A Photographic Journey From Surin To Elephant Nature Park

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I wanted to digest everything and try to create a post that could really highlight our entire journey. Below are 90 photographs taken at Elephant Nature Park (ENP), Surin Elephant Festival and Dao Tong’s Journey from Surin Province to ENP.
Chantelle and I arrived at ENP on Monday the 12th of November and were told to prepare for a long bus ride (12 hours) to Surin province for the Surin Elephant Festival and to rescue an elephant from a small village. But first we were able to spend 2 days working and enjoying life at the beautiful Park.
Pom feeds one of the elephants at Elephant Nature Park on a beautiful day.
My first encounter with baby Navaan. he was so curious at only 3 weeks old.
These poor little guys had lost their mother and had to live in this small cage for about a week. Luckily they were moved into a new large shelter and were adopted by another mother at the park.
One of the most loved elephants at ENP is Jokia. She is completely blind in both eyes yet has a beautiful elephant friend Mae Perm who hardly ever leaves her side.
On Wednesday we left ENP for Surin. After a long overnight bus ride we were taken to the festival grounds in Surin. The festival was in full swing, the temperature was over 35 degrees celsius and the elephants were being paraded around in the hot sun re-enacting war scenes, playing soccer and basketball, the loud speaker was blaring and the crowds were cheering. It was a confronting site and I can only imagine how stressful it would have been for these elephants, but this was only the beginning…
The festival included many human performers to accompany the story of Thailand’s elephants. These girls danced for about 20 minutes before several important figures rode through the grounds on the backs of famous elephants.
Training for acute stunts like this takes days and days of harsh practice. An elephant who can do tricks like this are big money earners, the crowd was awestruck and applauded loudly for this  bull yet his reward would probably be more harsh training.
After a while, I decided to wander around the stadium to see if there were any street begging elephants. As soon as I walked out the back of the grand stand I was offered to feed this young elephant for a few dollars. I refused. Street begging elephants are also big money makers for their mahouts, they are walked around noisy, dangerous and polluted asphalt streets in many tourist areas throughout Thailand. It is Illegal to do this in areas of Bangkok and Chiang Mai but is legal and perfectly normal in Surin.
Street begging is a highly stressful situation for elephants, they have highly sensitive feet which pick up tiny vibrations in the ground to communicate over long distances (possibly up to 20km away). Elephants also have a super keen sense of smell, they can smell water over 15km away. The rumble and pollution of the concrete jungle must be so confusing.
Many of Thailand’s street begging elephants come from a logging background. before 1989 they thrived in the jungle earning income for their owners by hauling huge, but since the nationwide ban on logging most of these elephants have gone from sole income provider to a massively expensive pet. Many owners took their elephants to tourist areas in big cities. There tourists pay for the privilege to feed a majestic elephant. It’s big money and gives owners a steady income.
Projects like The Surin Project offer an alternative source of income for existing owners and mahouts. It’s a fantastic idea where both the elephants and the owners benefit, visit their site here: Surin Project
This little elephant was chained up to an older elephant. At first I figured they were tied together so they wouldn’t get separated on the busy streets, but I then realised they were tied together for another reason.
Street begging elephants at an elephant festival are everywhere, a neat trick like tying a baby elephant to an older elephant gives the impression they are mother and daughter. However the older elephant wasn’t allowing the baby to get close to feed, which led me to the conclusion they weren’t related at all. The baby was constantly looking for something to eat, and there’s nothing cuter than a baby elephant coming up to you looking for affection and food!
I was surprised to see hundreds of school children at the festival, most of them had smiles on their faces and were always on the lookout for an elephant encounter such as this one.
After a while around the back of the grandstand I wandered into the staging area for the festival. Here these elephants prepare for a war parade scene. Almost all of these elephants were male and unknown to each other, another stressful additive to their lives.
I had to include this photo of this gigantic male in the centre, I later met him up close and could not reach up to touch his ear. Notice the elephant next to him has gigantic 2m long tusks. These were the showpiece elephants of the whole festival.
Later that afternoon we all headed out to a field about an hours drive from Surin to meet the elephant we had come to rescue. It was such a complete 180 degree turn from the events at the festival to knowing that Dao Tong would be spending the rest of her days in peace at Elephant Nature Park.

Chantelle and I meeting Dao Tong (Golden Star) for the first time.
Chantelle with Dao Tong. The previous owner unchains Dao Tong so we can walk her down to the river.
