The Daily Explorer

August 26, 2008

Elephants and Lions

Thailand: August 2008

Mozzie Byte, Editor - The Daily Explorermozzie-byte-profile-44pt.jpg

Welcome back to all our Daily Explorer readers and greetings to those of you who are joining us for the first time. My name is Mozzie Byte(above) and I am the Editor of The Daily Explorer, responsible for the compilation of our on-line publications. Before you read about what Ray has recently been up to in Thailand, I would like to remind you that our last issue was a special feature in celebration of Ray’s 1,000th consecutive day as a nomadic traveller since leaving England in 2005. In an exclusive interview, he gave us his truthful, uncut story of the bizarre events that led to his decision to become a nomad. f you missed it, you can read it now at: Man of a Thousand Days (Part 2) – How it all Began…

In our latest issue, we find out about an amazing woman who has established a ground-breaking wildlife sanctuary for elephants near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. And we find out how Ray and Nikki, our Leo travellers, decided to celebrate their August birthdays, which are six days apart. If there is anything you would like to know more about, if you have a question for Ray or you would like to share your thoughts or give us your feedback, we welcome your emails at the, or you can use the comments section on this site.

The Elephant Nature Park is a unique project set in northern Thailand. Established in the 1990’s,  the aim has always been to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants. The park is set in Chiang Mai province, some 60 kilometres from the city, and has provided a sanctuary for over 30 distressed elephants from all over Thailand. Set in a natural valley, bordered by a river, and surrounded by forested mountains the area offers a timeless glimpse of rural life. The park has received numerous awards from institutions including the Smithsonian in the USA.

Above: Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, is the founder of the Elephant Nature Park, along with her husband Adam. Her nickname (Lek) means “small one”. Chailert runs two healing and rehabilitation centers for Asia’s largest animal: The Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Haven, both north of Chiang Mai. At the Nature Park, she and her staff of mahouts (elephant handlers), veterinarians and volunteers tend to elephants that have suffered wounds or abuse by their owners. After they heal, Chailert transfers them to Elephant Haven, a 2,000 acre retirement home in which they live out their days

Below: The location of the Elephant Nature Park, within close proximity of Chiang Mai

But why is there a need for such a place to exist? “It’s  a good question Mozzie. I discovered from speaking to people there that the loss of habitat is the primary threat to the survival of Asian elephants. Approximately 20% of the world’s population lives within range of them. The homes of these elephants are being cleared for many reasons including warfare, agricultural development, human settlement, and logging. Asian elephants are less prone to poaching (killing elephants for ivory tusks) because few males (and no females) grow tusks. In China, the penalty for poaching is the death sentence” he told me. “The IUCN’s Species Survival Commission’s Asian Elephant Specialist Group estimates that there are approximately 38,000 to 51,000 wild Asian elephants. In comparison, there are more than 600,000 African elephants” added Ray.

Above: Stopping in one of Chiang Mai’s fruit and vegetable markets en route, I spoke with Ray and Nikki and the other visitors – “Elephants eat a huge amount of food – up to 200 kilogrammes per day” said Ray. “We have come here to load up two whole trucks with food that can no longer be sold at the market. It is fine for the elephants and should be just about enough to feed all of them for the day when we get there” he told me. In the wild, elephants have a diverse vegetarian diet, including grasses, bamboo, legumes, bark, succulent climbers, creepers and palms. They have seasonal favourites such as fig leaves and fruits, tamarind, wood apple and mango

Below: Ray and the other visitors form a human chain to load up the trucks with food on their way to the Elephant Nature Park – “It’s like the animal equivalent of taking a bottle of wine to a dinner party” joked our traveller

Sangduen Chailert (below) was born into a remote mountain community in northern Thailand in the 1960’s. Her maternal grandfather was a tribal man of the forest and Lek’s jungle forays with him led to an early and organic understanding of the wonders of nature. Against the backdrop of poverty she obtained a university education – something practically unique considering her circumstances.

Her love of the elephant began as a youngster. The family cared for an elephant which became a close companion of Lek’s. This affection led to working with elephants in the forests. With a vet they provided medical care to sick elephants in remote areas. Travel to these areas is hazardous and often involves hours of walking narrow jungle paths inaccessible to vehicles. She is often away for days at a time. The park’s current herd includes disabled, orphans, blind and rescued, elephants of all ages.

