By Sue Nilsson © 3/4/2004

Published by Wild Child Publishing (www.wildchildpublishing.com {Author Note: website is no longer active.})


On a day-trip in the province of Kanchanburi, Thailand, Ken and I encountered a baby elephant that wanted to play with us.

In the hilltribe village of the Karen people a herd of elephants lives under the care of their Mahouts. Lush green jungle surrounds the compound where Mother elephants stand side-by-side under a fiberglass canopy, while they are fed. Afterwards, they are led away to their quarters to rest.

Our driver dropped us off at the elephant camp in the middle of feeding-time. The first thing we saw was the thirteen-month-old running as fast as his legs would carry him to the edge of the pen and hold out his trunk as if to say hi.

Like two little kids, we ran over to meet him. Ken grabbed his trunk and this five feet tall, and well-fed round elephant tugged, almost pulling ken over. Ken is six feet tall and strong, so this baby packed a lot of power into his small frame.

A banana stand sat next to the pen. We bought two bunches from the seller, one for the baby elephant and the other for his mother, who always stood close by. It was fun to watch them gobble up the treats.

An elephant’s trunk has a small lip on the end that allows it to grab onto objects and bring them to its mouth with an incredible dexterity.

It’s as close as they get to a thumb. Each time their trunks searched my hand for food, it felt like a self-directed vacuum cleaner hose with rough skin instead of plastic.

After finishing a banana, the elephants extended their trunks toward us, and we’d hear, sniff, sniff, sniff . . . exhale, over and over again until we offered them the next banana. When we ran out of bananas, their trunks searched all over us, sniffing until they gave up. The baby’s investigations tickled our hands, messed up our hair, and threatened to put us off balance if we leaned too far one way or another, or got in the way of the middle part of his trunk.

The baby ran back and forth in his stall and his mother watched, one eye on him, the other on us as we held out our hands and tugged on the little one’s trunk. If it weren’t for the enclosure, he would have run us over in his eagerness to play.

Ken rested his foot on the lower railing and the baby came over to sniff his sandal. Ken reached down and undid the Velcro straps to see what the baby would do. As soon as he saw how the Velcro attached and re-attached, he couldn’t get enough of the process. We laughed so hard our sides hurt. It amazed us to watch him learn in seconds how to complete a task that required dexterity.


I put my hiking shoe up on the railing and the baby rushed over. Would it learn how to untie my shoes? He grabbed the laces with his trunk, and sure enough, he untied them. His ingenuity made us laugh even more. He pulled on them again and again, even though they were already untied. When we looked into his eyes it was as though we could see into his mind and watch it tick while his brain tried to figure out how everything worked. He grew bored with the shoelaces and raced away to the corner of the pen and back again.

Ken picked a thick blade of grass, put it between his fingers and brought it up to his mouth to make a whistle. How would the baby respond to this trick? His trunk extended up to Ken’s hands. The sniffing started all over again, as he tried to figure out what Ken was going to do. Both pairs of elephant ears stood straight out when Ken blew the grass whistle. Had he said something through this blade of grass? Each time Ken exhaled, their ears stood out and they cocked their heads from side to side. Now we were just as curious as the elephants. Without the ability to speak their language, we’d never know. The baby kept sniffing and moving his ears until Ken stopped making the sound.

Between his sprints around the pen, we ruffled the stubbly hair on his head. I thought he would have little insects all over his body, but outside of the rough hair, he felt clean. When he stopped running, his mother gently wrapped her trunk over the top of his back as if to show us this was her baby and to convey how much she cared.

The Mahout stopped by and we watched him play with the baby. He took his hands, made a fist and pounded the baby’s head. The man grinned each time the baby came back for more, cluing me in to the possibility that this was a game they’d played before. I realized how tough this little one’s head must be after he came back for what felt like the millionth time to get his head pounded.

We couldn’t get enough of this baby. His curiosity and endless enthusiasm for life was infectious. I tugged on his trunk, he rolled in the sand, we too pushed and pounded on his head, and he continued to run around until the Mahout led him and his mother away for a feeding.


Under the mid-afternoon sun, also in Kanchanaburi Province, tigers come to rest, exercise and relax in a quarry on the grounds of a monastery. My partner Ken and I wanted to experience these feared predators up close. From three-thirty to five o’clock every afternoon, this monastery allows visitors to meet the tigers, pet their heads, and see how they live.

