Wednesday, September 9, 2009

waterfalls, monsoons, and elephants, oh my!

Hello from Southeast Asia!

So much has happened in the last several days, but I will try to pick out the most interesting parts.

Firstly, the elephant park. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a lovingly established facility, dedicated to the safety and rights of the Asian Elephant, an endangered species in Thailand, where it is supposed to be held as a sacred animal. After riding elephants on my first day in Thailand, I would not be honest if I were to say that I do not have regret in my heart for doing so. What I learned at the ENP is truly horrific, that elephants here have the same rights as livestock (that is, no rights at all), and the domestication process is incredibly brutal, oftentimes fatal.

Historically, the Asian Elephant was used for logging work, but since the extreme destruction of forests, logging is banned in Thailand, and these "unemployed" animals, ironically, would not survive without working for tourists, typically for the revenue of the very-impoverished Hill tribe villages. As previously mentioned, Hill Tribes have virtually no protection from the government here, as many are refugees/immigrants from Burma(Myanmar). Using elephants for tourist attractions is imperative for these people, and the domestication process they use, although incredibly inhumane by US standards, is all they have ever used or known. However, this all is beginning to change with the coming about of the Elephant Nature Park.

Lec, the daughter of a Hill Tribe shaman, is the founder of ENP. She uses positive reinforcement to train her rescued elephants in the most basic of ways. They will not be juggling anymore, but thanks to the love and dedication Lec has put into ENP, they will not be begging on the city streets for tourism either. This new method to elephant training is the least intrusive to their natural instincts; hopefully some day, there will be enough forest regrown in Thailand to integrate these creatures back into the wild. For now, that is just a hope on the horizon.

This was a huge lesson for me concerning my role as a responsible tourist. I went into this trip with some (albeit limited) knowledge of domesticated elephant rights and treatment. When our group visited the camp to ride elephants, I thought not much of it, because the elephants had no outward sign of abuse; they were happy and healthy, as far as I was concerned. Our group also saw these specific elephants on a daily basis, taking personal time across the river from our project. Not to mention, many elephant camps, like the one we went to, supported a local Hill Tribe. At the time, I felt like I was doing the right thing. The reality is this: any domesticated animal which should be in the wild, has had their spirit broken at a young age and suffered through a tradition that about 40% do not survive. Even if the elephant camp was a decently-run facility, by supporting this endeavor, I consented that this type of abuse is okay. After extensive research and the experiences I've had, I will never be patron to anything like this again. However, the ENP is an amazing alternative for tourism, with positive outcomes for all.

Our group spent the day at ENP meeting each elephant (there are currently over 30 residing!), participating in feeding times, and bathing the elephants in the nearby river. On a beautifully sunny day, the mucky waters of Thailand did not even phase me as I splashed bucket after bucket onto our grey, wrinkly friends. This is an experience like no other, and one that, like the large animals we worked with, I will never forget. It's not every day you bathe with an elephant.

Moving from the ENP, we spent the night with the Lisu Hill Tribe at a beautiful lodge, and awoke the next morning to begin our 2-day trek through the jungles of mountainous Thailand. The day was hot as we arrived at the trail head, reaching upwards of 98 degrees, but the sweat we were all drenched in was soon replaced with rain. And more rain. And suddenly we were in a monsoon.

That is not a typo. We had out jungle trek through the middle of a monsoon.

I was giddy to put on my poncho as the sky poured buckets, but became soberly aware of our situation when we crossed waterfall after overflowing damn after waterfall of gushing water. This was the most crazy storm I have ever been in, feeling blessed to witness such amazing weather, literally hiking up through the clouds. Lightning, mist, and the sweet smell of the jungle... we arrived, accomplished and soaked to the bone, just before dark.

The next morning, we awoke to see the sunrise from the top of our Hill Tribe outpost, and began our trek back down. Fortunately, there was no rain for the downhill version of this hike, but the monsoon made our planned route unsafe to travel on, so we took to a dirt road instead. Typically, once finished with our trek, ISV would have sent our group on a white water rafting ride, but due to the wild rapids and high waters, we had to cancel this particular excursion. I was a little bummed about this, until we were informed that we could choose a replacement activity... so today, I went canyoning on the tallest mountain in Thailand.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with canyoning, allow me to catch you up to speed: canyoning is a ropes course which uses the natural environment to create an adventure experience. You begin at the top of a canyon, and work your way down using rocksliding, repelling, and swimming techniques. A typical canyoner will wear a helmet, knee pads, life jacket, wet suit top, gloves, and, my personal favorite: butt flaps, for sliding. :) For our group's adventure, we started small, with a practice repel, worked our way through the freezing (yet refreshing) rivers near the Mae Ping, and finished up our day with a 100-meter repel down the side of a waterfall. Due to the monsoon just 2 days prior, the waters were still pretty crazy, so we really had to pull our own weight as we crossed currents and slid down small rapids. I sit here in an Internet cafe feeling extremely accomplished and rejuvenated, albeit incredibly tired.

We still have a lot left to do on our tour, but tomorrow is our last day in Chiang Mai. After a full day of rock climbing and cave exploring, we will make our way to the southern regions of Thailand and partake in a sea kayaking adventure. After 3 weeks in the hills, I really can't wait for the beach. :)

Thinking about each one of you! Sending love to you from across the globe.
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1 comment:

  1. I just caught up on all your posts. Your whole trip sounds amazing! I am glad to hear it is a rewarding experience full of beauty and awareness. Not to sound cheesy or anything. But really, awesome!

    I miss yoou, Laura! Be safe ;)

    Btw, Canyoning sounds craazy! The monsoon too.

    Much love,