With his towering height, Max was always going to attract attention. Born in 1962, many people claim he might be the tallest male in all of Thailand - even after so many years of hope and pain, all the ups and downs of a rolling jungle hill. His adventures begin in the jungles of the north, where he is born into a poor family of festival performers. Max’s earliest memories paint loud parades, holidays and weddings, covered in bright robes to greet friendly smiles. But, like many others in the region, once he came of age, Max was sent to work. His mother and aunts cried, but his father was always a loner, and so young Max would have to learn many things about life, all by himself.
Family ties are close, but survival clings closer. To put food in his mouth, Max found work at a logging camp, where tough men would work long hours in scorching temperatures and torrential rain, clearing and cutting down thick jungles for wood. Here, Max developed his thick-skinned approach to life that would see him through many more hardships. Conditions were terrible, but soon enough another opportunity came his way, this time in the form of the exploding tourism industry. Help was needed to accommodate and transport the ever-increasing number of tourists heading to the region. Having being ripped apart from his family and sent into the brutal, harsh world of forest labour, Max discovered that tourists don’t break and splinter when they fall – they shout and scream and complain and threaten to sue. He was never a social creature, never one to roll over to those he didn’t respect (with his enormous size, it would have been difficult for anyone make him budge at all). Simply put, he was stubborn, arrogant with youth and drunk on strength. One unfortunate day, a group of sunburned Englishmen pushed him too far, and he reacted violently, his intentions merely to scare, but his actions as clumsy as an octopus in giggling fit. The tourists get a few bumps, complain and screech in outrage, the authorities get involved, and Big Max, Big Clumsy Aloof Max, is sent away for the minor offence. His frustration is almost as large as his eyes, wide with injustice – nobody should have to be treated the way he was – a play thing, a slave for the pleasure of foreigners. Refusing to remain chained up for long, he used his wits and power to escape, heading deep into the forest. Here, he would rely on the lessons learned from his youth, how to forage for food and berries, find shelter. Under the stars, he made raids into the fields of a nearby village, drank from their irrigation systems. Survival was possible, but the villagers soon discovered this new unwelcome stranger, and called in the monks to help. They coaxed Max out the jungle and into the temple, offering him a spiritual life, in keeping with their strict Buddhist practices. This quiet life, of meditation and thought, pacified him for a while. Although there was some peace here, at last, there was also not enough food to support this giant personality, enclosed after so many months in the forest. His weight dropped dramatically, his skin flapping on his giant frame like the canvas of a tent. Max began to feel trapped, restless, hungry. Villagers could see that the temple was too small to keep him tied down for too long, and demanded the monks release him instead. Max was put in a truck, and sent away to the city. And so a new adventure begins, as Max is taken into a strange new world, the biggest city with the brightest lights of all, Bangkok. He doesn’t know who made what deal, but with no food and no place to stay, Max ends up on the streets, begging for scraps, living in parking lots and scrimmaging in garbage scraps. This concrete jungle is not like any jungle he has ever known. The constant noise vibrates in his skull, making him tired, irritable, unable to sleep. The lights burn his eyes like pin pricks, the choking pollution gripping his lungs, slashing his throat. His stomach rotting with whatever he can find to put it into it, the days and nights pass in blurs of screams and punches, a blend of violent animal instincts and docile submission. He was dying, and then he was almost killed. Wandering the streets one night, dazed by lack of sleep, an 18-wheel truck clips him on the side of the highway, dragging him underneath its wheels for a few meters before coming to a halt. Miraculously, he survives, but his right front leg has snapped in half. Throughout his turbulent life, strangers had come to Max’s aid, appearing like angels in a dream, briefly holding back the demons of reality. It is these strangers who help Max recover, regain his strength, feeding him what little there is to go around, putting his leg in a makeshift wooden splint. After a few weeks, he is able to limp again, and all wonder, was it his size or spirit that helped him survive the accident? And, in hushed tones, would he have been better off dead? What is there for him to look forward to? More begging? More angels, more demons? Luck finds him first, in the form of a tribal family who take pity on this homeless giant, bringing him back to the jungle where he can work for his food, instead of slowly dying on the streets of Bangkok. A warm, kind woman named Lek finds him second, horrified by his physical condition, and the sad story of his life. Lek Chailert had just started a refuge for the homeless, the hurt, the sick and the poor, and with the cooperation of the tribal family, takes Max under her care.
Five years later, Max has recovered his strength, his weight, his pride. He stands tall, dignified, like a political prisoner being released respectfully into the offices of power. His right leg will always be bent, making him walk slowly, thoughtfully, with purpose and esteem. Others at the camp regard him highly, revering his experience and the wisdom he has learned from it. Gentle with the babies, popular with the ladies, here he resides as an elder statesman, an example of how we can all conquer our adversity, temper our demons, and believe in hope. Max is still weary of the few tourists who visit the Nature Park. His memory is as fresh as that of an elephant.
Max is just one of the dozens of elephants supported through donations at the Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand. This unique wildlife reserve protects, rehabilitates and houses elephants rescued from abusive conditions such as elephant camps, illegal logging, and street begging. For more information, visit their website: elephantnaturefoundation.org.
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