The circus is magical, the sand pit low lit with flashing lights that add to the mystery. The tightrope and trapeze performers test the limits of mortality, the clowns bring humor and terror, the tigers come with teeth bared and roaring, while the elephants lumber around with a keeper at their side. With headdresses of jewels and feathers, it is hard to imagine that a creature that looks so much like royalty is actually a slave. The circus is not magic, but a trick, and one that breaks the spirit, mind, and body of an animal that has similar feelings and emotions as humans.

Before entering the spotlight, young elephants are trained to obey the hook and the hand.

In Thailand, elephants have endured a long history of abuse for the tourism industry. Split between circuses, elephant rides, street begging, painting, and elephant breeding, there are very few wild elephants left.

Like humans, elephants grow strong bonds with their family and herd members. The first thing poachers do is separate the young elephant from it’s herd, usually using tranquilizer darts. After this tragic separation, the circus training begins.

Tied between four trees, rope cuts into the elephant’s neck, ears, ankles and trunk. Since many elephants are taken during a time of rapid growth, these ropes become embedded in the elephant’s skin as it grows. Over a period of up to three weeks, the trainer, or mahout, “breaks” the elephant by adding weight to it’s back, making it walk in continuous circles around trees, and many other methodical actions. The mahout uses chains, hooks, nails, and even fire to condition the elephant to obey his orders. One of goals in this practice is to make the elephant forget it ever had a family or a life in the wild. The elephants are hardly given water or food, and become incredibly malnourished during this training process.

The elephant is watched continuously during this time period, given no chances to commit suicide by stepping on its own trunk and cutting off its air supply.

Once they begin their circus career, the abuse is not left behind in the jungle. Elephant trainers use hooks and nails hidden inside their hands to lead the elephants through their routines.

Elephant cruelty is still a problem in Thailand and around the world, but elephant sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers are working to change this problem.

After having one experience with the elephants in Thailand previously, I was morally conflicted about visiting one of these sanctuaries. The last elephant we saw while trekking through the jungle was clearly still enslaved. She had a chain around her ankle, and the mahout carried a sling shot to keep her in line.

After arriving to the camp, it was clear that this was a home, and not a prison cell. Mae, our peppy tour guide, ran into the banana tree field yelling “Elephants, oh elephants!” After a couple minutes, five hungry elephants came trotting down for lunch. These elephants had no chains and no hooks keeping them in line, and their mahouts were loving, playful and gentle with them.

The mahouts that were at our sanctuary, and many others, previously practiced the cruel ways of elephant training. Since this was a long standing tradition, these men were raised and trained to treat elephants poorly. When they came to the sanctuary, they received weeks of training to learn humane ways of caring for the elephants. One mahout, who was covered in tattoos and even had tattoo eyeliner, snuggled and kissed the young elephant on the head after giving her a bath.

After feeding the herd three whole laundry baskets of bananas, we headed on a walk to get in their daily dose of exercise. Even though the walk was short, it took over an hour due to the numerous snack breaks the elephants had to take.

The rest of the trip was spent at the spa, or rather bathing in a gigantic mud pit. The youngest elephant, only two years old, was rowdy throughout the whole endeavor. Crawling under her sister’s legs, burying her head under the water fountain, and rolling around under water, the older elephants hardly had a relaxing day at the spa.

To end the trip we took a bath in the river, where we had a splashing versus spraying match with the elephants.

Despite all of the love and respect that the elephants were showered in today, there was still a sadness looming over the trip. On a property near by, there was a young male elephant chained in a field, continuously rocking back and forth in distress.  

Elephant cruelty is still a major issue in Thailand, and it is important  to visit elephants in a place where they are being treated with love and respect. While these elephants have a loving home, they can never be released back into the jungle due to their injuries and the continuing threat of poachers. Support a great cause, and give your business to elephant rehabilitation centers instead of elephant treks, circuses, and paintings.



Mae Sa Mai Village Visit

Win’s life began in a Hmong village, with a soon-to-be mother writhing in pain on a bed of ferns her husband scavenged from the jungle. His first month was spent with his mother in this birth bed, where they gained strength for the life to come. Life in the Hmong villages was in transition when Win was born, and is continuously morphing to this day. At it’s core, Win’s life is similar to the simplistic way it began, but the details surrounding it are hardly recognizable.

When Win was young, he trekked eight hours through the jungle with his father to reach Chiang Mai, and another ten hours back home with dry goods fastened in woven baskets they wore on their backs. This walk was necessary for trade between the village and Chiang Mai city, as well as to acquire goods that could not be found within the village. At this time, the Hmong Village was in its early years of learning new agriculture practices.

After fleeing from China, Laos, and Burma (Current day Myanmar), many of the hill tribe people found refuge in Thailand and entered the Opium trade. Growing Opium poppies and creating the drug for medicinal purposes was one of the few ways the hill tribe families earned money. This did not last long, however, because soon Opium began to be outlawed around the world.

When His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited Win’s village for the first time, he brought with him a wealth of knowledge and a plan for change. Instead of simply outlawing Opium and letting the hill tribe villages starve, the King offered lessons in agriculture. This became known as the Royal Project Foundation, and it helped to diminish Opium farming and deforestation in Thailand.

Like many of the people in Thailand, Win has a passion for learning. His gratitude towards the King and the knowledge he shared is luminous. Win has a similar passion for the environment, and has spent his life learning sustainable practices of agriculture. Before Win was born, many of the hill tribes rotated crop fields and continuously cut down trees. Within Win’s lifetime, a great deal of these lands have been reforested.

Throughout our three hour trek Win showed us the mysteries of the jungle, from poisonous caterpillars to herbal first aid practices. With respect in his voice, he said “come to the jungle for three hours, and I will teach you all there is to know. Go to the city and you will never be able to stop learning.”

Despite his simple life, Win is accepting of progress and technology. He was excited to share that he has had a cell phone for ten years, even if it is a bit cracked. 

Towards the end of the trip we met with the Village Shaman, who is thought to have a connection to the spiritual world. Win explained to us that the Shaman tied the wrists of the King when he came to visit, which is a ceremony used to provide good luck and fortune. This is a great honor, and Win radiated pride when he shared the shaman’s tale.

The spreading of knowledge has given Win and his village a means of living that is less harmful, and more lucrative, than the Opium trade. As a kid, Win had to trek through the jungle to sustain his own life, now he and many others in his village have cars, technology and a knowledge that is helping to sustain the life of our planet.

In closure, Win thanked us for our curiosity and desire to learn, expressing earnest hope that more westerners would come to learn (and teach) in his humble village.