After donating money to the monastery in the form of an entry fee, we were ushered through a tall, heavy, green gate. The guard closed it behind us and there we stood, scrub brush all around us. A deer stood on the opposite side of a dirt road munching on leaves off a tree, giving us a sense of calm.

“Is this where the tigers are?” I asked Ken. I wasn’t sure where the tigers roamed after their afternoon meal. Were they only allowed off leash in the quarry?

“Yes,” Ken said.

My eyes widened when reality finally sunk in. We were inside the grounds where the tigers roam off leash with only one monk per animal.

We walked along the path looking for the quarry where we’d be able to see the animals up close. All we saw was scrub brush and small trees.

My hands turned cold and clammy. Did we really want to do this? A couple of weeks earlier a Thai visitor had been hurt by a tiger.

A tour guide accompanying a small group of tourists helped us out by pointing toward a narrower dirt path. She assured us it would lead directly to the quarry. We picked our way over gullies now empty of water, down into a wide quarry hole. We caught a glimpse of the tigers through an opening in the rock part way down. Their magnificence took my breath away. At the bottom we rounded a mound of rock and dried mud and found ourselves in the quarry with five tigers.

Though I’d seen tigers in circuses, nothing could have prepared me for the scene before my eyes. One sat on the ground, tethered to a chain buried deep in the ground. Both Ken and I noticed that though the chain was buried, it was six feet long. The tiger, if it felt like it could not only swipe at a visitor, but also run a few steps and get another swat and even a meal before the victim could escape. I wondered if that’s what happened to the Thai tourist.

Three others lounged on the ground, and two wandered among the rocks.

A monk stood close to each one. The tiger’s fur shone in the afternoon sun. I stopped and stared. I looked at the tiger chained to the ground and felt sorry for it, but it didn’t seem to care. It sat with its front paws pointed forward and its eyes closed as if it were napping, much like my house cat does when she’s sunning herself.

I doubted it napped, not with strange humans petting its head.

For a moment I regretted coming. I felt as though this was more for the benefit of the humans than the tigers. When we returned home, we could say we had touched a live tiger. Ken reminded me the money we spent would go toward a much better habitat for the animals. If we refused to pet the tigers, we would insult the monks as this was the only way for the monks to thank us for our much needed support.

We joined a queue of about five other people waiting to pet the chained tiger. I kept asking myself, was this really happening? Do I really want to go through with this? Would the tiger get fed up and take a swipe at me? I held my breath each time someone new knelt down beside the animal.

When our turn arrived, I knelt down next to the tiger and stroked its neck and the top of its head. It felt strange to actually touch its soft thick fur. I consciously blocked out thoughts of fear. I didn’t want it sensing anything from me. Through thick smooth fur, I felt well-built muscle. This creature was created to hunt and kill its prey, and here I was caressing it as though it were a domestic cat. Ken snapped pictures. I focused on how proud and magnificent it looked sitting on the ground allowing people to caress it. The attending monk motioned for me to leave. Next, Ken knelt down and I took the pictures. The big cat seemed oblivious to the attention paid to it. Did it care that someone was petting it? For a moment I felt afraid for Ken’s safety even though the tiger never moved except to open and close its eyelids while Ken touched it. My imagination wouldn’t stop creating a scenario where one of us got hurt.


We watched a few more tourists. The circus atmosphere reappeared.

Each tourist behaved the same as us. Most spoke in hushed tones.

Whenever someone spoke too loud, the monk next to the chained tiger would motion for silence. We turned to go.

Half way up the hill we stopped and watched as the monks changed tigers. They led the one we’d caressed away toward the back of the quarry and another was brought in its place. The chain was connected to its collar, and the monk motioned for the tourists to continue.

We finished our climb and continued on the wide dirt path until we came upon a large group feeding baby tigers. Two one-year olds and two eight-month-olds cried constantly, even when people tried to feed them.


Ken and I took turns holding a bottle, feeding the little ones, and petting each baby. The larger ones got milk all over themselves and us, in between cries and struggles to get away. The smallest ones cried louder than the older babies. Maybe they wanted their mothers and maybe they did not understand what all the fuss was about, but no matter what anyone did, they would not calm down.


