Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Plight of the Asian Elephant Part 1

Land mine victim since 1999
Land mine victim since 2011
When most people think of elephants they think of the giants of African plains and Asian rainforests. I’ve never met someone that didn’t like an elephant. They draw big crowds at zoos and oo’s and awes on safaris and no one goes to Southeast Asia without coming back with a great elephant trekking story. Well I’ve returned from Southeast Asia and I don’t have an elephant trekking story to share. I did not sit in a wooden throne balanced upon an elephants back, nor did I watch in wonder as an elephant guided his paintbrush into a bucket of paint and across a blank canvas. I saw no elephants play soccer or dunk basketballs. I am one of a few travellers that  ventured to Thailand without any intention of buying into the typical elephant tourism.  Ok I admit that I was interested in the painting aspect but that was until I read more about it.

Did you know that a century ago 100,000 elephants roamed the forests of Thailand? Did you know that a decade ago that number was down to 25,000? How about in 2011, how many Asian elephants do you think survive today? 20,000? 15,000? How about 5,000. It took 90 years for 75,000 elephants to fade into memory and only 10 for 20,000 to vanish. It is scary to think that within this decade they may disappear altogether.

Broken back from over breeding
The Asian elephant is to Thailand what hockey is to Canada. It is a national symbol existing proudly as one of the most important cultural icons. At one time they were the nations loggers, tractors, tanks and above all, most sacred creatures.  Today they are losing their fight to have a place in modern Thailand. It is not uncommon to see a young elephant begging for money on the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Carrying bags of fruit an elephant and his mahout approach tourists who pay to feed the elephant. It is an excellent way to make money but elephants weren’t meant to live in a city. They are too sensitive to vibrations and sounds to be completely engulfed by them and this environment is enough to drive an elephant mad.

Land mine victim since the age of 11 months
Elephant trekking camps exist all over the country, especially in Thailand’s second largest city, the northernly located Chiang Mai. You can’t walk 10 feet in Chiang Mai without coming across a poster and brochures embezzled with phrases like “Train to become a mahout!” “See the jungles of Thailand onboard your very own elephant!” Your very own elephant? Well how can anyone resist that! I mean I’m sure everyone has at one point in his or her life thought, geez I want an elephant! “Play soccer with the largest animal on earth!” “Watch as our elephants create masterpieces right in front of your eyes!” It’s tempting and all the hype can overwhelm even the most conscientious traveler.

Many people are unaware that many elephants used for trekking are worked nonstop. They head out with a rider or 2 and have a half second of rest before the next interested party hops onboard. Often elephants are guided by mahouts to paint using a nail concealed in the mahouts hand and pressed against the elephants trunk. People treat their cars better than many elephant trekking and elephant tourism places treat their elephants.

Of course before an elephant can be used to haul equipment or people they have to be trained. To train an elephant many believe it’s important to break its spirit. They are taken away from their mothers and put into an enclosure just big enough for them to fit. Then they are tied, beaten and starved for days until they are willing to submit to their masters. It is a shockingly cruel procedure that many deem a necessity. 

Stressed aggressive male
There is some hope however with more and more tourists jumping on the eco-friendly tour bandwagon. In part 2 of this entry I will tell what some amazing Thai's and foreigners are doing to ensure that these fantastic beasts are around for years to come! Trust me when I say you can have an amazing elephant related holiday without the hype, cruelty and cheap factor.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Day with Giants

I feel truly lucky to have had the opportunity to spend the day at the Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. 
There is no elephant trekking. No elephants paint or play soccer or even dunk basketballs. 

The elephants stand where they'd like.

They tell each other secrets.

They swim in the river.

They stick together. 

They play like big children.

They laugh.

They take in the scenery.

They cool off with a nice bath.

They will forever rest their tired backs and broken spirits at the park.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


I’ve met many different people from all over the world but no one comes close to the Cambodian people I’ve encountered on my travels. I truly believe their national slogan should be “Cambodia, Kingdom of Smiles” but I’m sure they’d never be taken seriously again!

When you pull out your camera they are happy to be photographed, smiling easily into the lens. They say thank-you when you refuse their services and they say yes please when you order something. Now this could very well be a lost in translation thing and they’re actually mentally flipping you off and their smile actually means get the hell out of my country you cheap foreigner. Yet I’d put a great deal of money on the fact that they are not thinking that at all!

