Beginning our new life in Suzhou

Another Starbucks, another city.  We are spending the last day of our holiday in Beijing working, as is often the case with Dave and I.  It helps that we both love our jobs and don’t usually see these kinds of things as really being ‘work’.  Now that I’ve finished my Power Point presentation on writing summaries (riveting stuff…), I can spare some time to blog!

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This fine gentleman took a 3 hour nap (I kid you not!) while Dave and I worked today….yes…this is at Starbucks. And no, he did not order anything from Starbucks…

It’s now been 41 day since we left Canada and head back to Eastern home.  Suzhou has been welcoming and beautiful and there is so much to tell you all about this new city.  So, even though I am itching to write about our trip to the Great Wall, I want to finish writing our time adjusting to life in Suzhou first.  Plus, putting off writing about the Great Wall means I have awesome material to look forward to (and hopefully that will entice me to writing again soon!)

Spoiler Alert! The Great Wall is bloody incredible!!!!
Spoiler Alert! The Great Wall is bloody incredible!!!!

After moving into our apartment, the next step to getting settled into Suzhou was to start work.  For those of you who are new to my blog, or are foggy on the details, here’s a recap regarding the school….

I originally took the position expecting to teach Drama and English, but that quickly changed (things change a lot in China…you come to expect it).  The IGCSE program that is taught at Suzhou Foreign Language School is a pretty big deal.  It basically means that students who graduate from our school, graduate with a bilingual diploma, which is a huge help when it comes to applying to western Universities (IGCSE is an ESL program through Cambridge University).  So, because this program is so important to the school, they didn’t want a brand new teacher teaching too many of those courses.  Some people would have been hurt by the insinuation that they are not ‘good’ enough to teach English, but I saw it as a plus.  Any school that wants to put the RIGHT teachers in place for the important classes is alright with me!  It showed that they are concerned with the quality of education their students receive, and that is exactly the type of school I want to work for.

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My boss used the projector to paint a map on the staff room wall….with the flag of each country in that country’s space…he did all of this in a single afternoon….
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I work for a school where the teachers care so much about the way that our staff room is perceived, that they spend the day making something as awesome as this map. He’s still not quite done…because he’s like the busiest guy in the universe…but I’m still blown away by the effort he and the Chinese staff put into this project

I was able to keep my Drama classes, which I was very happy about, but my English classes were replaced with Food and Nutrition classes; basically I’m teaching Home Economics.  The beautiful thing about both these programs is that I can custom make all of my classes.  There is a basic syllabus that I need to follow, but really…at the end of the day…it’s up to me to decide what I teach and how I teach it.  Once more…some teachers may not be thrilled with this sort of set up, but for me…this is heaven!!

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Another fun fact about the school where I work….they teach several languages at the school, including French, German, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese. Their aim is to teach all of the languages of the UN.

My creative side kicked into full gear and I began brainstorming ideas for both my courses while I was still in Guiyang.  For Drama, we are starting with a play called “Meet the Ancient Greeks”.  It’s set on Mount Olympus and all the Greek gods are fighting over who was the worst of them.  While I teach the students about acting (something I’m actually pretty good at myself…who knew???), I also teach them about pronunciation, confidence, voice projection, body language and emphasis.  They learn a tonne and it doesn’t even feel like learning to them!  Plus, because of my background as an ESL teacher, I use the plays to teach the students lots of new words.  And because of my background in Classical history (my minor in University), I’m also teaching them about ancient Greek culture while I’m at it.

So.  Much.  Fun!!!

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My Elite Boys 1 class practicing the first bit of the play. These guys are AWESOME!!! They get SO into the roles!!! They have me in stitches every class!
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One of my students, Colt, wrote this on the Smart Board before I got to class. Needless to say, it made my day! (and yes…I have Smart Boards in my classrooms!!!)

