Big Elephant Day!

[Note : The map is now updated through Australia, minus two nights in Bali that we’re unsure of but thought we would figure it out once we got there and learned the island a little better.]

It’s here!  The reason we had wanted to come to Chiang Mai was to be with elephants and today was the day! Lynn woke up before the alarm at 7.30 and rushed me out of bed to make sure we wouldn’t be late.  After a quick morning rinse (we shower at night in Thailand because after a long hot, humid day of walking around it would be really gross to crawl right into bed), we packed our bags and Lynn headed off to grab a to-go breakfast at 7-11 while I finished getting ready.  A few minutes later we met our mini-bus and climbed aboard.

We meandered through some very, very narrow streets to pickup other elephant enthusiasts, often having to pull into driveways so cars could pass going the other way, before we headed out of the city and towards the nature park.  Our guide, Sai, introduced himself and then pulled a gigantic monitor down from the ceiling where Lynn and I had front row seats for a video narrated by Tom Oliver (who is apparently a famous person?) about the Do’s and Dont’s of being around elephants.  This was immediately followed up with an episode of Animal Planet’s Caught in the Moment where two truly awful hosts taught us about elephants while filming for a conservation music video.  While the show looked terrible and I am not surprised at all to find that it is no longer running we did learn some things about the park we were headed to and Asian elephants in general.  Lynn had chosen the Elephant Nature Park for our visit because they are the leaders in ethical elephant tours which are becoming more prevalent round Chiang Mai.  It seems when logging was outlawed in Thailand in 1989 it left over 3000 mahmouts (elephant trainers) and elephants without jobs.  With no income, the mahmouts forced their elephants into street begging, circuses, or giving tourists rides which all turnout to not be so great for the elephants.  Most tourist elephant rides, for example, are on the elephants back which should not be supporting more than 150 kg and often the chair and saddle themselves weigh upwards of 90 kg and then there is the weight of the two tourists as well. Lek, the founder of Elephant Nature Park, has purchased and been donated sick, injured, and mistreated elephants from all manner of horrible fates and given them a new lease on life where they are free to roam the 300 acres without having to give rides.  The park has also branched into other animals as well and is home to horses, water buffalo and over 400 rescued dogs and cats that roam the grounds freely.

About 30 minutes later we arrived at the park and were given a briefing about how to feed the elephants, the first activity of the day.  Elephants eat near constantly, and we had the opportunity to feed them whole watermelon and pumpkin from the safety of an elevated platform.  Just as the briefing finished we saw the elephants making their way towards the platform, it seems they knew it was time for breakfast.  We all took turns handing the elephants large pieces of melon and pumpkin and delighted in the prehensile trunks grabbing our hands and the fruit.

Here they come for food!
Here they come for food!
Lynn introducing herself to Pookie during feeding.  It looks like the elephant is in a cage, but its actually us that are.
Lynn introducing herself to Pookie during feeding. It looks like the elephant is in a cage, but its actually us that are.

After breakfast it was time to go and meet them face to face.  The thirty or so elephants have naturally formed themselves into herds and Sai led us on a walking tour through three of them.  He was very careful to make sure we respected the elephants space and gave us backgrounds on all of them, including which were friendly to people and we could take pictures with and which were “naughty” or “gangster” because of bad past experiences.  Some of the elephants we saw had been caught in poacher’s traps, other had broken hips that never healed right from forced breading, and others were blind from circus lights or frustrated mahmouts stabbing them.  It was all pretty sad, but it was heartening to see the elephants enjoying themselves now and knowing that had long lives ahead of them since we found out elephants live to be seventy or eighty years old.

Lynn and her new best friend.
Lynn and her new best friend.
The ears were so leathery, which makes sense I guess.
The ears were so leathery, which makes sense I guess.
Nice to meet you Mrs. Elephant.  This was Jiokou who had been blinded by her mahmout when she refused to work after losing her baby.
Nice to meet you Mrs. Elephant. This was Jiokou who had been blinded by her mahmout when she refused to work after losing her baby.

