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Elephants in Chiang Mai, Robbie Kaufman

Elephants we saw on the side of the road giving rides to tourists in Chiang Mai.


I’ve been in Thailand for about 3 months now, and I think it’s safe to say that everything I knew about this country has been challenged. Even as I’m learning new things they are simultaneously being questioned or straight out proven wrong. It’s a bizarre and fascinating experience and our trip to Chiang Mai for unit 5 was perfectly in keeping with this trend. I thought Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand, was seen as the lowest region by most of the country. It’s portrayed as poor and uneducated, with dry, unfertile land and despite aspects of these stereotypes being completely untrue, it seems as though much of the country has been persuaded to believe in them. Then we started learning about the Karen people and hill tribes in the province of Chiang Mai. Often times these people are refused citizenship and forcibly evacuated from their land for “destroying the forests”, which often times (not so) surprisingly isn’t the case. They are rejected by the very country they live in.

We spent two days living in the Nong Tao village and learned that actually these people were Thai citizens and were facing a number of issues, some of which hadn’t even occurred to me. I’ve come to expect these surprises and try not to get too attached to any piece of information that I think I know. I’ve learned that issues are complex and the whole idea of two sides to every story has been very relevant to my experiences here.

For the two free days after our unit, I stayed in Chiang Mai city and got to see some of family. I was looking forward to seeing them and getting a break from thinking critically about everything I saw. Essentially I planned to spend my two days as just a tourist rather than a student-tourist. Naturally we all wanted to do something with elephants, a common tourist attraction in Thailand and one of the few things I knew about the country before coming here. After a bit of research we learned about many ways elephants are horribly mistreated, including broken backs due to humans riding them. After a bit more research we signed up to spend the day with elephants that had been rescued from abusive situations, ranging from circuses to illegal logging.

The illusion of Thailand’s elephants as happy and wild was quickly shattered, perhaps most jarringly so when I saw an elephant awkwardly hobbling around the grounds. She’d suffered a broken leg in a logging accident, followed by a broken back from male elephants during an unsuccessful forced mating attempt. Every time she took a step it looked as though she stomped into a hole and the back right side of her body plunged much lower than the rest. One leg had healed shorter than the other three, so when she stood, either her right hip jutted out at an unnatural angle or her leg dangled several inches off the ground.   

We spent the day feeding, bathing, and petting the animals while learning about many of the stories that had led them there. I found myself caught between two emotional extremes. On the one hand, it was obviously overwhelmingly sad to learn about what the animals had endured. Five of them had been blinded by former abusive owners and many had suffered a variety of injuries. At the same time, it was hopeful and uplifting to see that someone cared. The woman who runs the park has to purchase the elephants from their owners in order to rescue them and the park costs about $250,000 per year. She works extremely hard to provide these elephants with a better future, and their gratitude could be seen with the affectionate trunks resting on her shoulders and patting her back.

These complexities are what make the world so interesting, and while it’s sometimes sad it can also be beautiful. Learning to accept these contradictions and evaluate situations is definitely one highly valuable skill that I’m going to take away from my experience here.


*** CIEE DG Fall 2013, Unit 5: Comparative Study ***


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