I decided to take a fresh approach with the Food and Nutrition classes, and have turned it into a bit of a ‘culture course’.  I’ve been teaching the students about different countries and then I teach them how to make food from those countries.  So far we’ve only been to the kitchen once, but the students were all very pleased with their Mexican taco dip 🙂

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This is my middle school class. It’s a mix of boys and girls, which is nice, because most of the classes I teach are gender specific.
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These are my Grade 7 Elite Girls. The girl who is second from the left is named Hani….she is SUCH a character. I also teach her Drama and when I told her off last week for talking while I was trying to explain something, she went into a big soliloquy about how I am the most beautiful and kind of all the drama teachers in the land. Once more……So. Much. Fun!!!
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One of the groups’ dip when they were done. My budget didn’t allow for cheese or meat on all of them, so I had to pick and choose which students got what. Not bad for a first try!!!

The teachers and students are all fantastic at SFLS, and although I’ve had a few small issues with the payroll office (that were promptly sorted out), the administration has also been a dream.  Last year, I was walking on eggshells at about this time, scared to say anything to anyone for fear of being taken aside for a ‘talk’.  This year, I was greeted at the gate by the principal of the school on Teacher’s day, with a box of mango milk and a flower.  I also received a small crate of Chinese dates (which are delish!) and countless other flowers and chocolates from my students…who I’d only been teaching for 2 weeks at that point!!!

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I’d already received this and I took the picture at 8:30am…..by the end of the day, I had to leave some of it at the school because I just couldn’t bring it all home!!  ***Note that the flag in this picture is not on my desk.  It is on my neighbor’s.  I’ve already received some flack for not representing Canada in the office from some family members…but trust me….I represent in my own way!  I get razzed for every ‘eh’, ‘aboot’ and ‘toque’ that I say….

The school is not the only thing that has been great since we got here either!  Suzhou, as a whole, is a fantastic city!  Unlike Guiyang, where I really disliked the spitting, the littering and the smoking…Suzhou is spotless!  Very few people spit, smoking is prohibited in many public areas and people actually put their trash in the trash can!  Although the air is a little more polluted that Guiyang (because Suzhou is so close to Shanghai), it’s so much more comfortable of a place to be!

And the gardens!!!….

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This is just one of Suzhou’s many gardens. A friend of mine referred to Suzhou as ‘the secret garden’ when I showed her pictures of the city a few years ago (we had been interested in living here for a while). I think she gave it the perfect nickname.

Dave and I arrived back in China just in time for a holiday!  This year marked 70 years since the Chinese victory over Japan in the Second World War.  It was celebrated across the country and everyone was given a long weekend.  Dave and I spent those days familiarizing ourselves with Suzhou.  We visited one of the lesser known gardens here (one we’d happened to stumble upon when we were still staying in a hotel).

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The circular doorways add such a beautiful touch to the already beautiful greenery
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The pathways are bordered by benches, where you often see the elderly enjoying some time in the relaxing atmosphere
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I love how the doorways open up to whole new areas of the garden…
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The girl in the blue dress (on the right side of the picture) crossed over that stone bridge. I waited there for ages to get a picture but when she’d finally finished crossing, she just stood there for a while afterwards, looking at her phone…. So, here she is in my picture; a testament to my inability to wait.

The city outside of these gardens is also very nice.  We’ve spent countless hours walking around the different areas of the city, enjoying the scenery along the canals and trying new restaurants.  Times Square is one of my favorite places to take a stroll.  I love walking near water and there are a lot of really great restaurants in the area.

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I love this picture. We both look so happy 🙂
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There is a ceiling above the boardwalk at Times Square that lights up at night with a show. When we walked by a few weeks ago, it had aliens staring down at us!!
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Times Square also has a tonne of western brand stores. Papa John’s Pizza, Toys R Us and a Crocs store are just a few!