The park is close to her home village and has been supported by their family tour business which operates educational and environmental trips as well as a travel website. “Her life-quest is to provide a sanctuary for elephants to live in a peaceful natural environment” said Ray. “We were told that it costs about $250,000 US dollars per year to run the sanctuary and there is no government funding, so every penny needs to be created by Lek and her team. This is why there is a queue of people who pay to volunteer there, and there are many other ways in which people can contribute to her amazing work” added Ray. “Lek’s efforts have been recognised worldwide and numerous stories have appeared on TV and in print media including the National Geographic Society. The awards she has received include Guest of Honour, US Humane Society (2003), Time Magazine ‘Asian Hero of the Year’ (2005), Earth Day Award (2006) and an honourary PhD (Veterinarian Science) awarded by the HM Crown Prince of Thailand” said our well informed traveller.

Above: Currently 30 elephants are under Lek’s loving care and the park has had seven births since 1996 – “Anyone witnessing Lek with elephants will see a loving bond, closeness and a special understanding” observed Ray. “Her commitment and extensive field work make her projects unique and it is wonderful that someone like me can see these creatures exactly as they should be in their natural habitat, with no pressure to perform tricks or entertain us human beings – something which looks cute, but invariably means cruelty and hardship for these wonderful animals” he told me

Below: Asian elephants differ in several ways from their African relatives. They have smaller ears which are straight at the bottom, unlike the large fan-shape ears of the African species. Asian elephants are much smaller, weighing between 6,615 and 11,020 pounds (at a height of about 7 to 12 feet) compared to the 8,820 to 15,430 pounds (at a height of 10 to 13 feet) of the African elephant

Above: Our global nomad has his first up close and personal encounter with one of the elephants in the park – “Previously, I had only ever seen elephants in a zoo” said Ray. “For such huge creatures, I am amazed at how gentle they are and was quite excited at the prospect of feeding them and being able to get so close to them” he told me

Below: (left) “I must make sure I get some good pictures for Mozzie and our Daily Explorer readers” says Ray. (right) “That’s it – look at the camera, hold it – smile!”

Talking to Ray about Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, I could tell he was very inspired about her and the work she is doing. “We heard how she had learned about healing from her grandfather, a shaman in northeastern Thailand, who once received an elephant as payment for saving a life. She grew up with the animal, saw it as a member of the family, and over time, adopted a characteristic commonly found in female elephants – the willingness to treat another’s offspring as their own. And to protect them fiercely” recalled Ray.

Despite their respected place in Thai culture, the country’s elephants badly need such a champion. “Their numbers have dwindled from 100,000 a century ago to between 2,500 and 5,000 today, and logging has destroyed much of their habitat” Ray told me. “Lek doesn’t object to elephants being used for labour, but she has taken in animals that have been blinded, shot, beaten, burned, maimed or left for dead after accidents. To abusive owners, they are tools. To her, they are individuals with names – Hope, Liberty, Jungle Boy, Pooky – and personalities as unique as those of humans” he added.

Above: Asian elephants are classified as ‘Endangered’ by the 2000 IUCN Red List. They have long since vanished from southwest Asia and most of China. Sri Lanka was once recognised for its large elephant populations, but today the numbers are being reduced. “As the number of humans increases, the area of natural habitat that the elephants rely on is being depleted. They are being forced onto farming areas, where they cause damage” said Ray

Below: A ‘mahout’ shows Ray and the other visitors how to feed one of the elephants (left), whilst Nikki makes friends with another and offers a bunch of bananas from the market (right) – “They eat them with the skins on, a whole bunch at a time!” observed Ray. Asian elephants are among the largest herbivores (plant eaters) preferring grasses, leaves, trees, and shrubs. Their diet varies from acacia trees to wild mangos

I asked Ray how the elephants under Lek’s care found their way to the park. “They come mainly from private owners and she has had to negotiate fees to enable them to join her herd” he told me, “which is another reason that they work hard on the funding side of things. Some of the animals have outlived their usefulness to loggers, while others have become useless to trekking camp owners”.

Protection of the forests is another of her many hobbies and she has initiated a programme of saving individual trees using local Buddhist beliefs and sacred saffron cloth to tie around each tree. Locals are reluctant to cut down these trees fearing insults to jungle spirits. “Her programmes are focused around local culture, common sense and a deep conviction in the preservation of her home area” said Ray. “Sustainability is the key term to describe her efforts. Elephant volunteers from around the world assist her in a unique programme involving learning, physical help and education”.

