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January 31, 2014

Heaven is a Place Called Elephant Nature Park. ~ Jen Kemppinen

21 years ago I became enamored with elephants.

Perhaps my old soul could identify with these ancient beauties and the stories their eyes seemed to tell.

As I grew older I became acutely aware of the lives of elephants and the importance for true sanctuary if not living in the wild as they were meant to. At 18 I was required to do a project in order to graduate high school and I spent a week interning at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. A dream come true to love through service the eight gentle giants that resided at The Elephant Sanctuary at the time.

Fast forward to my 30th year on Earth and my decision to embark on a service trip helping animals. I have attended mission trips helping people in need, but decided this trip would be for my loves, the elephants. Thailand was my first and only option after reading and watching several videos about Elephant Nature Park. Checking “backpacking solo” and Thailand off the bucket list while living among elephants for a week? This was bound to be heaven on earth!

Upon arrival at Elephant Nature Park, I immediately felt at home. Nestled in the mountain jungles under bright blue skies north of Chiang Mai, this could easily be mistaken for the likes of Heaven.18 strangers had convened from around the world to call this home for a week. Stepping out of the van, we were greeted by Mae Tee who had come to the park addicted to methamphetamines, given to her to work longer hours. Mae Tee is one of the 35 pachyderms to call Elephant Nature Park home along with hundreds of dogs, water buffalo, cats and pigs.

With less than 2,000 wild elephants remaining in Thailand, it is the goal of Elephant Nature Park to stop the exploitation of animal tourism as well as release captive elephants back into their natural habitat.

Elephant Nature Park takes great pride in educating their guests on the plight of the waning elephant population. I found myself in a heap of sobs several times throughout the week when watching video presentations, depicting the life of the working elephants. Babies are taken from their mothers far too young, only to be starved and severely beaten until bloody in an attempt to break their gentle spirits and domesticate them for human use. Bull hooks are used to control their every move, leaving emotional and physical scars for life. The pain so visible as tears fall from the abyss of their amber eyes.

It is said an elephant never forgets; the pain in their eyes would speak volumes if given the opportunity. At first sight my heart fell for Jokia. Jokia is blind in both eyes as a result of cruelty from her logging days. While dragging a log uphill she suffered a miscarriage and was forbidden from stopping to check on the life she had just lost. Jokia stopped in her tracks and refused to work. Her mahout in turn shot her with a sling shot to the eye. Some years later Jokia defiantly became angry with her mahout, ultimately pinning him. He then stabbed her remaining good eye. Jokia has found peace and a best friend in Mae Perm at Elephant Nature Park.

The two are inseparable, Mae Perm always near, guiding her through touch and low rumbles. The love these two share fills the air here in heaven.

By the end of day one, the 18 strangers began to carry on as though old friends over nightly Thai feasts, Chang beer, card games and story telling. Outside of a week spent amongst elephants, the people who come to Elephant Nature Park are extraordinary and make the experience one to last a lifetime. Shenanigans, laughter, cultural exchanges and sharing of life stories make the work seem like part of the fun. After seven short days, you will leave with an international group of friends united in elephant justice.

18 friends and a handful of hilarious volunteer coordinators work side by side throughout the week to get the various chores done. Planting grass, cutting corn, washing and prepping elephant food, building fences and shoveling hundreds of pounds of elephant dung are all in a day’s work. Elephants casually sauntering by as if inspecting your work make one wonder if this so called work is just a dream. A hard day’s work is rewarded tenfold with afternoon and evening activities.

Bathing elephants, walks among them in the gorgeous Thai jungle surroundings, floats down the river, scratching kitten ears, wrestling with puppies and Thai massage await you daily. We were welcomed with a Shaman ceremony, taking our bad luck away and bid farewell with an authentic Thai dinner upon floor cushions while watching local children perform traditional song and dance.

While many hope to check “riding an elephant” off their Thailand bucket list, my hope is that more will consider the poor life these beautiful pachyderms endure for your hour long ride. Their lifetime of pain is far greater than an hour memory of a jungle joyride.

In turn, when visiting Thailand, consider a trip to Elephant Nature Park for a day or a few weeks. Might I suggest a week? You too will find yourself in heaven, gain a few new friends and have a memory to last a lifetime.

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Assistant Editor: Lauren Savory / Editor: Rachel ussbaum

Photos: Grant Alpert-Waldman, all rights reserved.

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Jen Kemppinen

Jen Kemppinen is a full-time nutrition student residing in Sacramento, CA. When not traveling the world, Jen can be found running a trail in preparation for a marathon or ultra-marathon or backpacking a mountain. Her goal is to leave this world a little better through the simple act of love. She sometimes can be found documenting her journeys on her blog.