It was late January when rumors started swirling that Save Elephant Foundation was getting ready to rescue another elephant. A few months earlier, during my trip to Surin province to witness Dao Tong’s rescue, my fear of throwing up on the truck due to my crippling motion sickness kept me from fully experiencing this momentous event. Drowsy from the medication and sleeping in the “comforts” of the van, while fellow rescuers traversed Thailand in the back of a truck with an elephant, were 20 hours of my life I began to regret. I vowed never to miss an opportunity like this ever again!
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As I’ve come to expect in Thailand, plans are made quickly and not far in advance. I arrived to the office in the morning on the last Wednesday of January, and was informed I’d be taking the bus to Surin that afternoon in order to help film and document Lucky’s rescue. Immediately, my heart started pounding and my breaths became shallow. I worried that such a last-minute ticket purchase would certainly restrict me from getting a coveted front-row seat. My stomach sank as I mentally prepared for a rough, 14-hour trip, succumbing to the likelihood of my impending nausea and vomiting.
But NOTHING was going to stop me this time!
After lunch, on my way home to pack for the trip, I stopped in at a pharmacy to buy a pair of acupressure bracelets that claim to relieve motion sickness. I figured I had tried everything else, I may as well add one more weapon to my arsenal. Ligeia helped me get organized for my trip, stocking up my emergency bag: barf bags; Gravol; water bottle; gum; fresh ginger; sleep mask; and, of course, the new bracelets.
I claimed my 5th row window seat, took some deep breaths, and tried to relax. To my utter amazement, the waves of motion sickness never came ashore. The feeling of feeling nothing was absolutely invigorating!
The bus arrived in Surin at about 6:30am, just in time to see the sunrise. With the dry season dust and farmers burning their crop fields, the orange sun hovered as a perfect circle above the horizon. But, it didn’t linger there for long. The sun climbed higher and higher, and the temperature climbed right along with it! The northeast of Thailand is the hottest region of the country, and even in winter, the thermometer easily tops 35C/95F.
Our first point of business was to meet Lucky, and we found her tethered on a 2 meter long chain in her owner’s backyard. It’s always hard to know an elephant’s exact history, but in interviewing her owner, we learned that this had been her home for the last year. Prior to this backyard, she was a star attraction at a local circus for almost a decade, and the constant glare of the spotlights has taken almost all of Lucky’s sight. Her left eye is completely blind, and she clings to some vision in her right.
Although her official documentation papers claim she is 41 years old, our vet guesses she’s at least a decade younger, given the quality of her poop. It truly is amazing how much information about an elephant one can gather by observing the size, color and consistency of her dung!
After all the official paperwork is signed with the government, the news that Lucky is now officially owned by the Save Elephant Foundation travels fast and Lek with a van-load of volunteers depart Chiang Mai on their 20-hour drive to Surin.
Surin Elephant Study Center
I spend the night at the foundation’s Surin Project, located within the Surin Elephant Study Center, a government supported program to help get begging elephants off the streets as their mahouts can live within the center and receive a salary to help subsidize the costs of taking care of their elephant. The Surin Project aims to further improve the lives of these still-captive elephants, but the large majority of these animals still live under the constant threat of the bull hook and are chained up at all times, except, sadly, when tourists come for an elephant ride.
The signs of stress are everywhere, as elephants as far as the eye can see (the Center is home to over 200 elephants!) are rocking back and forth, swinging their trunks in dismay, as they are kept on extremely short chains, and sometimes their front feet are bound together.
It’s not long after dinner that I find myself unable to stay awake. It’s just past 8pm, and as I drift off to sleep, I hear elephants trumpeting, wishing me pleasant dreams.
I awake the next morning to the same sound, and looking out my window I see an old male elephant with large tusks flirting with a younger female, his chained up neighbor. Although there is a constant sadness in my heart for the elephants that live here, my spirits are uplifted with the realization that I’ll be helping to rescue Lucky on this day.
Just before 10am, I’m taken on the back of a motorbike to see Lucky again. The truck that will transport her arrives and the mahouts hired to help ensure her safety on the trip work quickly to get it ready for an elephant. This means securing the front, back and sides with wooden beams to help support a standing elephant. At the very front of the truck bed, right against the back of the cab, is a small ledge about 1 meter deep. This will be where the humans stand, sit, sleep, and hopefully for me, not the place where I throw up.
I spend the morning pretty much entirely alone with Lucky. I sit on a small, plastic chair and talk to her, explaining that she will never have to be alone again. Her days in the spotlights are far behind her, and I talk of what her new home will be like. For almost 2 hours, I sit in the shade with her, finding banana leaves to feed her hungry belly and promise that she’ll get lots of tasty fruit on the truck.
Lek and her team finally arrive at about 2:00pm. Everyone is excited, including Lucky as she happily flaps her ears. Lek talks with the previous owner, gets to know his family and asks questions about Lucky’s past. For the next 90 minutes, cameras are constantly snapping photos of a beautiful elephant, and although the prospect of a 20-hour trip back to Elephant Nature Park is daunting, we’re itching to get going.
Without hesitation, Lucky steps up onto the truck bed, clearly made easier by the fact that she’s taller than average. She’s chained up for her safety, the gate is locked behind her, and our two-vehicle caravan starts out on the long journey.
