Big Love: My Adventure with Elephants in Thailand

A volunteer vacation at an elephant refuge in Thailand led Lise Funderburg to discover that animals have much to teach humans about the real depths of connection

Lise Funderburg
elephant park in thailand image
Mud streaked from getting down and dirty with the animals she rescues and cares for, Sangduen Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park, comforts and sings to an 800-pound “toddler” that she raised from infancy.
Photograph: Rena Effendi

It is feeding time at the Elephant Nature Park, a 200-animal sanctuary in northwest Thailand.

To get here, I have traveled 44 hours from my Philadelphia home, not including the two-day stopover in nearby Chiang Mai set aside for jet lag remediation and the fondling of hand-embroidered textiles at the city’s night market. The weather is hot and stultifyingly humid—it is June, the start of monsoon season—and I have come to spend a week among elephants.

In this country, elephants are celebrated on temple walls and beer labels but also accorded the legal status of livestock. Over the past century, their numbers have fallen from more than 100,000 to about 3,000, and fewer than half of those live in the wild. ENP, as the park is known, is a tourist-accessible sanctuary established in 1995 by a Thai woman named Sangduen Chailert. Its herd consists of 34 females and three males, ranging in age from two to 89. Many are disabled, many were abused.

ENP’s philosophy is markedly different from that of other vacation-destination elephant camps dotting the surrounding Mae Taeng Valley. Beyond making themselves available to be fed and bathed, elephants here provide no services, no entertainment. There is no watching them paint or do tricks, no swimming with or riding on them, no pretending to be their mahout (keeper) for a day.

I have paid $400 to be a park “volunteer,” as have 18 others who arrive the same day from countries such as the Netherlands, Australia and Japan. We are adventure seekers and animal lovers and gap-year takers who want to satisfy our curiosity about the world without leaving footprints. As ecotourists, we trade our money and labor for exposure. Given the weather, that means we will sweat buckets and use towels that never dry. We will shovel dung, build fences and partake in other unfamiliar tasks in exchange for quality hang-out time with the park’s celebrity residents.

To be clear, I am not against luxury. I like high thread counts and desserts you have to order at the beginning of the meal. If I don’t get a decent cup of brewed coffee every morning, I can’t be held responsible. So when the stars in my life lined up for a big expedition, I surprised even myself with this choice.

Certainly my enthusiasm for elephants pales compared with that of some volunteers. I grew up on Dumbo and Heffalumps, but I didn’t drag around a stuffed Babar. I may have lived within walking distance of Philadelphia’s zoo, but being a prosaic child, I favored dogs. I possess no elephant tattoos, and I don’t buy the elephant-adorned notepads and jewelry in ENP’s gift shop. But I do feel an insistent fascination that began five years ago, more or less by chance.

In 2006, I was asked to write about Tennessee’s Elephant Sanctuary (a refuge led by a charismatic if slightly human-averse former animal trainer). Simultaneously, a histrionic article on rampaging elephants appeared in the New York Times Magazine, and my childhood zoo shut down its elephant exhibit after determining it to be inadvertently cruel. For months afterward, I pounded friends with facts about the earth’s largest land mammal: They mourn their dead! They send messages for miles through low-level vibrations humans can’t hear! They live in families! Except for the adult males! They can be separated for decades and still recognize each other! They have skin that’s more than an inch thick! But it’s super sensitive! Flapping ears indicate happiness! So do entwined trunks! And rumbles! And bellowing! I went on and on.

More enduring than the party-trivia fodder was my hankering to get close to an actual elephant. Is it because I grew up in a city that I’m still bowled over by wildlife (which is to say, anything beyond rats, pigeons and squirrels)? Maybe it’s just the human condition to be attracted to the exotic, but elephants also drew me because they possess so many familiar, valued traits. For example, I’m 52 years old, and in my circle, this seems to be the decade of compassion. We’ve known success and failure, gain and loss, and in the face of life’s insistent vicissitudes, the only true balm is to open our hearts in an ungrasping way. The more I’m called on to show compassion, the more I appreciate when someone else chooses to see past an awkward situation or comment, apparently on the simple faith that I deserve it. Elephants are legendary when it comes to this. They’ll nudge wounded animals of other species, trying to get them back on their feet. They’ll stop chomping on leaves if they find a bird’s nest in the tree’s branches. They’ll put food in the mouths of family members who are too weak to feed themselves.
Compassion is closely linked to principles of community and empathy, both formative in my own life. Given that I grew up in a diverse neighborhood and an interracial family, it’s probably not surprising that I developed a fascination with how other people live, as well as for what does and does not constitute “otherness.” As the years go by, this attraction to same-but-different consistently shows up in what I write, where I reside, how I worship, whom I love. I don’t need to understand or agree with everything about anyone; one or two points of connection can create deep kinship.