We bought a few books off this kid. He was such a charming good lil' salesman! "I'll see you when you see me!" he said before heading out of the restaurant. We saw him the next day across town and he came in to say hi!

Over the course of our month in “Cambodia, Kingdom of Smiles” I’ve lost track of how many times one of us has happily expressed how nice the people in Cambodia are.

The people at our guesthouse were lovely, very attentive and never missed an opportunity to say hi “Hello Ally!” “Hello Morgan” (Megan is apparently a difficult name to pronounce!). The guesthouse across the road where we ate countless meals was even friendlier. We weren’t even staying there and they treated us like queens deserving of 5 star service. They didn’t care that we were clearly budget backpackers wearing the same thing for the 4th day in a row. One day we were just walking by and our favourite tiny waitress stuck her head through the wall of foliage to say hi, her smile literally stretching from ear to ear. Although now that I think about it they could have been ridiculously nice to us because we were amazing tippers… but we were amazing tippers because they were so nice to us… it’s a vicious circle but I think we’re all winners!

I think we could all learn a great deal from the Cambodian people. Like how to let bygones be bygones and live for the moment instead of letting the past live for us.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cambodia's Dark Past

A school is a place where people can better their lives through education. School can lead to a good job with a good house and a well looked after family. So how does a place of learning turn into one of horror and torture? S-21 in Phnom Penh had been a high school. By 1975 it had turned into a place where academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. were tortured and interrogated before being executed.

It costs $2 to visit S-21 a place I would gladly pay $5-10 to see. Upon entering the first building it is obvious that this is not going to be your typical museum. There are no pristine artifacts securely placed behind bulletproof glass, only signs asking visitors to please not touch the instruments of torture. Everything has been left just how the Khmer Rouge left it. Visitors are asked to keep quite, a rule that most observe and the silence while standing in a room that would have once been filled with the screams of victims chills you to the bone. 

The third floor of Building A still somewhat resembled a school with no torture devises on display and blackboards still firmly attached to the peeling walls. It even had that old school smell. So many feelings came over me all at once as I walked from room to room, confusion, sickness, bitterness, sadness, shock and hatred

The looks on the faces of prisoners ranged from horror and shock to fear and confusion and in a few instances amusement. The amused faces are hard to take in because you know their fate. You know that while at the time they may have been thinking it couldn’t be that bad that it was in fact that bad and perhaps worse.

All the pictures are hard to look at but perhaps the hardest to view were those of the children. You can't help but stare at them and think what could these children have possibly done to earn such a fate? How could someone torture children? Oh how they must have screamed for their mothers, their mothers who were locked away in cells far away or haphazardly buried miles away in shallow graves. How do you explain why such horrible things are happening to your children when you don’t understand them yourself?

You wander through room after room of primitive yet destructive torture devises and photographs of the mutilated bodies of prisoners who never got a fair trial or explanation. It was the very worst of human behaviour in great detail on display for everyone to see.

Next comes a place with a name that leaves nothing to the imagination. The Killing Fields.

The field looks like a battleground. Every few feet there is another huge divot. It’s as though hundreds of bombs were dropped during a war but then you learn that there were no bombs, no army blitzed the area. These are the shallow graves where thousands of innocent people were disposed of like compost.  Signs tell of the bodies recovered from several sites. There were 405 found from this one, 166 headless corpses from that one and over 100 naked bodies of women and children from that one over there.

There are 2 trees on the property that served cruel purposes. One called The Killing Tree was used to beat children. One observer described how the tree was covered with blood, brain matter, skin and hair. The other tree was called The Magic Tree, which was used to blast noise from a loud speaker that would drown out the moans of those being executed.

The Killing Fields are quite small and eerily peaceful. Butterflies flutter around mass graves traveling from one delicate purple flower to another. Chickens peck around trees used to hang the outspoken and beat the children while nearby students laugh and run around their schoolyard.

And as an observer you take it all in as you walk over shards of bone that have appeared over night brought out of their shallow graves by heavy rains and you look around marveling at a world at odds with the past.