The alarm goes off at 6:30am and after another ten minutes of faux-sleeping we splash some water on our faces and brush our teeth while looking for elephants through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall of our en suite bathroom. We throw on some clothes and head out the door of our guesthouse, and as we step onto our deck we might see a dog or three that has been keeping guard overnight. If not, we will certainly be greeted by first one, then two, then ten dogs and several cats while we wait for the truck to take us on a daily 7:00am banana run. A little bleary-eyed without our morning coffee, riding in the open back of a truck in the chilly pre-dawn air will serve as a substitute wake-up call. The scenery is stunning as the mist swirls around the bright green jungle-covered hills as we drive past crops of corn, mango and papaya while at least a few dogs chase the banana truck as far as their break-of-day energy can take them.
When we return wild animals to nature, we merely return them to what is already theirs. For man cannot give wild animals freedom, they can only take it away.
We’d arrive at the home of one of the Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary’s mahouts in the nearby village, where there would be a huge pile of bananas littering the ground. It was our job to toss bananas into the back of the truck, selecting the ripest – and therefore tastiest – ones first. When the truck is deemed full enough, we climb back in amongst the bananas and head back to BLES to start the morning delivery service. The first pile of bananas is laid out on the grass for Boon Thong, the sanctuary’s newest rescue. She is a pretty but shy old lady who, at least for the time being, prefers to spend time alone. Then we take several wheelbarrows full of bananas through the mud to a sheltered wooden trough for Wassana, Pang Dow, and Lotus – aka the Gossip Girls. The final bananas then get delivered for mischievous young Mee Chok, who comes loping out of the jungle with his adoptive mother Pang Tong and surrogate sister, Lom.
We then move into an open-air hut, and as we settle in for breakfast we get a close-up view of the Gossip Girls sauntering over for their morning meal. While we eat our family-style pancakes, eggs, toast, and all that wonderful tropical fruit I can’t get enough of, we listen to the girls squeak and munch while occasionally tossing aside any banana that is not to their exacting standards.
This is life at BLES. On one hand, it seems perfectly natural; on the other, it is completely unbelievable.
There are eight of us around the table: six visitors including ourselves, BLES founder Katherine Connor, and veterinary nurse Lucy Clark. It’s a very intimate setting at BLES. There are just three guesthouses on site with a maximum of six overnight visitors. The guesthouses are lovely wooden structures that naturally fit onto the grounds. Each has a deck for relaxing and soaking up the scenery, and an en suite bathroom with a wall of one-way glass to gaze out at the sanctuary and perhaps even an elephant.
There are no day visitors except on very rare, previously arranged occasions. Visitors can come to BLES for as many nights as they’d like, arriving and leaving whenever it’s convenient and there is availability. Katherine is completely accessible and will share her passion with you while you eat your meals and work with her on projects for the sanctuary. The days at BLES have a framework for structure, but are flexible to allow each visitor to work or relax as they please.
When the Gossip Girls have finished their bananas they’ll stroll past the breakfast hut, and Lotus, who enjoys the attentions of her human admirers, will often stop and say hello and offer the privilege of posing for a picture with her. But what this really means is that it’s time for the highlight of any day at BLES: the jungle walk. For the next three-to-four hours groups of elephants will walk with their mahouts into the jungle and simply do what elephants do: browse, get a drink, and perhaps indulge in a spa treatment if there is a good mud bath nearby.
There are eleven elephants at BLES that have formed smaller herds and social groups. Some of the elephants, like Lotus, enjoy being around humans; others not so much. There is never forced interaction between BLES visitors and the elephants. We walk with the more social groups and, even then, we are there to observe. Occasionally, an elephant will be very relaxed and its mahout will invite us over for a photo-op or to offer a piece of fruit, but only for as long as the elephant is interested in the extra attention. If the elephant has had enough, we go back to a respectful and safe distance and watch.
Fa, Katherine’s charming and funny assistant, accompanied us on our walks and always lugged around an extra supply of water while tempting us with fruit he would find growing along the way. “Pomelo, anyone?” Fa is from Bangkok and was working in the music recording industry. One day while traveling he stumbled upon BLES and decided this was his future. Katherine agreed and they’ve been working together ever since. But Fa is not the only one walking with us; a pack of dogs are generally on the trail as well. Elephants typically don’t care much for dogs, although some are more tolerant than others, but the dogs are always very curious about the elephants and will often push the limits of trying to get involved in their business.