I think my favorite part of the city (so far) has been ShanTang street.  There are countless shops that sell all sorts of souvenirs and traditional Suzhou items.  It’s along the canal, and you can even take boat rides around to see the old architecture, which is especially beautiful at night.   We never had a chance to go the last time we were there, but this is where I’m planning on doing a lot of my Christmas shopping, so I know there will be other opportunities 🙂

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The crowds can be a little overwhelming, but this was nothing compared to the Shanghai metro experiences we had….but I’ll have more on that in future posts!
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I love, love, LOVE the canals in Suzhou!
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We bought this print on ShanTang street for only around $15 Canadian. I feel like it was worth more than that (just the frame would cost that much in Canada!). It was the first thing we really bought for the apartment (aside from toilet paper! haha!) and we hung it proudly on the wall by our water cooler as soon as we got home from our shopping adventure

I don’t consider myself a superstitious person and I believe that we are responsible for making our own fate, but still, I can’t help but feel like I’m exactly where I’m suppose to be right now.  Suzhou fits like a glove and it became home  to us more quickly than I really imagined possible.  Maybe I’m still a little shell shocked from everything I went through last year, but I am honestly still overjoyed at how smoothly everything has been going over the last 41 days.  Life…in short…is good.

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A Roots store in Times Square
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Cooking a spectacular dinner in our clean and usable kitchen…..what more could I possibly need?

Elephant Nature Park – Eco Tourism at its Best!

Well, I can say a lot of things about my life here in China, but one thing I cannot say is that it’s boring!  The last 2 days have been a total blur and now that I find myself at our favorite hang out, finally ready to write about ENP, I fear I won’t have the energy to even make it through my intro.  In the last 48 hours we have been on: 2 Flights, 2 high speed trains, 7 metro  trains and in taxis.  I had 2 interviews on Tuesday, April 21st and they were in 2 different cities.  I woke up in Suzhou yesterday, Shanghai today and then taught kindergarten in Guiyang this evening!   If it weren’t for Shanghai’s INCREDIBLE transportation system and my expert co-navigator, this insane day would have never been possible.

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The busy Shanghai Train Station…which also happens to be their airport and a metro station!! So convenient!!
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The train behind us goes a whopping 268kms an hour, taking us 100kms in just 30 minutes!!
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The subways are a quick way to get around. Shanghai is so modern and awesome 🙂

But all the nuttiness and rushing around turned out to be very worth the trouble.  Because we were able to make it work, I was able to see first hand what my top 2 choices for employment for next term look like up close.  I was impressed with both, but I could only take one job, so after a lot of deliberation I decided to accept a position in the beautiful city of Suzhou.  The school feels like a good fit and I was offered a job teaching Drama and English Writing in the Middle School at the Suzhou Foreign Language School, which is sort of perfect for me!!  It’s a job I’ve been interested in for some time, and I was thrilled when they offered me the position.

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Suzhou is in Jiangsu Province…it’s located 100kms from Shanghai, but it only takes 30 minutes to get there by high speed rail 🙂
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Suzhou is famous for it’s canals and is known as The Venice of the Orient. Gorgeous city!!
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Nothing is quite like China at night! Lanterns and lit up buildings make for beautiful walks along the canals.
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Yup…I can handle living here!

The one bad thing about this whole nutty trip is that this happened to be my last weekend before we leave on our holiday in Cambodia.  I can hardly believe that I’m going on vacation again before I’ve even finished writing about the LAST vacation!!  Talk about living a spoiled life!!

But I better get on with it, before time slips away from me again and I wake up in Cambodia!  I’ve saved the best post for last, so I hope you enjoy reading it 🙂

Elephant Nature Park:  My New Favorite Place on Earth!!

Elephant Nature Park (or ENP) was founded in the 1990s by a lovely woman named Lek Chailart, whose love for elephants drove her to do something for them.  As of March, 2016 the park is home to 69 elephants, 100+ cats, 400+ dogs and around 80 buffalo.  Lek has taken all of the animals in and given them a natural home, where they aren’t abused by humans or used in the tourism industry for trekking or other harmful activities.