Having had our morning fill of picture taking and elephant touching, it was time for lunch and to get out of the sun so we headed back to our raised platform.  Lunch was an endless buffet of more than twenty different types of Thai food and it was a little overwhelming to choose which items to try and fit on your plate.  I settled for several types of curries and vegetables and Lynn has no idea but just “grabbed a bunch of stuff that was not particularly good, except for the rambutans.”

Bellies full, it was time for bathing the elephants!  We changed shoes and headed down to the river where we were each given a bucket.  In order to cool off in the heat of the Thai days, elephants will bath themselves in cool river water.  It seems some are lazy though and the park uses more than willing tourists to splash them down instead.  We were divided into groups and each given an elephant to water down.  Of course this quickly devolved into a water fight between people on opposite sides of the elephant, but our lady elephant didn’t seem to mind one bit as she was quite content judging by the ear flapping and tail wagging.

Lynn cooling off the elephants.
Lynn cooling off the elephants.
A very happy elephant with a mouth full of grass.
A very happy elephant with a mouth full of grass.

After the bath the elephants waddled back up onto shore where they sprayed their freshly bathed skin down with mud to act as a sunscreen and mosquito protectant.  Our bathing elephants disappeared back into the forest and Sai led us on another hike around the property to see more herds.  We encountered several larger herds, including two with baby elephants born at the park and even met Lek, the founder of the park who I was happy to see still spends her days playing with the elephants and not working behind a desk.  She clearly had a bond with all of the elephants and it was really remarkable to see 4 ton animals playing with and taking the lead from this tiny hundred pound woman.

Lek and one the younger elephants.
Lek and one the younger elephants.
Two adopted sisters, playing in the water.
Two adopted sisters, playing in the water.

We continued our walk and saw the baby boy elephant, who we were told is very “naughty” and likes to play with tourists by charging at them so we needed to be ready to run.  Luckily he was not interested in us today so we got to just watch him play in the mud.  We then met two older elephants who live on their own before heading back to the platform for snacks and some Thai Iced Tea that could easily give Georgia Sweet Tea a run for its money in a sweet-off.  How Thai people still have teeth is beyond me and I’m finally starting to get to where Lynn has been this whole week – ready for something savory without any sugar.

There were two dogs that liked to follow around this old elephant and sleep in her shade.
There were two dogs that liked to follow around this old elephant and sleep in her shade.

After snacks we said goodbye to the elephants and dogs (which were everywhere throughout the day) and loaded back up in the mini-bus to return to the city.  It was not a very comfortable ride, but we got some good advice about Bali from a nice Canadian couple who has been traveling for the past year and a half.   We returned to our guesthouse around 4.30 and wrote a few blog posts to get caught up before heading out to dinner.

All week we had been seeing whole fish covered in salt being grilled at roadside stands and tonight we decided to try some.  Eating a whole fish on the street with no utensils, plates, or tables seemed like quite the challenge though, so we headed to a restaurant instead.  For 330 baht we had a whole grilled fish, bamboo salad, grilled pork in banana leaf, two watermelon shakes, and a desert of some oddly sour mango sticky rice.  The fish was incredible though, very moist and tender with hints of the lemongrass it had been stuffed with – definitely something we will try at home.

Salted and grilled fishes.
Salted and grilled fishes.

Getting perilously close to our budget for Thailand and with how expensive Australia is going to be fresh in our minds from all the booking the day before we decided to call it an early night to make sure we didn’t spend anything else and headed back to the guesthouse.

Daily Walking Miles : 6.08 miles

Fun Facts:

  • Asian elephants are smaller than their African cousins and their ears are only a third as large.
  • Elephants eat a tenth of their body weight in food everyday which is 300-400 kg.
  • Elephants flap their ears and wag their tales when they are happy or content and rock back and forth when they are anxious or stressed.
  • Elephants sense the world around them by feeling ground vibrations through their feet.  Our guide told us that riding in a truck or being in the busy city is equivalent to someone constantly screaming in your ears.

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