“Our other projects are about helping the elephants,” volunteer guide Aek Makkawan explained as we crossed a bumpy mountain road, “this one is more about helping people to help the elephants.” We were returning from a village school in the Mae Chaem district, a three - room operation where one instructor simultaneously teaches several classes. Each volunteer spent their time teaching basic English words, drawing pictures, and playing games with the children. Each child seemed to relish the interaction with their newfound foreign friends, as smiles and laughter abounded. Later, their faces lit up, showing the joy most American children reserve for Christmas, as the volunteers distributed school supplies and simple snacks. Aek, our wiry guide whose huge smile suits his friendly nature, seemed to glow as the villagers waved our truck goodbye. “Everyone is smiling, you can see that we have helped these people. They appreciate everything you have done today.”
Journey to Freedom is an Elephant Nature Foundation project that works to empower isolated communities in Thailand’s mountainous northeast and redefine thinking about the Asian elephant. Established in June 2010, it offers villagers economic assistance in exchange for returning their elephants to the jungle. Though the northeastern tribes have long maintained close relationships with the animals, poverty has driven many to lease their elephants to trekking and begging operations in the city. To become part of the project, they must bring their elephant back, care for it humanely, and allow it roam freely for much of the day. By reintroducing elephants into the daily culture and requiring positive reinforcement training techniques be used, the project aims to shift the region’s traditional human – elephant relationship into a more mutually beneficial, healthy partnership. When the elephants are returned to the village, ecotourism operations are established around the animals and villagers needs: paying volunteers are brought in to assist with everything from teaching in a local school to rice planting. The titular journey occurs when elephants need to be walked from one village to another in the mountains and are assisted by the mahouts and volunteers.
Rain and mud and rocks defined our journey up. Every short stretch of paved mountain road was an oasis to everyone on the trucks, before long we’d be shaken and stirred again. The scenery was beautiful through the bumps: lushly forested mountains rose around calm rice paddies and rivers in the valleys below. Clouds and mist moved across the mountains, consuming whole forests without damaging a thing. Moving higher and higher here often felt like chasing the clouds to wherever they chose to dissipate.
Arriving at the village of Mae Jung Sam, everyone was eager to eat and sleep. After our introduction to the rustic accommodations, three rooms with floor pallets for ten people, and restroom facilities, a separate structure with three Asian / Western mixed fixtures, we congregated in the main kitchen. This was to be a week in flux, with our friends, the rain and roads, determining the schedule. Though volunteer enjoyment was high on his mind, Aek made clear that our safety would always be his top priority. No one seemed to mind and, as we ate a delicious meal prepared by driver / chef / Renaissance man Suthet, night crept over the village. Though a generator brought guiding lights, the rich mountain darkness proved hard to shake along the muddy paths. Moving in their outlines, I imagined my bare feet tracing the steps of ancient villagers in the region. Perhaps, if analyzed in a pointless lab somewhere, the mud on my feet was the same caked on theirs ages ago.
The next day, we followed Aek to find the long awaited elephants. It was a winding and deliriously beautiful trek, the sun was almost blinding as we walked down a mountain and followed streams through rice paddies. Everyone moved briskly, driven forward by sheer excitement and moxie; one girl lost a flip flop in the stream and moved barefoot over the rocky path without any loss in speed. The residual high would also carry her through bandaging her feet later. We eventually rounded an overgrown corner of the path to find our elephants: standing in a swift current, the massive gray family somehow appeared out of nowhere. The group consisted of three cows, a teenage bull, and adorable baby twins, all of whom continued maneuvering between banks for tasty greens even as awe struck foreigners watched nearby. Even the calves failed to bat an eye at our close proximity, instead focusing on their mother to learn proper ele - etiquette. Cute is watching two baby elephants, covered in bristly hair and with trunks no bigger than your forearm, clamber over mid – size boulders, fail, and dejectedly scoot around.
With urging from their mahouts, the elephants began trudging through the river and we followed. Though they’re not ideal in certain, smelly circumstances, elephant buttocks can be exciting to watch as they sway and lurch forward. Walking with the elephants then, water rushing past my shins and sunlight bursting through the canopy, my mind was blank slate: I couldn’t think of anything beyond what I saw and shot through my camera. Nothing could alter or distract from that scene and the elation coursing through my veins. They moved and splashed, and we always echoed on a lesser scale. When the mahouts finally led their elephants up into the jungle, it was as if we’d walked with ancient Gods now departing for the sun itself. Words like incredible and amazing were later bandied about regarding the experience, but nothing we could say approached the majesty of our elephant walk.