Above: Ray makes a new friend – “After I got over my initial nervousness, it was wonderful to make contact with these gentle giant creatures” he told me. “Their skin is really rough and hairy – and over an inch thick” added our explorer

Below: Clearly enjoying himself, Ray relaxes after feeding some of the residents before going for some lunch of his own – “It is incredible how loving the atmosphere here really is” observed Ray. “As well as the elephants, Lek and her staff provide shelter for many stray dogs, who all seem to love it here and co-exist with the elephants without any difficulty” All rescued from the streets of Chiang Mai, the dogs are ignored by many of the elephants. Some kick at them, but most seem to get along. “They have one elephant who even lets his dog friend ride on his back” said Ray.

Above: Visitors to the Elephant Nature Park are treated to one of the best vegetarian buffets in northern Thailand

Below: After lunch – it’s time to give the elephants a wash in the river – “When we finished eating, I couldn’t wait to get into the water as I had no idea when or if I would get another opportunity to get this close to these amazing, docile creatures” said Ray. “Their handlers were really encouraging and made sure that everyone who wanted to could experience the intimacy of bathing which the elephants absolutely love” added Ray

For our readers who are interested, some more information about Asian elephants. They mainly live in fragmented forests in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China (extinct in the wild), Malaysia, Indonesia, and Borneo. Asian elephants live in many different habitats including open grasslands, marshes, savannas and forests. The females are capable of giving birth approximately every 4-6 years, which equates to about seven calves in a lifetime. Babies are carried inside elephant mothers for 19-22 months, almost 2 years. And Asian elephants can live as long as 60-70 years old. When adult male elephants search for a female to breed with they produce musth fluid signalling females that they are ready to mate.

Elephants live in matriarchal (mother headed) families. They are very sociable and live in basic units of one adult cow and her offspring. Daughters remain with their mothers, but sons leave at puberty, often joining bull groups or remaining solitary. Bull elephants associate with a family when a cow is in oestrus. Mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts all help raising babies. Male Asian elephants live alone or in male only groups. This species does not appear to be territorial. Males have home ranges of about 15 square kilometres and herds of females have ranges of about 30 square kilometres, which increases in the dry season. Seasonal migration has been made virtually impossible, due to human development.

Above: “Yeah – thats it! Splash me all over baby!” – Ray has his work cut out as he gives this giant creature a lovely, cool refreshing bath in the river that runs through the 50 acre site, which was donated by a wealthy American who is supportive of Lek and what she is doing

Below: Ray panics for a moment as three of the elephants in the water nearby start getting a bit restless (left) and turn towards him, appearing to want to move in his direction towards the riverbank – “Although there were plenty of mahout’s around, I was not taking any chances and quickly backed off” said Ray. “Still, it is amazing to be able to experience this at such close quarters” added our grateful traveller, as he watched one of the few elephants with tusks exit the river for the mudbath which always follows (right)

How many ways can Elephant’s communicate? “We were fascinated to discover that Asian elephants talk to each other by touch, sound and scent” said Ray. “When a young Asian elephant is stressed and nervous, they will go to an adult and place the tip of their trunk in the adults mouth. Elephants also use a broad range of sounds to communicate. Recently, scientists noticed elephants talk to each other at infrasonic (sounds humans are unable to hear) levels” he told me. “When Nikki and I are in Chiang Mai, we sometimes see younger elephants being walked up and down main roads where there is lots of traffic, as they are used for begging (people pay to feed them for amusement). These animals look terrified and are always agitated, moving from side to side constantly when they are stationary. We now know that this is because they feel the movement of traffic through their feet and it is very scary to them” explained Ray. “There are groups campaigning to ban the use of elephants on the street but unfortunately, it still goes on” he added.

Above: One of the elephants takes a shine to Nikki and tries to give her a big, sloppy smacker of a kiss on her cheek!

Below: (left) Because of their phenomenal strength, humans use elephants in Asia to log forests, transport heavy loads and carry tourists. Elephants can walk in areas where machines are unable to navigate. About 15,000 Asian elephants are held in captivity as work animals. (right) Elephants are important in Asian folklore and religion. They are believed to be cousins of the clouds and able to cause lightning – this mahout is carving a statue of one by hand from a block of wood

Above and below: These two photographs were sent to us by international journalist and photographer Anthony LoBaido, who met Ray at the Elephant Nature Park – “He was writing a story about Lek for World Net Daily News, an online newsite” said Ray. “The pictures he managed to capture of New York traveller Angela Botta (above) and Nikki (below) were just fantastic” added Ray

Surprisingly, such benign work – Lek also runs a mobile clinic for animals and humans – brings danger. Chailert and her staff have been threatened and harassed by less humane animal park operators and, she believes, local officials in league with them. Masked men have menaced her on the road, and local papers label her a traitor for publicizing the elephants’ plight. Nonetheless, she says, “I can’t turn my back on them. I can look in their eyes and see fear. Somebody has to stand up for them.” The 44-year-old, who is often called the ‘elephant whisperer’, says there’s a simple explanation for why she has dedicated her life to Thailand’s endangered elephants. “Sometimes I’m sad,” she says, “but in the morning, when I open my window and see them happy, that clears all my sadness away”.