Tears of joy from Chantelle and Phyl.
You can tell Dao Tong has had a rough life. This terrible limp was probably caused from her time logging, but it is also known that she has worked in trekking camps and most recently as a street begging elephant.
Taking a dip. You can see her injured rear leg and how it bends at the unnatural angle, when she walks the bone nearly pokes through her thick skin. It must be painful to even walk. Over the last 3 years Dao Tong had been walking the dusty roads and hard streets for over 6 hours a day.
I can’t tell what it was like to meet this beautiful girl knowing that she was going to a better place. No words can describe the feeling…
Her beautiful golden eye in the sunset.
The next day would be a long one. We woke at around 4:30 to drive out and see where some of the performing elephants camped during the festival week. It was a short drive to a grassy area which included a lake for the elephants to bathe in before another long day of festivities…
The first scene we came across was these 3 elephants swaying back and forth in the cool morning predawn. It was the shock to the system that woke me up immediately, poor little guys looked so rattled.
We saw about 50 elephants that morning, most of which were ridden down to the lake for a morning bath.
Each elephant needed to look its best for the upcoming day, so they were scrubbed clean by their mahouts.
This beautiful elephant and his owner were known to Lek and Darrick and offered us some beautiful photo opportunities in exchange for some elephant food (water mellon etc)
Preparing the howdahs (elephant seats) for the day. We saw about 50 elephants that morning but only about 10 transport trucks. Most of the elephants and mahouts have to walk many kilometres to attend the famous Surin Elephant Festival.
Riding on the tusks.
Almost all of the mahouts we met that morning were very gentle with their elephants and it was obvious that they really cared for them. It is quite an honour to attend the Surin Elephant Festival and you could see the mahouts were proud to be included.
However, their are exceptions. Moments after the last picture was taken, Lek spotted 4 elephants hidden in the bush, they were hurried along by their mahouts for a quick bath. At first I thought nothing of it, just 4 more elephants getting ready for the festival.
The mahouts did not seem comfortable around us with our cameras and after a few minutes it was obvious why. This was one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have ever seen. This little baby elephant kept circling the older elephant in search of milk, but the older elephant kept avoiding the young one. It clearly was not the mother to this baby. Lek asked the mahout who was this baby’s mother, he just smiled back…
I’ll never forget the pleading scream from this poor baby elephant, It will be a constant reminder to keep fighting for these beautiful creatures.
After about 10 minutes the mahouts walked their elephants towards the centre of town, probably to a busy street where they could pose for pictures and beg for food.
I actually didn’t think it could get any more intense than that early morning confrontation, but I was wrong. What followed a couple of hours later was probably the most insane elephant scene I’ve ever witnessed. The Surin Elephant Banquet
It all started right in the middle of town. There were dancers and performers and a table some 1km long full of fruit and veggies for the elephants to eat. Lek and I managed to gain access to a prime viewing area in the middle of the street roundabout. Here a dancer poses as the first of the 200 elephants walks slowly past.
I’m sure the grass would have quickly been discarded after this elephant found out what other food was on offer.
One of the first elephants to approach the table of food.
Many of the first elephants carried dignitaries and famous mahouts. Everything at this stage seemed okay, the elephants would have a quick bite and then move on, tourists were staying away from the elephants and the procession seemed organised so that not too many elephants were in the same place at the same time.
But didn’t that change fast. It seemed about 2 minutes later there were elephants everywhere, all gorging themselves to the point of throwing up.
This bulls tusks were probably 1.5m long. He was resting the weight of his head by laying his tusks on the table while he ate with his trunk. An amazing site, yet I was nervous that he would think I was stealing his food or getting too close, so I quickly shot this photo before stepping well back from the table…
Lek watches on as the elephants gorge.
After about another 5 minutes there seemed to be people and elephants everywhere, the streets were packed, everyone wanting to have an intimate interaction. This boy poses for a photograph, learning to ride early!
A tourist feeds this baby elephant.
The food quickly ended up being sprawled all over the road too, free for any elephant. But at what cost?
To control these baby elephants in such a busy street environment the mahouts continually remind them to behave or be beaten.
The famed white elephant which at first fooled me too. Notice around the mouth the elephant is actually grey. He had been painted white to pose for photographs with many famous local residents.
Further down the street the crowd lined either side of the road hoping to feed a passing elephant.
Elephant rides up and down the street were also available, these elephants would not stop either, if I was not constantly aware I could easily have been trampled.