We typically start off with a pretty easy but still sweat-inducing thirty minute or so walk out into the jungle. Then, once the elephants have settled in, we settle in with cameras in hand and watch elephant life unfold before us. Maybe that doesn’t sound exciting, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Elephants are such charismatic, social beings that it’s mesmerizing to watch them. All of the elephants at BLES have been rescued from lives of abuse while working in the tourism industry and illegal logging trade. Their visible scars – broken limbs, blown off feet, wounds from bullhooks – are evident, and to see them free from chains not having to do anything but wander, eat, socialize, and bathe is a pure delight and the time flies by.
After the walk we head back for lunch, which usually includes a variety of delicious sweet and spicy noodle dishes alongside salads, and more of that amazing tropical fruit. Our lunchtime entertainment is watching the elephants go for a dip in the pond in front of the hut. There’s a water hose nearby and sometimes an elephant will go stand next to it waiting for a drink, which reminded me of our cats back at home who will jump onto the bathroom sink and get in position while waiting for someone to turn on the faucet. If you’re lucky to be near the hose at the right time the elephant’s mahout may invite you to fill up its trunk with water, watch them guzzle it down, and repeat. It’s a simple pleasure that will have you beaming from ear-to-ear.
The afternoons at BLES are flexible. The elephants typically go out for another walk but it is usually too hot for most of the heat-sensitive visitors. You can relax on your deck with a book, take a nap, or play with the dogs and cats. You might accompany Lucy to observe some of the medical treatments the elephants require; but just remember, if an abscess is getting drained stand back far enough to avoid getting squirted with elephant pus! Sometimes there are other activities, depending on the day. You might have an opportunity to go to the market to pick up supplies, visit a local school, or spend some time at a coffee shop in town with wifi.
We went to a high school one afternoon. Nota bene – have a plan before you arrive. We were told we’d just be chatting with some of the older students to help them with their conversational English. Not true; not true at all. Instead, Craig and I, along with two other visitors were led to an open-air assembly hall where we were seated with microphones in front of over 100 students and were left to our own devices. It was horribly embarrassing, as apparently none of us could think on our feet very well. The students, full of smiles while looking at us expectantly, did not know English well, if at all, and after we got through introducing ourselves, where we were from, and what we were doing in Thailand, we were stuck. We tried to ask the students questions but got mostly blank stares in return. The kind administrators at the school tried to help us out with suggestions, such as “Can you sing a Christmas song?” I won’t go into the details of that nightmare; all I’ll say is, what happens in Thailand stays in Thailand. Finally, they took pity on us and changed the plan. We broke up into two groups and the students took us on a tour of the school, which ended at the library where we could look at picture books, practice a few English words, and breathe a small sigh of relief.
Feeling like the epitome of the stupid Western tourist, on the drive back we implored Fa to stop at a store so we could pick up ice cream, as we were in sore need of some comfort food. I don’t think he understood the level of humiliation we felt, even though he was witness to it (although I’m pretty sure he’s still laughing about it now). In any case, the ice cream really helped soothe our frazzled nerves.
Late in the afternoon we’d freshen up with a cold shower while looking for signs of our personal gardener, Boon Thong, who seemed to frequent the immediate area around our guesthouse. At 6pm we’d gather together in the dining room for dinner, which is another delicious meal of rice, curries, and all manner of local Thai veggie dishes. At dinner you are guaranteed to have dogs at your feet and cats in your lap (and sometimes vice-versa), and when the meal is over there are dogs and cats to be fed and played with, and often a special guest appearance by Katherine’s youngest, who is a bundle of energy and quite a charmer. Some nights we’d simply spend the evening chatting. One night we watched a documentary on elephants, and sometimes there are projects to be worked on that might vary – from putting up Christmas decorations, to sewing Boon Thong a blanket jacket to keep her too-skinny elephant body warm during the chilly evenings.
Our days and nights at BLES were long and relaxed, yet went by much too quickly. It’s a lifestyle that is hard not to envy despite all the very hard behind-the-scenes work required to run an elephant sanctuary. Negotiating rescues, acquiring land, providing food and medical care, and the constant fundraising is a tremendous amount of work; yet Katherine has established a peaceful oasis that permeates love and hope throughout. Spending time with the animals at BLES – not just the elephants, but the dogs and cats as well – and bearing witness to their courage, bravery, and determination, as well as their moments of joy and friendship despite their physical and emotional scars, will change you. The scenes you witness settle into your heart and give you the courage and drive to speak out and help these magnificent beings.
We thank Katherine and her extended family at BLES, both the human and animal members, for sharing their lives with us. Kob kuhn ka.