Thailand Elephant Sanctuary with Jennie of the Jungle Part 1

Photo by Jennifer Ilene
In November of 2015 I made my first trip as Jennie of the Jungle, taking wildlife-loving clients to work with elephants at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. And the experience was simply amazing. I learned a lot about a new country and what it takes to be responsible for the experiences of others, and learned that confidence is the key to getting what you want out of life...

I arrived in Bangkok after dark, got a cab from the airport and thought I was headed to the studio I had rented to spend some time preparing for one of my clients who would arrive three days later. Little did I know, this cab driver (and most of the other ones, too) did not have any idea where he was going. He turned around and asked me the address multiple times (which I had given him in writing and in Thai, no less!). He ended up coming to a complete stop on the freeway and backing up until he reached the on-ramp he didn't mean to enter. As semi-trucks came straight for us at a startling speed, I thought I may never live to see the next day, let alone to meet my client. But oncoming traffic patiently changed lanes as they probably wondered who the crazy driver going backwards on a freeway was, or maybe they are used to that in Thailand. That's what I liked to think.

After an hour of driving and getting nowhere, the driver finally let me use his phone to dial the number of the person I was renting the studio from. "Oh, you didn't get my email?", said the guy incredulously, "I sent you an email yesterday..." while I was in transit to Thailand... "telling you I had another renter who rented the studio for a longer period than you did so I gave him the property instead." He didn't say this in so many words, but instead mumbled some excuse about how he hadn't realized that you weren't supposed to rent out properties for under 30 days in Bangkok, which is absolutely not the case. I had had this studio booked for months!!! He gave me the address to his alternative hostel, which he would let me stay the night in for free, while I looked for other places to stay. It was a damp room in a house with no bathroom and no air conditioning. The internet was spotty, so I had a friend book a place on and headed out the next day hoping it was going to be acceptable.

The house turned out okay, with only one room having A/C in which I (and eventually my client)
huddled during the hottest parts of the day when temperatures soared over 100 degrees F. After the arrival of my first client, we spent an additional day in Bangkok and then headed to the train station to buy our overland train tickets to Chiang Mai. We got spots on the overnight sleeper car train, a 12-hour journey through pastureland and villages, in which we got up early and stuck our heads out the window to watch the sun rise. The conductors shot us curious glances as we walked up and down the train cars in the dark trying to find the best spot to watch from. Though the doors to the cars were propped open (safety being waved aside), we were strictly shooed away from sitting on the exit steps and watching the scenery pass right in front of us. We were content with our open windows and the wind on our faces as the sky lit up with pink and yellow and the world came into view.

Twelve hours and a breakfast of runny eggs and sugar-water flavored with orange later, we arrived in Chiang Mai. We were shuttled to our hotel to spend the day by the pool trying exotic items from the restaurant menu. The next morning, we made our way by tuk-tuk to the Elephant Nature Park office to take care of paperwork before being driven a few hours into the hills to the project. The Elephant Nature Park is at this time the only legit elephant sanctuary in the country. Lek Chalert, who founded the sanctuary, purchases as many elephants as she can from other, non-legit "sanctuaries" and individuals who use the animals for entertainment or work purposes, and puts them in her sanctuary to live out the rest of their lives free to do what they want and to roam around willingly. She often rehabilitates them, as most come on the brink of death or seriously maimed (elephants are not treated well and not valued in Thailand in general). She has a cultivated relationship with every one of her elephants, and they all show her their continued appreciation to this day, as she wanders in and out of her herd, receiving kisses and affection from even the most closed off of elephants. She is the only one who is able to have this kind of relationship with the elephants, as these animals are intelligent and hold memories for life. They know they have been saved by her and have bonded with her as their savior and protector. It is incredible to see the love they have for her as she lets them kiss her with their slimy trunks and she weaves in and out from under them. One of them follows her around like a baby, even though he is nearly fully grown!

My client, Jennifer Ilene, is a talented animal photographer who travels to conservation orgs, sanctuaries, or zoos, and takes photos with models and animals. It was my mission to earn myself a photo shoot with these incredible beasts - but how to go about doing that? This was my first trip after starting Jennie of the Jungle, and I had neither the confidence to ask for a shoot, nor the bravery to approach Lek. Because Lek is the "Jane Goodall of Elephants", and in my eyes, one of my biggest heroes. I had actually met Jane Goodall not long before this trip, when she stayed in the hotel I was working at during her talks in Colorado. I found out she was staying under a fake name and couldn't end the day without meeting her. She was and will always be my number one heroine. I sent a note with the housekeeper and a prepared goody bag for her with coconut water and ethical chocolate from our hotel shop telling her how much I appreciated her and have modeled myself and my own work much after her. She ended up coming to the front desk to introduce herself and chat with me for a bit. I was so star-struck that I couldn't think of anything to say, even though I had so many questions for her. I was disappointed that I couldn't muster the courage to engage in deep conversation, and vowed to not repeat this situation with Lek.

So, after a lecture on elephant treatment in Thailand and an undercover video Lek worked on for two years documenting elephant abuse and explaining WHY we need elephant rescue and elephant sanctuaries, I pursed my lips and approached her with the passion that I felt for her cause and my own passion for the plight of all endangered animals on this planet. We talked for nearly an hour! It turns out that I know many people that Lek has known and has worked with, including individuals from other conservation orgs that I had worked with around the world, and artist Gregory Colbert, who photographs tribespeople and their animals in remote regions around the world. I explained my new business to her, and told her I would like to take on her project as part of Jennie of the Jungle, and work together into the future. She was so inspired that she granted me permission for a private photo shoot with the elephants whenever I wanted! I left that conversation with a new sensation - that I had accomplished something great, and with this confidence, would continue to do big things.

At 7 in the morning, Jennifer and I went out to meet my elephants. I shot with three elephants, in the river and on the bank, while the clouds sat puffy and bright in the sky, and the surrounding forest was bathed in morning light. The experience of being close and connecting, in a way, with these elephants, was absolutely incredible, and the resulting photos reflect the beauty of those moments. I want to thank both Lek and Jennifer Ilene, for this amazing experience and the resulting photos, which will be used to promote conservation of these animals.

My favorite of the series

Dancing with an elephant

There is no feeling like connecting with these gentle beasts

One of the many rescued cats at the sanctuary
Lek let me kiss one of her elephants for my good friend who has a terminal illness


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