A few years ago, I was in the stationery business selling wedding invitations, cards and gifts out of a retail store my aunt owned. We were constantly on the lookout for new products to sell. One day, Dusty emailed me an article about what should be our latest and greatest addition to our product line. Some people somewhere were making paper out of elephant poop. He thought this was hilarious and proclaimed that our tag line could be “Our paper is shitty!” or something to that nature. Can you imagine? “Congratulations on your engagement! We have this fine elephant poop paper that we can use to announce it!”
Well, I had not forgotten this poop paper, because let’s face it….it’s freakin’ fascinating! Poop into paper! What the….??? I did a little research and found out that the Elephant Dung Paper factory was just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand! I was pretty excited about this but was certain the rest of our group was not as interested in going outside town to see the operation. Fortunately, I found out that the paper factory gets their “supply” from an elephant conservation center next door! Things were looking up. Elephant fun, which we had been desperately searching for, and poop paper! The total package.
About 40 minutes out of Chiang Mai in Lampang is the one and only government run Thai Elephant Conservation Center. They recover injured and neglected elephants and nurse them back to health. They also act as the care giver to six of the Thai King’s royal elephants or ‘white elephants’. There is some controversy over the treatment of elephants in Thailand, but we felt this might be the best place to visit where they are treated humanely.
We arrived just in time as the morning elephant show was just beginning. A line of elephants enter the arena and show the moves they have learned in training. They bow and curtsy, balance on logs, and push, drag and carry logs across the stage. Those waiting their turn could be seen pushing a lever to turn water on for drinking.
The finale of the show is elephant painting. On poop paper no less! The TECC says they are the first elephant camp to have the elephants paint and that they do actually enjoy it. The mahout would dip the brush in some paint, then the elephant would grab it with its trunk and place it on the paper. So…the mahout, or elephant ‘driver’, guided the elephant’s trunk in order to form a figure such as an elephant, flower or tree. The elephant isn’t actually forming the shapes, the mahout is….but WHAT DO YOU WANT? An elephant is freakin’ painting! On paper made out of it’s own poop! After the show, I jumped to the front oft the line to purchase one of these fabulous works of art. We scored some flowers painted by an elephant right there in front of us. We’re pretty awesome. And you know, it will make a great conversation piece in our home.
Immediately following the show, we found our way to the elephant riding area, a must. There was no hope in riding bareback as it’s strictly for the mahouts and mahouts in training. Instead, we rode like royalty on a seat perched atop our elephant. The elephant waded through a lake, followed a path and spent 1/3 of the trip snacking along the way. They never stop eating.
Another fun activity was visiting a pregnant surrogate mother and elephant calf at the nursery. The calf had lost it’s mother to severe constipation just one month prior to our visit. The pregnant surrogate mom kept us entertained for quite awhile while we fed her banana after banana. She reached out time after time to grab whatever was available, allowing us time to inspect the coarse hair and rough skin on her trunk. She was never satisfied always wanting more bananas.
Next to the nursery is the very sad elephant hospital. The conditions were not poor, but the elephants were tough to look at. One appeared to have stepped on a land mine and had half of its back foot mangled. Another had a strangely shaped leg which it also could not use. It was so painful to watch. While we were visiting, a truck arrived bringing an enormous sick elephant. It’s pretty interesting watching the transportation of an elephant. It just stood there in the back of the truck, like it had done this before. It didn’t appear to be sick but, Dusty and I had didn’t want to stick around to find out what was going on.
Toward the end of our journey, we were on our way out, when we saw a sign showing the direction to the dung factory. Phew! We almost missed it! The factory is not really a factory at all. Just a girl taking huge chunks of cleaned elephant dung, spreading it on a screen, draining it and laying it out to dry. That’s it! Elephants eat so much grassy substances that their poop mainly consists of just that. It’s not tough making elephant poop paper. Even Sarah and I can do it. Duh.
Thai Elephant Conservation Center
Admission Fee: 150 Baht or $4.85 USD
Mahout Training Course offered from 3,500-100,00 Baht depending on number of days.