During the Web surfing that eventually brought me to Thailand, I stumbled onto a video of an elephant parade in Nepal. The elephants walked, unchained and unhurried, down a street while villagers stood by, looking on with the same apparent mix of affection and detachment one might feel while watching the harvest-festival queen drive by in a flatbed truck. I understood then the blinders I wear as an American. In the United States we experience elephants only in captivity, whereas in Africa and Asia the animal’s role in the culture comes from its indigenous stature, its entrenched place in myth and religion. Could I step outside of what I knew? Could I join—even in just the dip of a toe—an elephant-human community?

My aspirations may have been pure, but the realities of human-elephant contact are not. Once you’re at all sensitized to the plight of elephants in the world—the widespread abuse, the heedless culling for tusks and their exploitation as laborers and entertainers and street -beggars—then wanting anything from them seems selfish. Watch a film about the “crush” (a training method that uses beatings with nail-studded clubs, sleep deprivation and days of immobilizing constraint), and it’s hard not to feel accountable. Part of me felt I should send a donation and be done with it. Part of me understood why the Tennessee refuge forbade contact, the animals accessible only by live ele-cams. As a species, we had done enough harm. But another part of me still yearned to make contact, driven by the same fundamental awe, I suppose, that draws our hands to the bellies of pregnant women and lifts our hearts each spring.


MY FIRST ELEPHANT-TO-HUMAN interchange comes and goes in a flash. A trunk brushes the back of my hand after I present its owner, an adult female, with a banana cluster. The wrinkled gray flesh is softer than I’d imagined; even its sparse, wiry hairs are surprisingly pliant. In one motion, the elephant’s trunk curls around the fruit and tosses it into her mouth. Instantly the giant fleshy nozzle unfurls back out, waving through the scorching, syrupy air in my direction—that is to say, in the bananas’ direction. I want to get closer, to run my fingers across this incarnation of iconic imagery, but I have just been warned that the trunk contains 40,000 muscles (about 39,300 more than in the human body): I should be careful not to let her confuse my arm with the food it dispenses. She stands on the ground, and I stand on a platform six feet above, a low guardrail separating us. Can elephants climb? Can they jump? I keep my distance.


ENP FOUNDER SANGDUEN CHAILERT, known as “Lek”—which means “little” and refers to her stature (petite even among a people not known for their height)—is fierce enough to enlist Thai Mafia help in rescuing a maimed elephant but self-deprecating enough to joke about having photos taken when her roots need a touch-up. She is, incidentally, quite beautiful, in an unstudied way.

Her park stood out to me for its embrace of all living things, a reflection of her own posture toward the world. Lek, who turns 50 this month, can’t go anywhere without a contrail of dogs following. ENP takes in all manner of strays, and currently the park houses 87 dogs, 30 water buffalo, 20 cows, one white-chested moon bear and a chicken named Lucky. The park hires local women—some of whom never had incomes before—and buys from local farmers. Lek pushes relentlessly to build a community-sustaining enterprise using the broadest definition of the word community, but her idealism is reassuringly tempered by a willingness to fail.

During my group’s welcome address, Lek admits the eco-tourism model initially baffled her. “I never thought people would pay to come and work,” she says, and the room erupts in laughter. The more I see of the program she has built, the more I understand its brilliance. Thailand shares a 1,500-mile-long border with strife-torn Myanmar (Burma), and by design, all of ENP’s mahouts are Burmese refugees. Some mahouts, like the sweet-faced Dam—whose picture is on a bulletin board below the caption MAHOUT OF THE YEAR—are former child soldiers for whom the caretaking offers emotional restoration.

Everyone connected to ENP benefits from Lek’s experience as a chef. The staff and volunteers are well fed three times a day from a double buffet line that offers dishes I know, including pad Thai and drunken noodle, spring rolls and mango with sticky rice and coconut. Some foods are new to me, like the beet-red dragon fruit and salads of shredded mango and tamarind flower. Even familiar fare tastes better here. Some say it’s the ingredients; some say it’s the appetite generated by shoveling grapefruit-size elephant turds.


