience was a mini cooking lesson in making som tam (papaya salad) for our lunch. After lunch we made an afternoon snack for the elephants, starting with pounding corn in a traditional hill tribe manner. The hill tribe people use a human-powered mill to pound the husks off the corn. That rice was added to cooked rice, tamarind, bananas, cooked pumpkin and salt, and mushed together by hand.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, bathing elephants never gets old no matter how many times I do it. Initially a bit on the cold side, the water was a refreshing break to the beating sun. Kahm Mun and Fah Sai took to the water eagerly, lying down in the water and rolling in it to wash off the freshly applied mud. So beautiful to be able to get so close to these amazing and beautiful elephants.

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Fah Sai and Kahm Mun reapplying dirt after their bath.

After their bath and a new application of mud and dirt, applied by rolling in it and using their trunks to coat their bodies, we got to feed them one more time. Seeing the transformation of the others in the group in just a few hours is so gratifying. One person even commented that she could see why I come back so many times. Eventually we said goodbye to our new elephant friends and headed back to Chiang Mai.

 

 

Wat Else

Only 48 hours in Chiang Mai affords very little spare time to just wander. I did manage to sneak in a little bit though. On Nui’s recommendation I went to Wat Ket Karam, or the dog temple. Wat Ket Karam is located just down the street from the guesthouse and is frequented mostly by Thai, making it a quiet, reflective place to be. Still, I didn’t spend very long there. Just long enough to walk around the grounds and go into the main hall for a few minutes of reflection.

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Worowot bridge with black and white bunting in honor of the King.

One errand I didn’t manage on arriving in Chiang Mai was satisfying my quest for my favorite Thai peanut snack. It’s a delicious mixture of puffed rice, coconut, peanuts and sugar. Looking out from Wat Ket Karam, I discovered that I was just across the memorial pedestrian bridge to Worowot Market. The cement bridge was originally built by a Chiang Mai governor in honor of his wife. Since then it has been rebuilt twice, once to convert it to concrete and just last year to repair damage. The white cement bridge is bedecked in the black and white bunting to honor the King. A quick stroll through the market paid off and I procured my peanut yummy goodness (not even a translation of the name.)

No trip to Chiang Mai would be complete without a trip to my favorite temple, Wat Inthakhin. Wat Inthakhin I often refer to as “the temple in the middle of the road”, mostly because I can never remember the actual name. Nui provided the history for how this temple came to be located in the middle of a road. In the time of the Lanna kingdom, this wat (temple) was part of the royal complex. When the kingdom fell to the king in Bangkok, they wanted to debase the local people by destroying the royal palace and building their government buildings in that location. To add further insult to injury, they put a road through the royal temple. At the temple, I made an offering and got my fortune. Fortunes are made by taking a canister of sticks with numbers on them, and after a moment of prayer to ask what you want to know about, you shake the canister until the first stick falls out. The number on the stick is correlated to sheets of paper with your fortune (in Thai and English). My fortune was very good this time.

Running on schedule, I had just enough time to return my motorbike and walk back to the guesthouse, stopping at the ATM and to get a long overdue massage. 60 minutes was not nearly long enough. Unfortunately that was all the time I had. The therapist was adept at addressing several key muscles that had been much abused. As I meandered the rest of the way back to the guesthouse in a state of post-massage bliss, I reflected on the benefits of getting off the motorbike every now and then.

On to the Wedding

My quick tour of Chiang Mai came to an all too quick end and I headed off to Mae Sai by bus. Looking forward to seeing my friend Chai and attending his wedding.

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A Week with the Eles

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Walking About

Buriram is not really a city that draws a large number of foreign visitors. Mostly because Buriram offers very little to see. As I discovered in my almost 5 hours of walking around between Sunday evening and Monday morning.