If any of our readers would like to read Lek’s amazing story in her own words, then check out “How I Became an Elephant’s Mother” – it is a fascinating read.

Above: These two elephants enjoy a bit of playful fun – “It clearly reflects the loving atmosphere that Lek and her staff create here” said Ray

Below: Ray, with Nikki (left) and American traveller Angela Botta (right) – “For all of us, this was a really magical day – we experienced something very special here and if you are ever in Chiang Mai, you just have to come” said Ray. “They say the Lion is the King of the jungle, but after coming here today, I think it should be changed to the elephant”

With the visit to the Elephant Nature Park taking place a couple of days before his birthday, I asked Ray what the day itself was like for him. “Oh Mozzie – I had such a brilliant day! Nikki spoiled me and from the moment I woke up, she had arranged for lots of lovely things to happen” recalled Ray. “Of course, being a Leo, I just love being looked after” he added. “First off, she had arranged for me to have a ‘proper’ English breakfast at a little boutique hotel in the old city, in their small walled garden. The Thai’s are not good at doing English style food, so finding this kind of breakfast can be very difficult, which made this place even more of a treat” he told me. “Nikki has a wonderful skill in her attention to detail and had even arranged for a copy of The Bangkok Post, my favourite newspaper, to be on the table when we arrived” said our appreciative traveller

Above: Surprise! Nikki organised the perfect ‘English’ breakfast for Ray on his birthday – in a tiny walled garden in the heart of the old city – something which took a lot of ingenuity, care and attention to detail

Below: After breakfast, Ray received the first of a few little treats organised for him by Nikki. This one was a one hour facial treatment in the Spa at the hotel where they had breakfast – “She knows I love them and rarely organise them for myself” said Ray

Above: After his facial, with skin glowing, our Leo traveller reads his birthday horoscope in the Bangkok Post – “It says that your life can get even better than this, which I find very hard to believe!”

Below: Ray was also treated to a one hour foot massage at the Chinese reflexology centre (left) and later that evening, Nikki took him to a wonderful restaurant along the banks of the Ping River for a quiet and exquisite birthday supper (right)

Above: As his birthday draws to a close, our global nomad contemplates before he makes his traditional birthday wish – “I am a very lucky guy” said Ray. “At the age of 48, I am healthy, have lots of love and friendship in my life and the freedom to explore the world – what more could a man truly want?”

Below: With their birthdays only five days apart, Nikki is also a Leo – “She has lived in Chiang Mai long enough to have established some lovely relationships with local people” said Ray. “Her favourite place for a good cup of fresh coffee is called ‘Wawee’, where she has become friends with a charming young Thai man called Leiki (left). She is learning Thai and he is learning English so they make time for conversations to help each other improve. He knew that I was taking her away from Chiang Mai for her birthday so arranged to present her with a special birthday cake with her coffee on her last day in town” said Ray. “It is a great example of the warmth and kindness of the people in Chiang Mai” he told me

Wanting to visit Hua Hin for some time, Nikki’s birthday gave Ray the perfect excuse to arrange a trip there. “As a dedicated budget traveller, birthdays are one of the best opportunities to blow the budget for a day or two and get a little taste of the finer things in life. Hua Hin is fast becoming one of Thailand’s most popular beach resorts with the growing number of affluent, middle class Thai’s and I was interested to find out why” said Ray. “Unfortunately, I could not keep it a total surprise as Nikki has professional commitments in Chiang Mai, so I needed to find out from her when she might be available for a short trip” explained Ray. “Once I knew when we could go, I arranged everything and booked us in for a couple of nights at the best five start hotel I could find” recalled our excited traveller.

Above: Map showing the location of Hua Hin – a coastal resort about a two and a half hour drive from Bangkok by taxi. Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand and is about one hour away from Bangkok by air or an overnight journey by sleeper train

Below: Hua Hin, seen from the top floor of one of the large hotels on the beach – “The town was definitely not quite as nice as we had imagined and made us really appreciate how great Chiang Mai is by comparison” said Ray

So why did Ray choose the Sofitel hotel? “I was looking for a place with a bit of history and character – something with a story” he told me. “I discovered it was built on completion of the southern railway in the 1930’s in a traditional, colonial style and was then called The Railway Hotel. It was the start of the town becoming a resort” said Ray. “The building itself is very impressive and is the only low rise hotel left along the beach, with huge, well manicured gardens and acres of space. In recent years, the building has been acquired by the (French) Sofitel group and is maintained in all of it’s colonial glory for the pleasure of well heeled guests” added Ray.

