The adventure didn’t stop in Chiang Mai after the over night trek to the hilltop village. The following morning we were up bright and early again. We were off to spend the day with elephants. I had booked a tour with Elephant Discovery. There was a lot of debate back and forth about supporting this type of tourism as there are a number of horrible operations in Thailand that profit from keeping elephants in captivity and drugged up on tranquilizers. And while the only real form of life these beautiful and majestic creatures should experience is in the wild, Elephant Discovery really goes out of their way to ensure that the elephants are free in their natural environment, non-drugged or domesticated and cared for by highly trained mahouts (elephant caretakers). As such, their philosophy is to bring tourists to the elephants and their natural habitat. Which in their case was a long three hour drive deep into the jungle.
Pau, the owner, picked us up at 730am and was in a lively mood and full of jokes. We were all barely awake after the non-stop activities we had been up to since the arrival of Chris and Jen. Peter and Pau began speaking in Thai and Pau was impressed with Peter’s command of the Thai language. Pau mentioned that Peter speaks Thai with a Bangkokian accent which is faster than the Northern Thai dialect.
The last 45 minutes of the drive was on a dirt jungle path in thick bush. We were getting remote. We finally arrived to a cleared plot of land where we spotted our staff and elephants. We were encouraged to meet the elephants and get as comfortable as possible around these massive creatures. I found this a little intimidating. These animals could squash you like a bug and suddenly I was surrounded by them. I found myself fairly nervous and timid as these were wild elephants in nature.
Jen and Chris were pretty much on the same page. For some reason Peter was completely at ease giving full trust to the elephants. We fed the four adult elephants and the baby elephant bananas while we got acquainted. Some of our nerves did eventually dissipate.
My persona favorite from the morning photo shoot is below when Jen got more than she bargained for with a trunk kiss.
After the introductions we sat with Pau who went over instructions for the day which included certain Thai word commands for the elephants. These commands, so he said, would get the elephants to slow down, stop or go. Once again I was flooded with anxiety. What if I wrongly used the word ‘go’ when I want to say ‘stop.’ The words were in Thai so the sounds were extremely unfamiliar and easily forgettable. Thankfully, we were with the mahouts the entire time who really managed the behaviors of the elephants so the language lesson was just for show.
We would first bath the elephants in the river so were taught the best way to clean the creatures. We also learned about the uses of elephant dung in fertilizer and paper. Pau explained that the the elephants eat up to 400-500 pounds of food a day, but only digest about 1/3 of that food. Therefore the elephant poop doesn’t have a strong odor like you’d expect. We found this out to be true as Pau insisted we took a whiff.
After instructions we were given our elephant riding clothes to change into and were assigned our personal elephant for the day. I was given Maria and by the end of the day I loved her. She was a such a sweetheart with a gentle soul. I could sense it.
Our next activity was walking the elephants over to a nearby creek to get them washed up for the riding adventure. The mahout told us to guide the elephant by holding its ear flap.
After washing the elephants we posed for a group shot and then were surprised when one of the trainers called out a word that commanded the elephants to spray us with water, using their trunks to now bath us.
Next up was possibly the most challenging part of the day, mounting an elephant.
There are two ways of going about it. You can climb up the front by way of trunk or the side by way of assistance from the elephant’s foot and leg. Peter went first. Below is the step by step process of properly climbing an elephant using the foot and leg method.
You can see a bit challenging and does take some upper body strength.
Chris and I opted for the trunk method which doesn’t come off nearly as graceful particularly because you get yourself in a backward situation, or maybe Peter was just way better at elephant climbing.
Jen also did the side climb foot and leg method and I was really impressed watching her accomplish the mounting. She was pretty nervous about riding the elephants, understandably so.. This was a whole new arena of experience and it was great to see her facing down a little fear. But despite being nervous and shaky, she got up there and wasn’t going to back down.
Elephants mounted and we were off! The beginning was a bit scary for me. You are high off the ground while the elephants walk down steep hills, but after a bit I got into the swings of things and felt comfortable with Maria.
For most of the elephant hike Chris’s elephant and mine stayed together so I was the only one to witness the scariness of Chris’s elephant. Chris was given the pregnant elephant and she was ravenously hungry and hormonal. I would watch in part fear and part entertainment as his elephant would thrash around, wander off, and pull at the surrounding shrubs aggressively with her trunk. She would swing her head and trunk in what looked like an attempt to buck Chris off. He was bull-riding a wild elephant! Every so often I would ask, “Hey man. Are you alright?” Chris would then shake his head yes or no then go back to concentrating on staying on his hormonal raging elephant. Check out Chris and his elephant in the background of the last picture.
We rode the elephants for about 45 minutes through the jungle. At times the paths was so narrow with a cliff on the other side that I became fearful that Maria and I would go tumbling down the hill, but that added to the adrenaline of what we were already doing. Other than that, the scenery and serenity made for a perfect atmosphere to enjoy these gentle creatures.
At one point I turned around and saw Peter riding his elephant’s head. My competitive nature came out so of course I had to follow suit.
Our elephant walk brought us to our lunch spot in the jungle where a tiny hut was set up near the river at the base of a waterfall. We were served fried chicken and tropical fruit on banana leaves.
Halfway through lunch I think Maria missed me because she crashed our lunch with baby in tow.
After lunch we had the opportunity to play in the water with the elephants. There was a lot of joy watching the elephants play in the water, spraying each other and signaling their trumpet song in happiness.
Before heading back we grabbed a couple fun shots in front of the waterfall. The water was really cold.
The trip down the mountain was much easier as we were all more comfortable with the elephants and vice versa. We took a short cut through the jungle, crossed a river and were back. We dismounted our new friends and said our goodbyes with big trunk hugs. It was another day of adventure, fun and beauty in the jungles of Chiang Mai.
Pau, the owner lives nearby in a Karen village so we stopped by his home on the way back to town and got a dose of his family life. There were all kinds of animals roaming around who I enjoyed feeding my left over fruit from the morning. The pigs got aggressive and stole from the dogs so I had to distract the pigs and then quickly feed the puppies. Spending a day with all these animals out in nature is so good for the soul.
A couple hours later we were back to our hotel. We all got ready and headed out to dinner to Lemongrass again because it’s that good. I don’t know if our waitress could tell we had had a long day but she gave Jen and I generous pours on the white wine.
It’s this picture that made me realzie that I was beginning to look shattered. We were all running on adrenaline at this point so I was hoping sleep was in my near future. It really had been non stop for a week.
After dinner we walked around the night markets of Chiang Mai taking in all the activity, shops, and live music. There is a lively energy of the markets that make it fun to just walk around and be in.
The next morning we were heading to the Thai islands for a different type of adventure. Up to this point I was feeling really good and happy about our already successful trip. Chiang May packed a punch, a bigger and more fun one that I could have ever imagined.
Elephants are regarded for their high intelligence and memory. This sentiment is marked in the phrase “an elephant never forgets.” I know I’ll never forget the magical days we spent in the jungles of Northern Thailand.