Setting out with my not-to-scale map that was really more of a suggestion of where streets are and how they are named, I began my tour of Buriram. Just to make navigating more interesting, typically only one of the two roads at an intersection were labeled. I either knew what street I was on and had to guess at the cross street. Or I knew what the cross street was but wasn’t quite sure I was on the street I intended to be on. I’ve also decided that sidewalks in Thailand are definitely not designed to be walked on. Uneven and often taken over by food stalls or various repair shops, it was generally easier at times to just walk in the street.

Being a white foreign female in a town like Buriram, definitely draws some attention. Generally, I was greeted with curious looks that changed to a smile when I smiled at them and said “sawad dee kaa” (hello). Men would occasionally shout out a “hello”, to which I typically responded with “sawad dee kaa” or maybe just “hello” depending on the moment. The clearly drunk Thai male on the bicycle was the most interesting interaction. Holding his beer in one hand and pointing with the other, I think he was trying to suggest that he wanted me to take him to America with me. Finally I said I needed to go, so he shook my hand, said he loved me and I quickly went on my way. Reluctantly he turned his bicycle around and off he pedaled.

If I had remembered to wear a t-shirt instead of a tank top, I could have gone in the two wats (temples) that are located in the main part of Buriram. To go into a temple, you are supposed to have your shoulders covered. So mostly I looked at the temples from the street. I did venture into the City Pillar monument. I refrained from going inside the building housing the 2 city pillars since I wasn’t sure if I was already being disrespectful by being in the monument area with my shoulders not covered.

Welcome Back

Returning to the project is like coming home. This visit being my third time volunteering at the Surin Project, I was mostly aware of the changes. A new concrete and tin roof shelter has been built for Tangmo, Wang Duen, and Nong Lek to hang out. A rebuilt structure for Jaeb, since she had been working intently on destroying her last one. And just like visiting home, I have stayed in the same room and the same house each time, although now Sing’s wife, Pi Jan, is the house mom.

The week begins with an opening ceremony that is a combination of Buddhist and Kuy (Goi) beliefs. Lead by a shaman, the ceremony is a mixture of happiness and reverence. The purpose behind the ceremony is to bring us all together and to wish for us a healthy and good week. The kuy people believe in white and dark magic, so much of the ceremony is about bringing the white protective magic to all the people there.

The ceremony is also the first time where all the volunteers get to meet the mahouts, the caretakers of the elephants. The aptly named Pan, Warin’s mahout, was sitting behind me. He remembered me from my last visit, greeting me with “MJ MJ”. Three times during the ceremony, all the mahouts throw mulberry leaves at us to bless us. Several meanings are tied to this blessing. The main meaning is to bring your spirit back to your body. The kuy believe that occasionally our spirits wander off to the forest. The mulberry tree has special magic and being blessed with them helps the spirit to return to the body. Another meaning is that someone who is blessed by these leaves will be great and will be loved. Pan, Thong Di, and Em were sitting behind me so I was greatly blessed with large handfuls of mulberry leaves showered on me with great force. A terrific welcome from the mahouts.

The cast of characters, both elephants and mahouts, has remained mostly the same since my visit last December. One new elephant, Wong Duen, and her mahout, Nei, have joined the project. Another elephant, Ploy, and her mahout, Sing, have returned to the project. Unfortunately, Ploy’s baby girl Kwan has not been allowed to come back to the project by the owner. And sadly, Sai Faa and her mahout, Dao, are not on the project at the moment because Dao is sick. Hopefully she will return to the project when Dao is better.

From a project success standpoint this consistency is a good sign. Many mahouts have a difficult time with the rules imposed in their agreement to be on the project. One of the rules is that they are not allowed to use a bull hook, a 2 foot stick with a large metal hook attached to it, to control their elephant. Many mahouts view just carrying the bull hook as a talisman of protection from injury. To give up the bull hook is to give up the idea that they are protected from injury.