Above: An aerial view of the Sofitel Hotel in all of it’s colonial style glory – “It really is an oasis of peacefulness and tranquility” said Nikki, “and a great choice for a bit of luxury” said our birthday girl

Below: Nikki gets excited about exploring the gardens at the Sofitel as she enjoys her ‘welcome’ drink in the spacious lobby

Above: The Sofitel has beautifully landscaped gardens, waterfalls (left) and features, such as bushes that are carefully manicured into animal shapes (right)

Below: Nikki enjoys the peacefulness of the gardens and stretches out beneath the ‘flying bird’ bushes in one of the amazingly well kept gardens

Above: As it has a history of sorts, a small corner of the hotel has been preserved as a museum (left). And it is situated on the beachfront, just perfect for long walks and romantic sunsets!

Below: Ray checks out the nearby Mandara Spa – “Spending so much time in Thailand, we do take massages a bit for granted” said Ray, “but it is still lovely to come to a stunningly beautiful spa like this one and receive the ‘royal’ treatment, especially as a birthday treat” added our traveller who organised a day of pampering for Nikki

Above: The stunning grounds of the exclusive Mandara Spa (left) and the stunning birthday girl, Nikki Ashley (right)

Below: Ray mysteriously shrinks in the chair after drinking the special ‘relaxing’ potion given to him by the staff at the Spa reception

Above: Nikki is greeted by one of the masseurs at the Mandara Spa and gets ready to recieve a couple of hours of unadulterated pleasure

Below: “Oh I really shouldn’t” says Nikki (left). Whilst she was in Hua Hin, her neighbour and friend Noot, from Chiang Mai (right) was also in town, celebrating her 40th birthday – “We just had to meet up” said Nikki, “so I invited her over to the hotel for ‘high tea’ which was served daily in the Museum Cafe” she told me

Above: With the experience of the Elephant Park still fresh in Nikki and Ray’s mind from a few days before, there were constant reminders of these remarkable creatures all over the hotel

Below: Got you! Nikki is caught red handed by our photographer as she tries to smuggle some banana cake out of the ‘all you can eat’ breakfast buffet to eat later that evening!

Above: Nikki can hardly contain her delight when she finds out where Ray is planning to take her for birthday dinner!

Editors Note: Ray is now in Australia for a couple of months. He is initially spending 3-4 weeks in Sydney exploring a few opportunities that may lead to some professional work in 2009 and visiting friends. He then plans to visit Brisbane and Melbourne and travel through central Australia from Adelaide, via Coober Pedy, Uluru and Alice Springs to Darwin. More about this in our next issue!


Above: Do not get attached to anything in life! As all Buddhists will tell you, nothing is permanent, including Ray’s ‘Heavenly’ tee shirt which has developed a hole in the back – “It has been my constant companion on my travels for the last three or four years and has proved to be very popular with readers in our previous competitions” lamented our traveller. “But now it is time for this treasured item in my nomads wardrobe to go to T shirt heaven” said Ray, as he prepared to let go of his beloved grey shirt

Below: Having let go, our traveller is firmly back on the path to enlightenment and his epic journey continues. We will bring you all of his news and pictures from Australia in our next issue of the Daily Explorer in a couple of weeks



  1. Hey Ray, great issue! It looks like a sweet adventure over there. Sorry about the grey shirt, but I must admit… I think I like the new one even better!

    All the best, Stuart.

    Comment by Stuart Campbell — August 26, 2008 @ 11:02 pm

  2. Hi Ray, yet another great blog! When is Mozzie Byte going to be photographed with a bottle of incognito? Claire, from Sydney, can give you a bottle. Have you seen our new site yet? Happy travels, Howard

    Comment by howard — August 27, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

  3. Hello, darling traveller!

    I’m so glad to see you’re still doing so well and so nice to see what a great visit you and Nikki had!

    My next big trip will be to England, France, and Israel. My brother is getting his PhD at Cambridge, so I thought I’d head to his graduation, then back to France where I lived as a child and in college and then to Israel to pay a visit to friends.

    However, the next visit after that is back to Thailand, so thanks for keeping that dream alive!

    Safe and happy travels and my door is always open!


    Comment by Quita — September 19, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

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