A FEW WEEKS before leaving home, I prevailed on an acquaintance to provide culture and language lessons. I’d never spent time in a Buddhist society, with monks and rituals and temples penetrating the fabric of everyday life. And I’d never encountered a tonal language (in which subtle shifts in inflection can change the meaning of a word four and five times over).
Som Sae-Tang, a Bangkok native who’s lived in Philadelphia for three years, started by showing me how to perform the hands-in-prayer wai, a greeting that shows up everywhere in Thailand, even in the stance of the Ronald McDonald and Michelin Man statues outside their respective establishments. Don’t touch strangers, Som warned; don’t hug acquaintances and don’t touch anyone’s head. She also made clear how closely gender is attended to, from her suggestion that I keep my knees and shoulders covered to her instructions on the pronouns Thais attach to the end of every sentence: ka if the speaker is female, krap if the speaker is male.

Som taught me dozens of words that turned out to be useful, except for the few I happily had no call for: hospital, police, doctor. Occasionally, my attempts to replicate Som’s tones had her doubled over with laughter, and when I couldn’t get close to the right pronunciation in our segment on negotiating with vendors, Som tilted her head to the side, raised her eyebrows and thrust out her lower lip in a pout.

“Just do this,” she said. “Make sad puppy face.”

I have no need to bargain once I’m at ENP, but I do push my language skills to their limit. Most of the Thais I encounter have a ready smile—Buddhism at work, no doubt—and the frequent missteps, as when my tone-deaf delivery turns a staff member’s name into crazy, are amicably corrected.

On my second day, after a morning spent scrubbing hundreds of pumpkins and watermelons in what’s called the Elephant Kitchen, I join my fellow volunteers in a 10-minute hike up a nearby road. We are planting acacia saplings on its steep shoulder, an effort to stem erosion and re-establish the logging-decimated rain forest. Below us, clusters of elephants graze on newly greened pastures. There are more hands than there are tools or instructions, and so I look for a way to do more than just stand around. A local Thai woman I’ve seen pulling weeds on park grounds has joined us. When she strides away from the group, I follow her. I practice my Thai.
“Hello,” I say, touching my prayer hands to a dipped chin. “What is your name?” P’Tan, she says, then asks mine. P’Tan carries a tote bag that has two photos silk-screened on its side. Through pantomime, she makes clear that both are pictures of her one daughter, taken at different ages. There’s something about P’Tan I like instantly: She has a spark in her eye. P’Tan fills her arms with bamboo stakes, so I do, too. She walks back toward the group; I do, too. We become a team, hammering in our stakes until they’re gone, then planting acacias. As a longtime gardener, I know how to put a plant in a hole. We fall into a silent rhythm, holding the saplings in place and backfilling with our hands, hands that speak to each other with an easy fluency.

EARLY ON IN MY WEEK, I realize that certain social orders remain intact across species lines. If you’re standing next to an elephant and another human approaches, the elephant is greeted first, and you may or may not get a nod. It’s a lot like walking down the street with a cute baby, albeit a 7,000-pound baby who can pull down a tree with his nose.

Still, the general tone of human interaction is friendly and cooperative. The elephants put us all in a good mood, and so we bear up under the drenching rain and the less-than-plush accommodations. The closest thing to a shower here is a plastic bowl and a rainwater-filled trash can. The raw wood cabins stand on stilts, their walls gapped enough to let in sunshine, mosquitoes and the snoring of an adjacent neighbor, human or elephant. Thankfully, my roommate, another American, doesn’t mind that my hot flashes and I hog most of the breeze from our one luxury, a standing fan.

My roommate, Teresa Tung, and I are perfectly matched in temperament. We both work hard, but there’s a shared goofball quality, perhaps best captured in the photos of us holding machetes in a cornfield, striking Incredible Hulk poses. She’s my twin, I conclude, except that she’s 20 years younger, 20 pounds lighter, of Chinese descent and able to make sweating look sexy and not like incontinence. Teresa doesn’t gossip about people in our group, a practice I try hard to follow, though my capacity for compassion is occasionally tested by this person’s complaining or that person’s soapboxing. Teresa keeps me on higher ground, but so do the elephants. They’re what I’m here for, after all.

We’re all here for bath time, a daily pleasure. The mahouts lead their charges to the river, one group at a time, and in turn, volunteers and day-trippers pull black buckets from a stack, leaving sneakers and flip-flops along the shore. We wade knee deep into the brown flow and swoosh water over the elephants, who stand patiently, receiving the ablutions like pampered royalty. A few elephants are DIYers, swimming out to the middle of the river where they roll and plunge, letting only their snorkeling trunks break the water’s surface.