Life on the Project

The Surin Project is focused on helping to change the culture of elephant tourism in Thailand by demonstrating that people will come to interact with elephants in a much more natural way. As a volunteer, our primary “work” is to ensure that the elephants have at least 3-4 hours each day off their chains. This goal is accomplished through going for walks in the forest and to the river and by allowing the elephants to wander in the enclosure to eat and play in the water. (For more on the project and why it is important, click here.)

Throughout the week we take several walks through the forest with the elephants. Generally, we try to stay out of the way of the elephants, not always easy since elephants move surprisingly quietly, and just watch them as they stop and forage for food, enjoying a tasty vine here or some other plant there. One of our walks takes us to a bamboo thicket. This particular day, Fah Sai was intent on having some bamboo as a snack. Sarot hurried us out of the way as she reached for a giant stalk. With a great crack she pulled it to the ground. While watching her and admiring her great power we were momentarily oblivious to the nest of red ants that we had ended up in. These ants are particularly vicious and bite with a vengeance. The ants seemed to drop off the bushes and crawl up from the ground, all the sudden appearing on shirts, in hair, on legs, everywhere. By the time we got out of the area I had eight major bites, one on my back the rest on my legs.

Of course some work does need to be done during the week. Mostly in the form of morning and evening chores. In the morning, we have three tasks that our teams rotate through: cleaning shelters, cleaning the enclosure and cutting sugar cane. None of the tasks are particularly arduous, taking at most 30 minutes to complete. My favorite task is cutting sugar cane. Not only because I get to use a machete to hack down the 8 foot tall stalks of sugar cane, but also because I get to work with the mahouts.  I am always amazed at the speed and skill with which they accomplish their task. Clearing away the dead leaves with a whoosh whoosh of their machete and cutting the stalk with  a simple thwack of the machete. The mahouts are sweetly tolerant of my swoosh….swoosh as I copy them in clearing away the dried leaves and the thwack, thwack, thwack that it takes me to bring down one sugar cane stalk. The task is still sanook (fun) involving much smiling and laughing.

Our one project for the week was to help plant a field of sugar cane for the elephants. Sugar cane fields are planted by laying sugar cane stalks in furrows, cutting the stalks into about foot long pieces, covering them with elephant manure and then covering with the dirt. Any opportunity for me to use a machete is always welcome, so I volunteered to cut the sugar cane stalks. Careful to stand a furrow over from where I was working to make sure my bare toes were protected by a barricade of dirt, I made my way up and down the rows cutting the stalks. Using a machete effectively definitely takes consistent practice. Much more practice than my once or twice a year. Second only to getting to use a machete, the best part of doing this project was getting to walk barefoot in the soft freshly plowed field of red sandy soil.

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Another component of the Surin Project is to help support the community of Ban Tha Klang. Two of the days this week we went to a local school to teach the students. Divided into four teams, we created lessons for teaching basic conversation, body parts, alphabet letter sounds, and numbers. Autumn and I chose numbers. Though both of us teach adults, neither of us are particularly fond of teaching children. Our first day was a bit of a struggle. The second day we changed up our lesson and taught the kids a song using numbers. By the end of our hour of teaching, all of the kahnom (grade) 1-3 kids could sing: “1 little, 2 little, 3 little elephants; 4 little, 5 little, 6 little elephants; 7 little, 8 little, 9 little elephants; 10 elephants more.”

Coming from the dry climate of Colorado, the heat and humidity of Ban Tha Klang was on occasion almost stifling. Only one day passed without rain sometime during the day or night. The rest of the days included a rain shower, often in the late afternoon and occasionally well into the night. Instead of cooling the air, each passing afternoon shower seemed to leave the air twice as heavy and twice as hot. Rain showers at night were welcomed to keep the hordes of June bugs at bay and did actually make it a little more cool to sleep.

All the moisture made the landscape of the village much more vibrant. The lush green of the trees and plants contrasted with the red clay soil provided a vibrant backdrop for our elephant walks. Especially our walks to the river through the bright green of the young rice fields. Add to this tableau the shades of grey and pink of the elephants, partially covered with the red soil the elephants use for sunscreen and bug repellent. Such a beautiful and refreshing sight.

