Elephant Heaven – By Margie Riley

Margie Riley, has just had the most amazing present from her son – and I really do mean amazing! You can read all about it in her account of this most incredible present she received in which a number of family memories were raised and then a visit to an elephant sanctuary to finish it all off.

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Elephant Heaven.

Some of you will know that my son, Tom, took me on the trip of a lifetime as a present for a Significant Birthday I celebrated some eighteen months ago. We went to Thailand and Singapore a couple of weeks ago; the main purpose of the trip being to visit the Thai–Burma Railway where my father and a much-loved uncle were unlucky enough to become POWs of the Japanese, along with hundreds of thousands of others. Both these remarkable men survived the ordeal, in fact my uncle lived until he was ninety-two. How anyone endured the suffering and then managed to re-enter society, apparently unscathed, is beyond me.

However, this story isn’t about them, although the pilgrimage was. Unbelievably, we were the only two on the scheduled tour through Matt McLachlan Tours (https://battlefields.com.au/ ) so we had our wonderful guide, Pongsin Yingchatdeshokull (no, I have no idea how to pronounce his second name) and the driver, Mr Arbon, to ourselves.

The day after our visit to Hellfire Pass, two war cemeteries for British, Australian, Dutch, US and Canadian casualties, the ‘Weary’ Dunlop Museum and the JEATH (Japanese, English, Australian, American, Thai and Holland) Museum, Pongsin suggested we visit more uplifting places. Therefore, in the morning Mr Arbon drove us to Erawan National Park—https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erawan_National_Park—famous for its nine cascading waterfalls of pale aqua-blue water and foot-nibbling fish which live in the pools. The fish did nibble, but I didn’t much care for it as a big one was a bit rough. Wimp. We were exhorted to ‘Beware the Slippery’ (and slippery the rocks and submerged trees were), also to ‘Beware the Muggers Lurking Among the Tourists’. We did as we were told, though Tom had to heave his mother out of a rock pool.

We had a delicious lunch at a roadside café where Pongsin had pre-ordered things for us. He’d remembered Tom had said he liked Pad Thai, so that’s what he received; I had chicken and rice. The dessert was banana fritters—universally and unsurprisingly loved by the Thais—and ice cream. We washed it down with beer for Tom and the most delicious ‘lemon’ juice, which I think was a lime juice concoction. I am not a beer drinker, but downed about four in the nine days we were away. There’s something about being in a tropical climate to bring on a thirst.

After lunch we piled back into the van and I continued my habit of ‘sleeping around Thailand’ which Tom, bless him, recorded for perpetuity.

Next stop was the Kanchanaburi Elephant Haven situated on the banks of the River Kwai (https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/elephant-haven-sai-yok-kanchanaburi/). There were dogs, cats, a rooster, chooks—including a clutch of week-old chicks—and the pachyderms. We sat in the shade and waited until it was time for the afternoon bath. There was watermelon for sale at the haven and I learnt why they saved the skins as I watched them piled into wicker baskets. There was an elephant in a shelter opposite our shady spot and she wandered over to some flimsy rails with a narrow pathway on one side, and another rail on the other. The rails are simple, just the one rail, standing a metre or so high and supported on posts quite a distance apart. A reasonable height for ducking under.

The basket was placed in the pathway and we were invited to feed the elephant some of the skins. She knew what was in the basket and we were encouraged to feed her with cries of ‘Don’t worry, no danger‘ from the man in charge. I never learnt if he had been a mahout in a previous life, but he obviously loves his current role at which he excels. He is adept at squatting which, with my dodgy knees, I envy; he has a permanent happy smile and shows off his random gappy brown teeth. Betel nut? When he learnt we were Aussies his eyes lit up and he said: ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi,‘ and ‘Winner, winner, chicken dinner‘! In fact, as Australians we were welcomed everywhere we went, it was most gratifying.