This is Lek.  In case you were wondering, THIS is what a good person looks like!
This is Lek. In case you were wondering, THIS is what a good person looks like!

There are so many reasons why Elephant Nature Park is a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Thailand.  I’ve decided to sum up why I loved ENP so much into a nice compact list.  Here are my top 3 reasons why I think EVERYONE should visit ENP (or somewhere like it). We’ll start with #3…

#3- It’s a great place to Escape the hustle and bustle!!

Bangkok and Phuket were awesome…there was always plenty to see and plenty to do, but with everything being so crazy, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  I was very happy our stay at ENP was towards the end of our trip, because it gave us an opportunity to wind down from all of that.  There is so much natural beauty here and it’s really set up to help you relax 🙂

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Our cabin for the night
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A balcony facing the Elephant pen, where they sleep at night. We could hear them snoring from our bed 🙂
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A comfortable mosquito netted bed 🙂 We found a cat curled up in our bed the following day when we stopped in to get some bug repellant. She’d crawled in through the window and seemed quite pleased with herself. We couldn’t bare to kick her out…
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The beautiful dirt road that lead to our cabin. It may not seem like anything special if you’re sitting back in North America, but after living in China for 6 months, it was nice to breath clean air and listen to the birds chirp 🙂

And if the lodging wasn’t quaint enough, the grounds where the elephants live are also gorgeous…

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The landscape is gorgeous. These elephants have a forested mountain as their backdrop
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The hills in northern Thailand are really quite nice
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Elephants LOVE water so having a creek run through ENP was a MUST.
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This old girl is living out the rest of her life in a beautiful and natural habitat.

And if natural beauty isn’t enough for you, the Park’s Pets add yet another layer of serenity to the place 🙂

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ENP has more than 400 rescued dogs on the grounds. This was one of the friendlier ones. Sadly, not all were so calm…we were snapped at by a few dogs, who had clearly learned to mistrust humans at some point in their lives.
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There is a whole area reserved for Cat Kingdom, where over 100 rescued felines spend their day being lazy and awesome
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We spent a lot of time in Cat Kingdom…I could have done a whole post on just our time there haha!!
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What a ham!!

The atmosphere at ENP was definitely one of the perks for me.  The beautiful scenery, abundant furry friends and rustic lodging were such a nice change from the rest of our trip!

#2 – High Entertainment Value

Right from our first moments at ENP, the elephants were making us laugh.  You’re first introduced to the elephants at the feeding platform, and when it’s feeding time, things can get a little nutty!!  THOSE TRUNKS!!!

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I felt trunks tap my bum or bump up against my hand more than once walking along that platform!

If you’ve never seen an elephant trying to maneuver itself in water, then  you have not properly seen an elephant.  These typically graceful creatures become carefree and goofy once in the water.  We probably could have spent a day just sitting there watching these guys play!

Baby elephants are especially playful!  They have no idea how big they are, so this can sometimes be problematic for the Mahouts, who try very hard to train the elephants not to push around people.  As the elephants get bigger, it becomes dangerous if they decide to push aside one of us tiny tourists, so we aren’t allowed to touch the babies…for their safety and for ours!!

This adorable little girl loves to slowly walk over to tourists and then charge them at the last second.  Fun for elephants!!
This adorable little girl loves to slowly walk over to tourists and then charge them at the last second. Fun for elephants!!
Here she is again, trying to get her Mahout to play with her! haha!!
Here she is again, trying to get her Mahout to play with her! haha!!
This is baby Navann peeking onto the feeding platform.  A few moments later, one of the dogs came over and started harassing him.  Did Navann run away?  NOPE!!  He grabbed a shovel and started swinging it at the dog!!!  Brilliant little boy!!!
This is baby Navann peeking onto the feeding platform. A few moments later, one of the dogs came over and started harassing him. Did Navann run away? NOPE!! He grabbed a shovel and started swinging it at the dog!!! Brilliant little boy!!!