Diana, the foundation’s PR guru, and I decide that we’ll ride with Lucky on the third shift, allowing the 4 other volunteers first crack at the experience. A voice in the back of my mind questions whether I’m simply procrastinating and I begin to doubt whether I’m going to allow my fear of getting sick to prevent me from getting up on that truck again.
With my magic bracelets working at full strength, I drift off to sleep uncomfortably in the van, watching Lucky swaying side to side in the truck in the view through the windshield. Averaging about 60km/h, we make our first real stop after about 4 hours of driving, as the sun sets on Lucky’s last day of being alone.
Having filled both our bellies and Lucky’s in the town of Chayaphum, it’s now about 9:00pm. The next pair of volunteers take the second shift and hoist themselves up to the top of the truck. Since I’m unable to stretch my legs, and the seat itself is so hard, my butt will be the only thing successfully falling asleep over the next four hours!
When we stop next for a bathroom break, it’s 1:00am and the sun has long since set. Diana and I had planned to get up on the truck when the sun would be making her reappearance, but since everyone else has had enough of the truck experience, we decide that there’s no time like the present! We make sure we’re well bundled with blankets, and climb carefully up the side of the truck.
Once I have my footing in the bed of the truck, I look to the rear and see Lucky. She’s standing in the same, forced position she’s held for the last 8 hours. At this point, I can only empathize with her discomfort, but once the truck starts driving and bumping along the potholed highway, my feelings quickly transition to sympathy as I’m dreadfully uncomfortable as well. The wooden planks we’re sitting on have no cushioning, and they pinch my skin when the boards move. I suppose if Lucky and I are both struggling to find comfort, it’s a bonding opportunity.
If I stand up and look forward over the roof of the cab, a strong wind blows in my face. It’s refreshing and crisp. That is, until my cheek intercepts a bug in flight. I take that as my cue to sit back down, stretch my legs, and watch Lucky sway under the bluish light of the moon. Facing backwards would normally result in a twisted stomach and definite motion sickness, but not this time. My magic bracelets are working overtime, and even through my discomfort, I’m enjoying the most amazing experience: traveling overland through Thailand, bringing a rescued elephant to her new home.
I don’t have a clock, so I find myself looking at all 360 degrees of the horizon, trying to determine if the sky is brightening with the rising sun, as my fellow truck passengers somehow manage to sleep. Mostly, the dark, cloudy sky remains constant. My fleece blanket does a moderate job breaking the cool wind, but the urge for a toilet break increases my shivering. As if the driver heard my silent wish, the truck slows to a stop along the side of the road. I stand up to peer over the rails, and see all four Thai drivers (2 for the truck, and 2 for the van) line up along the road’s shoulder, and assume the well-known position of men peeing.
The thought races through my head, “If they’re going now, they won’t stop for at least a couple more hours!” I amaze myself at how quickly I rappel down the side of the truck, jump into some tallish grass a few meters beyond the shoulder, and squat, hopefully not making the passengers in the van too much of my audience.
Back up onto the truck I go, and dare I say it, I enjoy the next hour before dawn. With the increasing light of the approaching day, Diana and I notice dark clouds in front of us, highlighted with the rare flash of lightning. We’re asked whether we want to abandon the truck and head back into the safety of the van, but we answer “mai ben lai” in unison – “no problem!”
Well, the thunderstorm indeed posed a problem. With the truck forced to stop at a quarantine checkpoint, the torrential rain soaked us and our blankets in an instant. Defeated, we changed into dry clothes, and retreated to the “comfort” of the packed van. This is where we remained until we approached Lampang, about 100km southeast of Chiang Mai.
With an unsatisfying lunch of tasteless pad thai, Lek and Diana join me in the truck with Lucky for the last leg of our long, long journey. I love looking at the facial expressions of drivers passing us when they notice that we’re travelling with an elephant. I wonder how many of them have never seen an elephant before this. I especially like it when cars stay behind us, slowly following our back bumper, because their child is wide-eyed and excited to see our long-nosed cargo.
After almost 24 hours of being on the road, we finally pass through Mae Taeng and turn onto the road that leads to the driveway of Elephant Nature Park. Ducking for cover from low-hanging branches, and brushing off fire ants that somehow found their way onto our blanket, we ascend the mountain road slowly in first gear. With so many elephant camps in the area, Lucky extends her trunk high into the air, breathing deeply and taking in all the new and interesting smells. Cresting the peak, I’m able to see the familiar land of ENP, a beautiful 50 acres in the valley with the Mae Taeng river meandering through. It’s a beautiful sight, especially after such a long expedition!
As we enter the grounds of Elephant Nature Park, I hear cheers and can feel the excitement. Every single volunteer, visitor and staff member there that day clammer to get the best view for Lucky’s big debut. At the very front is Ligeia, who’s so excited to see me on the top of the truck. I wish I could jump for joy, but I’ve been tasked with filming the arrival, so I do my best to tame my excitement and keep the camera steady.
Overall, this experience has taught me two important things in life:
1) I will wear my magic bracelets all the time, every time I travel.
2) Ligeia and I will rescue an elephant one day, with funds that we raise somehow.
Thanks for reading. I had no idea this was going to be such a long post. But, perhaps it does the long travel day a bit more justice. It’s a good reflection of all the time I had sitting alone with Lucky, getting to know her in the backyard in Surin and while she stood, like a trooper, that whole way on the truck.
Until next time,