The heat and humidity also upped the number of bucket showers to be had each day. On average, I took 2 each day. Definitely a far cry from my last visit to the project where it was so cold that bucket showers were tolerated only when the amount of dirt became overwhelming. Scooping the cool water from the bucket and pouring it over me brought welcome relief from being covered with sweat, mosquito repellent and dirt. Regardless of how hot it was, that first scoop of water always brought the same cold shock of jumping into a cold body of water. And always felt so refreshing.

The week for me this time culminated with the mahout dinner and the farang (foreigner/volunteer) show. The mahout dinner gives us a chance to spend time talking and laughing with the mahouts. Sitting next to Sarot, the head mahout, can always prove interesting. When Ocha brought the traditional dish made from beef throat, Sarot took a fork and put a piece of it on it, dipped it lightly in the sauce and handed it to me. I have always lived by the rule that I will try any food that is offered to me, a practice instilled in me by years of travelling with my dad. The meat tasted reasonably good. Probably wouldn’t eat a whole meal of it, but I did reach for a second piece after a while, making the mistake of dipping it too much in the sauce which left my lips tingling for quite awhile from the spice. A while later, Sarot again took my fork and gave me another bite. I also made the mistake of letting Sarot make my second drink of Hong Thong (a wiskey-esque alcohol) and soda water. I think it had more Hong Thong than soda water.

The farang show is always good for some laughs. The girls performance was singing The Lion Sleeps tonight. Percussion and was provided by the collection of instruments we created out of a bamboo bin played with a stick, a piece of bamboo and a stick and two maracas made from water bottles and rocks. For only practicing once, we did great. Rob’s performance was sweet too. He made a rap out of all the information of the elephants and their mahouts. The mahouts always follow up with a performance, typically the frog mating dance. Even though I have seen it several times, I still don’t quite get it.

Bathing Elephants

No matter how many times I do it, the best part of the week is the chance to bathe the elephants in the river. Twice during the week we walk with the elephants to the river, spend a little time watching them eat the sugar cane, and then get in the river with them. In the water, each elephant gets its own bag of mangao, a cross between a turnip and a potato, and then the bathing begins. These massive animals so solid on land are almost buoyant in the water.

Bathing Fah Sai was one of the most amazing elephant bathing experiences I have had in a long time. Fah Sai is the biggest elephant on the project. At 5’3″, I am roughly half as tall as she stands at the shoulder. Not a skinny elephant by any means, her mass leaves me awestruck when she passes close by. To get to play with her in the water was so incredible.

After feeding her 2 bags of mangao, that Thong Di made sure each one was rinsed of dirt before handing them to me to feed her, Thong Di had her lie down in the water. I started splashing her with water and scrubbing her with my brush. To help me better reach her ear and other side of her face, Thong Di gave her a command to put her head down farther into the water. At one point I was practically on top of her head. The feeling of being so close to such a beautiful animal is hard to put into words. The heat of her body, the gentle breathing, the thick skin with the wiry hair, the power in her ears and trunk.

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By the end of the bathing, I was soaked from head to toe. Especially since Thong Di kept having Fah Sai bring water into her trunk and on command blow it at me. Each time the initial burst of warm trunk (nasal?) air preceding the blast of water from her trunk hitting me square in the face. I was all smiles sloshing out of the water beside Fah Sai, her wake making a ruckus in direct contrast to the stealthfulness with which she moves on land.

People ask me what keeps me coming back to the Surin Project (or any of the elephant projects). Part of my response is to try to help change the culture of tourism in Thailand and to protect the elephants from abuse and harm that can come to them through elephant rides, circus tricks and trekking. What truly keeps me coming back is getting to experience the energy of these gentle giants. Elephants are empathetic and compassionate creatures. Experiencing their touch and looking into their eyes refills my heart and refreshes my spirit.