An entire class of students scream out at an elephant to take their piece of food.
The fake white elephant walks a lap of the street.
Another baby elephant dressed up for photos and begging for food. Unbelievably there were mahouts who would not let their elephants eat the banquet food and still charged tourists for the privilege of feeding their elephant.
A young Thai girl poses with this baby elephant.
I thought it was a strange place for a scarf to be tied, but the purple stain of antiseptic was a clear indiction why.
I don’t think I need to describe to you that this really isn’t a place for elephants to be…
Towards the end of our tour of the banquet Mindy, Laura and I came across 3 elephants with scars on their foreheads, most likely caused from a hook to control the elephants.
These 3 elephants looked incredibly sad and tired. Mindy and Laura share a moment with these elephants which I’m sure they’ll never forget.
Laura looks into the sad eyes of this tortured soul
The banquet was one of the most amazing yet disturbing events I’ve ever seen, it was constant, crazy and sad. These elephants have really tough lives, I’m sure a lot of the mahouts have tough lives too but surely there is a better place for both elephant and mahout.
After a quick lunch we headed back out on the road to pick up Dao Tong, needless to say I was extremely nervous. 2 years of raising awareness and fundraising had all culminated to this very point in time. An elephant was going to be taken off the streets and retired to a sanctuary of peace.
Dao Tong’s final walk in chains.
Her previous owner takes the chain off for the last time, this was a really powerful moment.
So yeah, we were pretty happy!
Dao Tongs amazing golden eyes are beautiful.
Walking along the temple road to the transport truck.
She needed a little bit of encouragement to step up so high with her injury. Luckily it was friendly encouragement!
It only took a couple of minutes for her to step up into the truck, and a further 15 minutes to tie the support beams in. Dao Tong’s former owner did most of the work and shook our hands in thank you before we set off.
The first 100m past the village temple. Farewell Surin province!
We stopped quite a few times along the road, each time one of us would climb down into the cabin to calm Dao Tong down and try to get her to eat some food.
Chantelle talking softly to Dao Tong.
At some stages of the trip she was understandably anxious.
During the trip this mahout (I never found out his name) rode with us on top of the truck almost the entire way. Others who rode atop the truck were Sumit, Sike, Jo and Laura.
The sunset would be Dao Tong’s last as a working elephant.
Riding the truck at night was cool and windy, but it was an amazing experience.
We slept under a bright canopy of stars and saw many shooting stars throughout the night.
Sunrise the next morning would dawn a new day and a new life.
Dao Tong may have slept a little that night, the 4 of us (Chantelle, Jo, Sumit and I) atop the truck slept a little too. She ate a fair bit of food but drank none of the water offered.
Exactly 20 hours after leaving the temple in Surin province we arrived at ENP, Chantelle welcomes Dao Tong to her new home.
Backing the truck up to the medical centre for unloading.
I was surprised at how many people were there to welcome Dao Tong to her new home, it was a beautiful moment.
Taking it all in…
Welcome to your new home Dao Tong!!!
Mintra and the family wander over to greet the new arrival also, another beautiful moment.
Dao Tong’s first swim
Faa Mai, Mintra and Dao tong.
Big green fields, a flowing river, forest mountains, endless food. Paradise.
I had to include a few photos of Navaan as he is just too cute to leave out.
“What are you doing Mum?”
Splish Splash I Was Takin A Bath!!!
“Hey Matt! Look what I’ve got, I found a shoe!!!”
“Oh Matt, it won’t fit me!!!”
“Uh Oh, she’s found out! Quick, Help!!!”
Ha! I hope you enjoyed the photographic journey. I want to thank everyone who donated money for Dao Tong, without you she would still be limping through the streets of Surin begging. You have made a monumental difference for the life of this elephant. I hope one day you can all meet her and all the lucky elephants at ENP.
The next Ride Bikes, Not Elephants event will be my participation in the World Solo 24 Hour Mountain Bike Championships this October, I’ll be wearing a Ride Bikes, Not Elephants jersey and may have them for sale (details to follow really soon), Chantelle also has some really fantastic news relating to elephants in Nepal (where she is right now!!!) details about these exciting adventures to come really soon. Keep updated at our Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/212253432156247/
Dao Tong has forever changed my life, she has given me the inspiration to continue moving forward, to help see an end to street begging and all forms of elephant cruelty. These inspiration creatures deserve love, respect and most of all, freedom.
Once again, Thanks for reading,
Matt Rousu.

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