The founder of the monastery joined us. We learned that part of Buddhist philosophy is to practice selfless conduct that reflects the highest statement of the life you want to live. A person is to express conduct that is peaceful, honest and pure showing compassion for all beings.


One of the monks placed a baby in the founder’s lap. It sat there quietly as if it knew who was in charge and that it was this man who had saved them. Many of the animals had arrived from private owners who thought having a tiger would be fun. But, when they grew too old to keep, or their owners grew tired of having them, they sent them to the monastery. It started with one tiger and now they have seven grown tigers and the four babies, along with deer, chickens, pigs, boar, and monkeys. Ken and I guessed they used the chickens and pigs to feed the tigers. The tigers no longer hunt for their meals, but they are given fresh meat every day.


We saw one of the monkeys just as it had gotten its hands on a bottle of orange juice from some unwitting tourist. No one spoke English near us so we could not tell how it got the bottle. It unscrewed the top with no difficulty and swallowed the contents. The group of people laughed. I wonder what it thought of orange juice. Was this the first time it had ever tasted it? I doubted it.


Tired of the crowds of people, we left the monkey behind and returned to our driver. In the truck, we vowed to make sure others knew about the work these monks are doing to establish a better habitat for the tigers, a home for the monkeys and better living conditions for all the other creatures in their care.

{Author Note: Since the writing of this article, the Tiger Monestary & sanctuary was shut down. It has since reopened under a new name.}

www.boonheng.com (email: watpa@cscoms.com)
WatpaLuangtaBua Yannasampanno, Mu.5, Baanpumaideang
Tambon Sing, Amphor Sriyok, Karnchanaburi Province, 71150, Thailand
Tel : +66-34-531-557 Fax : +66-34-531-558
Showtime : 3.30 pm. – 5.00 pm. everyday


I never thought there would be fish hungry for the taste of human flesh, but in Erewan National Park in Kanchanaburi Province, there are. No, they don’t eat humans, but they do nibble. The Thais call it a kiss. It didn’t feel like one.


Erewan National Park is one of the many stunning parks in Thailand.

This one is filled with natural waterfalls. Water tumbles down from a mountaintop, carrying lime and silt with it and turning the water an iridescent green.

Many species of wildlife live in there. On our hike up the mountain we spotted a monkey with its baby way up in the trees. We watched until it left its perch, grabbed hold of a thick vine and climbed too high for us to see.


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Seven levels of waterfalls lead up the mountainside. Pools of clear green water, large enough for a swim, were at the bottom of each one.

Of course Ken and I had to experience the water for ourselves. The park provided a place for us to change into bathing suites, and we were ready to jump in.


Someone warned us before we took the first plunge that the fish like to kiss their human visitors. We stopped and asked what that meant, but it still wasn’t clear. Another person said they nibble at you to determine if you’re food. This, we both understood.


Ken jumped in and the fish swarmed around him. He cried out in surprise when the first fish took a nibble. I didn’t want to get in. When Ken told me the trick is to stay moving, I changed my mind.

I jumped in, and cold refreshing water surrounded me, and so did the fish. It was impossible to get away from them right away. One nibbled on my leg, another on my side. It felt like a small bite, not at all like a kiss. As soon as I could, I paddled out into the center of the pool and kept my arms and legs busy. The fish stayed away.

The fish waited for us in each pool. Maybe if the park allowed visitors to feed the fish they wouldn’t bite. When we mentioned that to a park regular, they said the park used to allow feeding, but it made the fish even more aggressive. I didn’t want to know what that would feel like.

We contented ourselves with the nibblers and enjoyed a swim in each pool as we climbed up the mountain and back down. We found this to be the most refreshing way to pass time in the hot Thai climate.


Tours to these and other exciting places in Kanchanburi Province can be arranged through Apples Guesthouse (034-512-017). They do not have a website, but you can find them if you search for places to stay in Kanchanaburi. The Guesthouse also has a fabulous cooking school, so make time to enjoy the classes.

Apple’s Guesthouse: {Author Note: 2018 name: Apple’s Retreat & Guesthouse}

Location: intersection of Thanon Mae Nam Khwae, and Thanon Rong
Hip Oi
Tel: 66-34-512017, 513457
Fax: 66-34-514958
email: applesguesthouse@hotmail.com

{Author Note: as of 2018, website: http://www.applenoikanchanaburi.com/ }