Monday, June 25, 2012

A Travel Parable: Giants of the Mae Taeng Valley

THIS STORY IS A PART OF THE PRODIGAL MAGAZINE “Travel Stories” Prompt for this week. What a great catalyst for stories. Click HERE to read all the great stories already collected on their site.


The babies begin to squeal, maybe from excitement or anxiety but either way it sets in motion a great earthquake of movement. All of the families nearby surround the little ones in a tight circle of protection and then the call goes out, a trumpet in the jungle’s canyon, to call the rest of the family to the circle. There is something so profoundly beautiful about nature unfolding right in front of you and something unbelievable about the filial ties of these giants of the valley, like one large foster family, protecting their collective children.

The ground quakes as the irises of my five riverside companions begin to expand in fear and adrenaline. Shaken out of my awe, my survival mode kicks into high gear and I realize the predicament of my close proximity to “nature unfolding” in front of me.

Mae Pherm, one of the wise matrons of the herd is leading the pack towards the circle of protection, and my body stands squarely between the babies and their surrogate grandmother—her limp from the beatings she suffered while working for cruel masters almost unnoticeable as she leads the stampede. I barely have enough time to step back, nearly flush with the grassy end of the riverbed and almost falling onto the rocks and raging water below.

The trumpeting echoes through my ears, off the hollow center of the valley, as the reverberations of heavy feet match and expand the quake. Out of the way, barely in time, I remember to turn the video function on my camera for the last second of the stampede—as five full-grown elephants rush past me, stopping abruptly at the edge of the circle of protection and surround the two baby pachyderms. My camera catches the final few seconds where sound and motion meet, and trunks bellow up to the heavens.


I had arrived at the Elephant Nature Park the day previous and everything about the place felt like magic and beauty. It was a rescue park for traumatized elephants. Everyone had joked with me before I left for this month of solo backpacking to Southeast Asia, having just graduated NYU after back-to-back internships with (first) combat veterans and then international refugees and survivors of torture and trafficking, “What? You can’t even go on vacation without it being about trauma?” But this was clearly, from the first hour there, a place not really about trauma but about the grace of healing.

These elephants had clearly been through horrors of torture and torment and many had the battle wounds to prove it. In Southeast Asia a practice called the pajan which was a method of training elephants when they are babies by horrible cruelty, neglect, and abuse. When trained, many of these elephants are used either in the tourist industry (for riding tours—which in itself is a painful and torturous life) or for logging companies, to help them carry large loads of lumber.

The elephants in the nature park had been rescued from abusive owners; some were able to stay on permanently if there was enough money raised to buy them from their owners but others were mended in this sanctuary of healing and then returned (with great sadness) back to their owners. One story I heard from one of the volunteers, which still makes me well with pain and tears, is of a female elephant who was loaded up by her owner to return back to her abusive home and her cries of lament could be heard until she was miles away.

An elephant never forgets.

And all of the residents at the park had a speck of sadness in their eyes; tiny flecks of a past they wished to not remember. But in this valley of healing they had created something beautiful and more powerful than the flecks of sadness were the exquisite trumpeting of joy which could only be fathomed in knowing it was something the Lord had made.

I spent three days there, after which I could imagine the concept of eternity in heaven in a palpable way. I could conceptualize how time could disappear in a place of wonder and grace.

The elephants roamed free during the day, each one assigned a mahout (or trainer) who watched out for them and learned how to work with them and train them without the abuses of the pajan. Besides saving and repairing the elephants, and creating a community they could call home, the added goal of the park was to teach trainers that elephants could be taught to work with humans and respect them without being beaten. Many of the trainers were reformed pajan enforcers who had learned a way to teach elephants in a relationship of love, not fear.

Matriarchs, the true leaders of the elephant world, like Mae Pherm were the heads of herds which had formed as surrogate families for each other. When a new elephant entered the park one “family” would claim them as their own and they would care for each other until they died.

And every family had a story. One elderly male had three girlfriends in one family, another teenage boy was fighting all the adults in an ego-struggle for position and respect, and the babies, everyone loved the babies. I will never forget the vision of the two resident babies, during bath time, floating down the river on their backs so animated with bliss I could swear I heard them giggle.

The loved and laughed and protected their young. They floated down rivers and played with each other. They had known pain and fear and trauma. And they had found healing in their valley of happiness. Some were flirty, others silly, and a few motherly and wise.


There were many moments in my 72 hours in the Mae Tang Valley where I knew I would never find a place just like it again. Like when I woke up in the middle of the night in my bamboo hut on stilts, to a raging rainstorm and a wildly swinging hut door, and a very annoyed street dog moving in the shadows next to my bed.

Or when, the next morning, my room was absent a dog but my roof was not. The sound like a thunder of paws and nails clickety-clacking on my (literally) hot tin roof made me rush outside for fear of collapse—only to find my night time bedfellow meandering nonchalantly on my roof.

Then to the left of my Spartan balcony I saw, in the mist next to the river, Mae Pherm rocking back and forth—in a silent and soft dance. Her one leg had been so badly injured from abuse she–were she any other elephant–would have been put down because of immobility. But Mae Pherm had found a way and a rhythm to her own healing. She rocked as her mahout stood by her side, as the mist filled the valley floor like something out of a poem or a dream—and in the background, over my head, I heard clickity-clack and a thump as the street dog found his way off his metal mountaintop.


While at the park I had run into a woman from Chicago, an excellent tattoo artist who came yearly to the park on her own kind of pilgrimage. I had mentioned wanting a tattoo done locally but not certain about who I could trust to do a good job. She told me about a guy she worked with at Nagoo Tattoo in Chiang Mai (the city I was returning to from the park). She said he had interned at her parlor in Chicago and promised he was good. She said his name was “Ugly”, well not really, but in his love of American punk rock he had given himself the nickname and it stuck.

So, a few days later, back in the noise of the city and the reality of a world without valleys full of elephants I walked into Nagoo and asked for “Ugly”.

While I have never been able to return, my trip to the Mae Tang Valley was something like an unexpected pilgrimage. The park, nicknamed “Elephant Heaven” was just that. It was the kind of place that makes you forget time and everyday life. It is a place where miracles happen in all the tiny unforgettable moments. It is a place where baby elephants bob happily down the river, and wise grandmothers sway in synch with the wind, where families are made, and hope is reborn.

It is a place that gets into your soul and shows you the possibilities encapsulated in the word heaven.

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