The following is one of my favorite videos of our trip.  It’s of an elephant named Dokmai (she’s actually a girl, though in the video I thought she was a boy).  She just LOVES playing with fire hoses!!

But not all of our entertainment was presented in a comedic fashion.  At one point, our group was actually chased down by a group of irritated elephants, who were tired of the dogs nipping at their trunks (a favorite pass-time for ENP’s dogs)  We were standing by the river and all of a sudden, 4 or 5 elephants were charging toward us.  I didn’t get any pictures of the event (I was too busy running), but I can tell you, it was an exhilarating experience!!  Our guide, Apple, got us to run behind a fence, where she thought we’d be safe from trampling, but one of the elephants decided to follow us into the fenced area.  She got pretty close to us but then lost interest and went in the other direction.  Apple told us later that that particular elephant LOVES to chase people.  And that although she often does this, she has never hurt anyone…she always stops when she gets close to her target and then goes on her way in the other direction.  Maybe it’s her revenge for the years she spent working for humans in the tourism industry??

#1 – ENP is an extremely educational experience!!!

Elephant Nature Park isn’t just about laughter, relaxation and being chased by elephants.  The staff here are very knowledgeable about everything Elephant.  Some of the most interesting facts we learned:

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That trunk has over 40,000 muscles in it! It is the elephants most diverse tool and can be used for a wide variety of things, like transferring food into the elephant’s mouth, sounding out a trumpet to show predators that they mean business and even for showing affection to family members. A trunk can be soft and flexible (as shown in this picture) or it can be stiff and used to slap the ground to intimidate predators (trunk slapping is very cool…it sounds like a rubber tire being dropped on the ground).

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An elephant’s nose is also very well adapted for smelling.  Their sense of smell is actually better than that of a dog!!  Many elephants go blind in their lifetimes, because their environments usually involve a lot of dust, which gets into their eyes eventually causing blindness.  We met many blind elephants at the park (I developed a soft spot for them…) but they manage to survive (and would in the wild as well!) due to their incredible sense of smell!

This beautiful old girl was covered in mud.  I sort of lucked out and got to see her on my own while everyone else was resting.  The park's photographer saw me taking pictures from the feeding deck and called me over :)
This beautiful old girl was covered in mud. I sort of lucked out and got to see her on my own while everyone else was resting. The park’s photographer saw me taking pictures from the feeding deck and called me over 🙂

I’m sure you’ve heard that elephants are very fond of their families…this couldn’t be truer!  In fact, they have a similar mentality about family as i do…blood doesn’t have to be all there is to having children or siblings.  All of the babies at ENP have several ‘nannies’ who are FIERCELY protective of them.  When one of the dogs snapped at Dok Mai, the entire family began trunk slapping and circled around her for protection. I should add that none of these elephants are related by blood…family is just so important to them that they create a family if they are taken away from their original one.

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The heard protecting their precious baby from the mean ol’ dogs

This is why animal advocates are so against zoos that keep elephants alone.  I was happy to see that Calgary zoo had found new homes for their elephants, because they were moved to a place where there were more elephants for them to interact with.  These are truly social creatures and having them in a pen by themselves is a form of solitary confinement.  They go crazy…as I know I would as well.

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Love 🙂

I think more than anything else though, what surprised me about the elephants were the sounds they can make!  You’ve heard the stereotypical ‘trumpet’ that they make.  It’s a terrifying sound if it’s made in your direction, I can assure you of that!  But they make so many more sounds than just their trumpeting.  They grumble and squeak and sometimes almost sound like they’re purring.  I LOVED falling asleep to the sound of that grumbling coming from the elephant pen at night.  I fought sleep harder than I have since I was a little kid because I didn’t want to miss any of those nice sounds…

I also got a really cool video that sums up a lot of those sounds!  One of the elephants got left behind by her herd when they’d gone across the river to eat some greenery.  We watched her find them (and them find her) and it was quite the thing to see (and hear!!).

