We arrived in Chiang airport and the transfer to the Hotel was quick with the airport so near to the city. John decided on this hotel on the last day in samui. He certainly picked abelter, it’s £18 for the room which includes all the usual, the fastest wifi we have had anywhere and even breakfast, the staff are superb and a minibar beer costs 90p. The hotel is absolutely spotless and located just north of the old city and right next door to a food market which provides a choice of about 500 dishes to nosh at when you are feeling a little peckish. So top marks for the Viangbua Mansions
Coming in to land at Chiang Mai we admired all the hills and greenery and it reminded us in a way of Ubud in Bali. Obviously the city is much bigger but once you get out of it is very green and lush which we were able to see on what has now become one of most memorable days together. But more of that later.
The first night we went out near the hotel and found this restaurant that we had seen highly recommend it serves a mixture of Asian and western food but is se in its own beautiful little garden complete with a Buddhist relic, is owned by a charming American chap who also uses the restaurant to sell antiques. He is also a French cuisine trained chef so does all the menu design himself. We avoided straight Thai food to give our stomach a fighting chance and it was great food. Just after we finished our mains the monsoon rain started so they moved us to this little covered cabana in the garden and we spent the next hour finishing our meal and eating watching the rain pour; it was beautiful and romantic.
We had both really been looking forward to this day and we researched where we wanted to go and spend time with the elephants while here. We absolutely had no interest in seeing elephants paint, play football or do unnatural tricks on their hind legs, so we chose Baanchang Elephant Park.
This centre rescues elephants from Asia who have been used for logging (now thankfully banned in Thailand, although it still goes on in Burma) or who have been used in the tourist industry as painters, footballers or as street “feed me” elephants. This company charge quite a lot and there are many other places much cheaper in Thailand but not with these conservation credentials. So we tipped up our dosh and felt ok about spending the day with them in the hands of the Mahouts
The day started with a briefing from the owner who explained what he has been doing and his aspirations for the farm over the next few years. Then it was time to change into our Mahout outfits, as they explained that if you are going to spend a day with elephants you will end up very dirty indeed.
Then we were introduced to the elephants one by one and told some of their back stories, where they were rescued from, how much they eat and drink in a day and other elephant related facts. Then it was time for us to feed them pineapples, bananas and sugar cane as treats. At first you step up a little warily in front of these big beasts and get enjoyment from letting them wrap their trunk around your offering, but as you get more confident you step a little closer and pop their tasty morsels right in their mouths . Sometimes, they will give you a little trumpeting if you don’t get it in their mouth or don’t feed them quick enough. So step one on my way getting it on with elephants was over and I had successfully stood one foot away from these beautiful beasts and fed them quite literally hand to mouth, amazing experience number one complete. Oh and baby elephant does trunk neck cuddles and kisses which is delightful.
Next came our training and we were told the Mahout commands for them to get down to let you climb abooard, how you get them to go forward and turn and most importantly how to stop. We each had a go at this in the confines of the feeding area before lunch and our jungle hike proper. Sitting astride an elephant for the first time was scary and you hold on for dear life as it gets up off the ground and then slowly, steadfastly ambles around the park. Then you break for lunch which is a perfect schedule to allow you to think more about what a two hour ride on your elephant will be like.
I imagined over lunch all sorts of things about what it would be like and I didn’t even get close. It was one of the most truly special, unique, magical things I have ever done in my life. You get up on the back of your elephant, no saddle, no seat, nothing to hold onto, but the grip of your legs around it’s shoulder and then we set off into the jungle. Up steep muddy inclines and I watch my elephant touch the path ahead of it with it’s trunk feeling for firmer earth before it will put it’s foot down to haul you up what is a very steep muddy incline. All the while I hear my Mahout who is by the side of my elephant chattering to her in Thai and at some points he even bursts into song for the elephant. You can truly appreciate the bond that the mahouts have with their elephants. They respond to each of his gentle requests and move left or right, stop and slow according to the pace of those in front.
At the top of the hill we take a break ( it is blisteringly hot and sunny which is another huge piece of luck on our part in Chiang Mai at this time of year) so we can take in water and rest in the shade. More importantly the Mahouts can take our elephants off to wander free for half an hour and we watch them pulling branches off small trees, rubbing itchy bits against bigger tree trunks and even toppling some trees in the pursuit of a much earned snack.
Then we remount and finish the trek down the other side of the hill. As I got more confident on my elephant I managed to get both my ultimate foot blog shot (complete with elephant ear) and a small video which I hope can give you an idea of the experience from my point of view atop the elephant.
Just when you thought a special day could not get any more special, it does as you are invited by your Mahout to plunge into the river with your elephant and help scrub them down and clean them. The baby elephant joins us and takes great pleasure in blowing water from it’s trunk at us as we clean and scrub our elephants down. It doesn’t matter that the water is full of elephant dung which merrily floats past as you plunge in your bucket to the water to give your new best friend a shower and scrub.
Elephants are amazing powerful beasts, but in the course of this day I felt I have got to see their gentleness and from the stories of the camp staff the plight which they still face across many areas in Asia. So if you are ever in Asia or India and get the chance to see elephants perform in the street or in shows, DONT, save up, come here and experience what we have experienced today and put money into helping those that care for the future of these most majestic and beautiful creatures.
As this is the dumbo edition I could not post thus without including this.
After yesterday experience we have spent the day catching up on the must do.’s of Chiang Mai given our limited time here. More to come in a less reflective blog .
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