Elephants usually give birth to a single calf after an eighteen to twenty – two month pregnancy. For a cow to have twins is a rare and incredible occurrence: the pair on the Journey to Freedom project is one of few currently known in the world. Though their parents have all known the phajaan, Thailand’s traditional torture system for breaking a wild elephant’s will, the ENF is working to ensure the same will never happen to the calves. To remain in the project, mahouts must never use cruel tactics such as hooks or sharp stones to discipline the elephants; if any fresh wounds appear on the animal and are determined the result of these practices, they are issued one warning before the project’s cancellation. Phajaan training the twins would mean exclusion from this profitable ecotourism opportunity and their owners have, thus far, agreed to use positive reinforcement training techniques. It’s a bright, better future for the elephants and the villagers alike, a respectful and humane evolution of tradition that benefits both
Rice: the innocuous grain eaten by billions all over the world every day. Rice paddies: the thick, muddy, spider – filled shallows where rice is grown by thousands every day. After working in the latter, I’d say rice farmers are far underpaid for their service to the world. Though we approached our days helping in the rice paddy with the same manic energy as every other activity, few kept that high spirit through the entire proceedings. Yes, the scenery around us looked like gorgeous wall scrolls painted to life. Yes, it was for the good of the village and our beloved elephants. But, the work was also arduous. Standing shin deep in muddy waters, we pulled three or four rice plants from pre – tied bundles, pinched them between our fingers, and plunged each into the squishy mud. To be fast, even like the older villagers around us, one needed to stay hunched and marathon mud slam four or five pinches to each step. It was, as evidenced by our crooked, wobbly rice rows, not something one masters in a day or two. That huge spiders skated across the surface and often dove around our feet did little to boost anyone’s enthusiasm. Still, as I saw the smiles on each villagers face, the ones from when we weren’t falling in the mud, the work became worthwhile. Even if we only made that day’s planting a little briefer, we showed that Westerners could get down and dirty. They may not understand our affection for the elephants or the money we pay to stay with them, but good, honest work seemed to translate well. That’s something no amount of diving spiders and dried mud in your toenails can change.
Our second elephant walk came, like much of the week, in the rain. Though the project originally included walking a pair of elephants to two other villages, slick road conditions forced us to take only the first leg of the journey. Driving over the mud – soaked, rocky terrain, everyone understood the rescheduling: the rural mountains of Thailand would make for a rugged stranding. When we finally crossed paths with our elephants, standing in the road and grazing like cows would at home, it seemed as though they’d been waiting on us for hours. After the initial, “OH MY GOSH AN ELEPHANT” where we crowded around them, they began to walk. Elephants have two paces: a slow saunter and a brisk trot. Given their size and leg span, the trot can be hard to keep pace with. This pair seemed content to keep us on our toes, alternating between the two so that, when we became adjusted, it was time to slow down or bust out again. Through the jungle and over the muddy road, all in the company of giants; by the time we reached the second village, Shuy Sai Lang, it felt strange to think of walking without them. The elephants seemed to have their human drill down pat, immediately parking themselves under a shelter like giant cars in a garage. After we sat, enjoying the animals and the local company outside a small dark shop, the elephants were taken to their sleeping quarters in the jungle. It was a perfect secluded area, densely forested and near a rushing river. They had found their freedom for the night and, driving back to Mae Jung Sam, it felt like ours had been in that walk.
As a final thank you for the home stay, we helped the village children tie sacred clothes in the nearby forest. Bright orange and blessed by the monks, these ribbons of faith protect the tree they encircle from logging; to cut down a tree with their protection, would invite more bad karma than any Thai person would risk. Clambering up and down a steepish hill, it felt more like the children were helping us: each would run, grab several ribbons, and have protected several trees by the time we got close. After slipping our way down, the volunteers began handing out the school supplies and snacks our group had brought. These, plus the noodle lunch we prepared, seemed to mean the world to each child. Rambunctious before, they settled into adorable creative and food comas with our gifts. It felt like a normal afternoon in a normal mountain village, as though we’d transcended being outsiders and had become fixtures in this new sphere. As each of us settled into our own writing, reading, and lounging, it was hard to believe we’d spent a week in the village and that we wouldn’t be spending more. When the villagers came to bid our group goodbye the next day, it seemed we’d always known them. Pulling away, it felt like we’d always come again, on another Journey to Freedom, sometime in the intangible future.