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The grumbling you can hear is going back and forth between them.  Elephants can communicate this way with one another when they are up to 10kms away from one another!  They have very sensitive feet and can feel vibrations in the ground when another elephant is calling to them this way.  Pretty cool!  I should also add that this is the herd that chased us about 5 minutes after I took this video…they were an ornery group…

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Doesn’t that 70 pound chair look comfortable for that beautiful animal!!??

But unfortunately, not all of the facts we learned about elephants were pleasant.  We learned a lot about the tourism industry while we met different elephants and were told their stories.  We met several elephants with broken backs, who were all injured at trekking camps, where they are loaded up with tourists for hours every day, often carrying over 300 pounds on their backs at once (the chair alone weights 70 pounds)  Although you’d think an elephant’s back is strong, given its size, it’s actually an elephant’s neck that is powerful and not its back, so many elephants end up with injuries.  The chairs used in trekking camps are also terrible for the elephants’ lungs, which are squeezed by the strap that holds the chair onto the elephant.  Add in the fact that they are overworked in terrible heat, and maybe you can understand why I refused to go elephant riding while in Thailand…

Add in the fact that the Elephant knows that it'll be stabbed in the head with that hook if it misbehaves, and then you get better image of what elephant trekking is like for the elephant
Add in the fact that the Elephant knows that it’ll be stabbed in the head with that hook if it misbehaves, and then you get better image of what elephant trekking is like for the elephant

I know many people who have ridden elephants while in Thailand, or even in North America at circuses or zoos.  I have heard many defenses over these types of rides, including things like ‘well THESE elephants were treated well!’ and ‘I rode on the elephant’s neck and not on a chair’.  And while those may seem like valid arguments, if you do a little research you discover that every single elephant in captivity has gone through a hellish experience known as ‘crushing’ and that by riding an elephant (even on its neck) you are supporting that industry.  Allow me to explain further…

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This is what the Elephant Crush looks like. This is how Elephants are taught to be ridden. This is also how they’re taught to paint pictures, be used in water fights and be used for begging…it all boils down to THIS practice, people!!

Elephants are highly intelligent and very strong willed.  To break an elephant requires a lot of work, and most people don’t believe an elephant can be trained without the use of violence.  So when an elephant reaches the age of about 4 (which is VERY young for an elephant…at that age they are still quite dependent on their mothers in the wild) they are put into a wooden cage that completely restricts movement, and are stabbed with sticks (that often have nails tied into the end of them so that the elephants’ tough skin can be broken) and they are kept in that ‘crush’ for anywhere from 5-8 days.  They are hit, stabbed with sticks and nails, screamed at and sleep deprived until they have lost the will to fight back.  THIS HAPPENS TO EVERY SINGLE ELEPHANT THAT IS BEING USED IN THE TOURISM INDUSTRY.

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I’m sorry if this image bothers you. If it does, please don’t be mad that I posted it…be mad that it happens!!!

So even if you ‘ride on their neck’ and even if the mahouts seem ‘really really nice’, these elephants are being tortured for human entertainment, and I know that’s not fun to hear, but it needs to be said.  I know that a couple of years ago, I may not have done the research I did this time.  Up until I did that research, ‘riding an elephant in Thailand’ was on my bucket list.  I changed it to ‘meet an elephant in Thailand’ because I can’t bring myself to support this industry knowing what I know.  And that’s why I’m sharing all of this with you.  Because now YOU know, and you can do something about it too!  Educate people!  Encourage people not to support this industry because you now know what happens behind the scenes.  It’s the only way any of this will stop, and after meeting all these incredible pachyderms, I had to write something about it.  I had to be part of the solution.

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Here are some elephant bums to make you smile 🙂

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