Today, I decided to put my extra day in Chiang Mai to good use. First, I visited the Elephant Nature Park office near Thapae Gate. The Founder and Director, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, is well known in the international elephant conservation and animal rights world and has appeared in several TV shows and documentaries. I wanted to round out my interviews for The Eyes of Thailand by interviewing her, so I visited the office. I met Lek and she agreed to let me film at the ENP on August 19-20.
Because it’s foggy in Chiang Mai today, Julia and I decided to postpone our trip to Doi Suthep because we would not be able to see much of Chiang Mai there. Instead, we went on an elephant hunt at the Chiang Mai Zoo. A few notes on the Zoo: it’s very clean, has well-kept grounds, and if you were a fan of zoos, you might think it was nice. Animals were kept in cement enclosures, not unlike the zoos in the US, and in the center of the park, there is a large “Presentation Stage” where handlers have animals do tricks for school kids.
Julia and I followed the signs to the Elephants, but instead found a large Elephant Sanctuary, so to speak, that was under construction. Julia pointed out that the ground is grass and mud, which is much better for the elephants’ feet than the concrete used elsewhere, but this enclosure had an odd ramp that lead to none other than the… Presentation Stage. That’s when we remembered that there was a drawing on a poster at the Presentation Stage that showed an elephant painting…
Still searching for the elephants at the zoo, we wandered toward the panda exhibit. I am not exaggerating when I say, Chiang Mai is crazy about its pandas! They successfully breed a panda cub recently and panda fever is everywhere (in and out of the zoo): signs, posters, advertisements, painted umbrellas, stuffed animals, a person dressed up in a Panda suit bowing and waving as people enter the exhibit. It’s an amazing spectacle.
As I filmed this from a distance, Julia noticed an elephant behind a fence. What we originally thought was an exhibit turned out to be a separate gated area where a group of 4 individuals (who did not appear to work for the zoo), were selling small baskets of fruit to tourists for them to feed the elephant. The irony of a working elephant at a zoo that is building a “sanctuary” near the “Presentation Stage” did not escape me, so I filmed this while Julia took pictures. Julia called him a “tusker” because he had beautiful, long tusks. I noticed: his sweet, wise eyes; the chain he had on his front foot; and, the slight head swaying that is common among captive elephants. Nonetheless, the tourists paid to feed him, took pictures, and talked animatedly about getting the chance to feed an elephant.
It’s sort of a Catch-22: if the elephant owners have an elephant, they need to have enough money to care for it; but in order to care for it, they need to exploit it by giving tourists a novel experience.
We wrapped up filming at the zoo and then joined my friends Peter and Apple, who I met in Chiang Mai in 2007, for lunch at Suan Paak. They have the best salads–well, the only salad I’ve found that is safe enough to eat–and the dressing is amazing!
After lunch, I filmed some elephant statues and fountains around Chiang Mai, before returning to the Uniserv to blog while sipping a cha yen and nibbling on Macadamia Pie at Doi Chang.
Tonight is the Night Market, where we hope to spot some street elephants for the documentary, and tomorrow at 7:30am we depart for Friends of the Asian Elephant.
Producer, Writer and Director, The Eyes of Thailand
P.S. Production in Thailand is scheduled until August 24, 2009. If you’d like to make a tax-deductible contribution to help fund the production, please click here to donate through the film’s fiscal sponsor, The San Francisco Film Society. Thank you!