Soon other elephants joined the one I’d made friends with and were fed by us and other tourists visiting the sanctuary. One of the elephants had cloudy eyes and I asked her handler if she was blind. ‘Yes, she blind,’ he replied as he gently encouraged her across the compound and down the river bank for her swim. We didn’t see her again. The other girls were just as greedy as the first one and ate an enormous amount of fruit and other roughage; for example, they don’t just eat bananas, they eat the stems of the hands too.

Then it was mud-bath and swim time.

We followed the elephants along a well-worn path leading to a very muddy patch, made muddier for them by the addition of gallons of water. A small Thai boy in the group indulged in the mud play as much as the animals did. The elephants use the mud as pigs do, to keep cool and to deal with various irritations; they squirt it over themselves with their prehensile trunks. Some of the tourists enjoyed the mud too—particularly some Russians who were burnt to a crisp, they would have rued the exposure later on—we, however, abstained. I am happy we did; there are gallons of urine held in an elephant’s bladder. And talking of roughage, there is also a huge amount of excrement all over the place. I never thought to ask if they use it to fertilise the grounds, but there is enough for many gardens.

After they’d played in the mud for as long as they wanted, we all ambled off to a small beach on the River Kwai’s banks. Our fearless leader continued with his ‘Don’t worry‘ and ‘No danger‘ to reassure us. I was never in the least bit apprehensive, despite the size of the girls. ‘Big bum‘, he said to Tom as they wandered along behind one of the elephants. I asked another of the mahouts if one of the cows was pregnant, ‘No, just fat,’ he responded with a wide grin. He told me if she had been pregnant her belly would have been rounded beneath her rather than out at the sides. He also told me, when asked, ‘No, no bulls here; they cause too much aggression.’

I emphasise the elephants are free to come and go as they wish. No chains, no ropes, no sticks, no goads: simply freedom.

We reached the river and in we all went (careful not to drink the water which was soon dotted with floating elephant dung). They love to wallow, just as you will have seen on film, and suck up the water to spray it over themselves and anyone within range. We scratched their ears, bellies, backs, rumps, foreheads etc—but no-one even attempted to climb onto one of them. That is not what they are there for; they have been rescued from trekking and work camps and now live a life of leisure.

One of the cows wandered over to a bit of the bank which overhung the river. She excavated it a bit and lay down on the mud she’d exposed. As she lay there she farted long and loud. ‘Engine starting,’ said our mahout. However, the flatulence might have triggered the mud- and sand-fall which startled and initially buried her. Two of the other cows rushed, as much as an elephant can rush, to her with much trumpeting and snorting, inspecting of the bank, the dirt-fall and general inquisitiveness. They converse with deep rumbles—though I think the trumpeting was for danger—and there was a lot of rumbling going on until the three of them decided the bank was safe again.

After a while we all made our way back to the compound where we fed them more fruit and grass. I gazed into the eye of one of the huge creatures and I swear she looked into my soul. They are gentle, amiable, peaceful and generally calm. Their skin is leathery and firm, their legs hugely wide, their toenails cream-coloured (but where are their toes?), and their trunks are multi-purpose. Trunks are used for smelling the food, manipulating it into the right position for placing in the mouth and for reaching out to the eager, generous hands which feed them. The end of the trunk is quite damp—mucous-y I suppose—and incredibly flexible. They are dextrous animals. Visitors are asked not to approach them head on, nor to approach them from directly behind, not to put food into their mouths—in other words use your common sense.

One of the cows is sixty and the youngest a mere slip of a gal at thirteen or so. Please be assured that these animals are loved as we love our animals and the sanctuary relies on visitors to enable it to purchase more cows to provide them with a restful and comfortable life. If you plan to visit Thailand, I thoroughly recommend a visit. And take the sunscreen.

Our amazing visit came to an end all too quickly. It had, as Pongsin must have thought, erased some of the horrors on view the preceding day. It was the highlight of a trip full of wow moments.


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