Lek gives a tour of the park one day, and the elephant family we come upon crowds around her. A toddler, Faa Mai, is being frisky. Lek has known her from birth, and the two-year-old still tries to climb into Lek’s lap, even though she now weighs 800 pounds. The nuzzling leaves ENP’s founder mud streaked. Lek starts singing to her, as she once did every night.

“Que sera, sera . . .” she begins, her thick Thai accent paired with a beautiful, lilting voice. She strokes the elephant, who leans into her. “Whatever will be, will be.”


ON THURSDAY, I eat breakfast and then head to the Elephant Kitchen. While I await marching orders, my tree-planting buddy comes up to me.

“Sawasdee ka!” I say, hoping my enthusiastic greeting will mask the fact that I can’t remember her name.

“Lise,” she says. “Sawasdee ka.”

“Kun cheu arai?” I say, putting on sad puppy face as I ask her name. Then I remember the gender tag. “Ka.”

“P’Tan,” she says, and reaches into her bag. She presses a small wooden elephant into my hand. It bears a tag I recognize from the gift shop.

“Faa Mai,” the label reads, indicating it’s a carving of the toddler I heard Lek sing to; “350” refers to the price in baht, which amounts to less than $12 U.S. but is more than most local families make in a day. “P’Tan” identifies the carver.

I remember the phrase for “thank you.” “Kob kun ka,” I say. “Kob kun ka.”

We part ways, and then it strikes me that I may have gotten it all wrong. Maybe P’Tan was merely showing me her name in English. Maybe I had just pocketed a chunk of income not meant for me. Am I simply a boorish American, privileged and insensitive? I track down my favorite staff liaison, Phet, and ask for some cultural translation.

On hearing my dilemma, Phet leaves with a promise to sort out the matter. When he returns, he assures me that P’Tan did intend to give me the elephant; then he heads off to handle the next international crisis. Later, P’Tan herself walks by. She takes my arm, and we catch up to Phet. She keeps her arm linked with mine as she speaks and he translates. “She says you were planting together and you were friendly. She wanted to give you this. It’s the first time she gives a gift.”

I put the elephant in my pocket, reaching for the talisman throughout the day, rubbing its smooth, dry wood. Eventually, the carving will have a place on my desk at home, sitting between my pencil cup and my computer monitor as a reminder of how much meaning can find its way into the smallest of moments.


WHEN AN ELEPHANT arrives at ENP, it often stands apart from the others. Soon, though, most join a family group or find one friend who becomes a constant companion. If one of the pair has a disability, the other compensates. The blind Jokia, whose pre-ENP mahout shot her in the eyes with a slingshot, has her own guide in Mae Perm, the oldest elephant at the park. When another stopped lying down at night, so did her best friend.

On my last day, I head toward the river and find the long-legged Mae Lanna hanging out by the water. Because we are standing so close to each other, I begin to scratch the side of her neck and the top of her trunk. In the most soothing voice I can muster, I say di, the Thai word for “good.” I’ve heard her mahout, Tuun, say it to her, and as I do, she starts to flap her ears. I pet and scratch; she flaps and swings her trunk. I add the word for “very,” following the rule of Thai syntax that places modifiers last. “Di, di, di,” I say. “Di mak, di mak mak.”

She has nowhere she needs to be, and neither do I; so we both choose to stay like this, together, for some time.


LISE FUNDERBURG’s Pig Candy is a memoir about life, death and barbecue.


Contact: Elephant Nature Park at Who should go: For the full volunteer experience, it helps to be in good health. It also helps to take a laid-back approach, since the park operates as a wonderful but unwieldy ship, with plenty of last-minute changes and waiting around. Cost: Several packages are available, from a day trip (about $85) to a two-week stay (about $800, which includes room, board and transportation to and from Chiang Mai). Flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai are an additional $70 to $120 round trip. Best time to go: October through February, when temperatures average in the 70s. I was there in June, at the start of the hot monsoon season, and my lifesavers were ultralightweight cotton and linen weaves. A list of what to bring is on the ENP website—but also be sure to take along a strong mosquito repellent, sunscreen and a flashlight.


Click here to view images of Lise Funderburg's week at the elephant sanctuary.


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First Published Thu, 2011-09-15 09:36

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