Chiang Mai Days – Elephants

It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m sitting in bed in Edinburgh bingeing on Netflix, nursing a horrible head cold. The wind is roaring past my window shaking the trees while I feel cosy and safe snuggled in a down sleeping bag I’m testing out for our next trip. It’s a world away from where we were a month ago – relaxing in Chiang Mai with its languid heat, artsy vibes, street food, day trips, and afternoons relaxing in the park. Reminisce with me…

If there was one thing the Chloe really wanted to do it was to spend some time with elephants, so of course, I had to make it happen. But not just any old elephants. Following a conversation about animal welfare after seeing some elephants in Laos chained up and exhibiting stress behaviours, she was totally on board with making sure we only visited well treated elephants. That meant no elephant rides, no chains, no elephant shows or forcing them to do anything they didn’t want to do. After much google-ing I booked us a half day at the Ethical Elephant Sanctuary which ticked all our boxes and was considerably cheaper than the other elephant gigs in town, of which there are so very many.

Alex wanted some time to himself, so early in the morning I found myself sitting at the curb side with Ben and Chloe, waiting for the van pick-up and watching monks pass by on their morning alms round.

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Just as I was taking my first sip of latte the mini-van pulled up and we bundled inside. After driving through the narrow alleyways of Chiang Mai for half an hour picking up the other passengers we were on our way out of the city heading south west. We spent an uneventful 45 mins on the highway before having a rest stop at Mae Wang. Back on our way 15 minutes later, the road became more rural and started winding its way up and down the hillsides. I’d love to be able to tell you about the amazing views but I spent the whole time sitting back with my eyes closed to stave off the worst of the motion sickness I was feeling. After an eternity (45 minutes) we arrived at the elephant sanctuary.

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We were given tunics to wear which smelled familiar to the elephants, and then taken over to meet them, armed with sugarcane to win their affection. There was much feeding, and patting, and many selfies were snapped. The kids were enchanted but very nervous. To be fair even the babies were close to their size and the adults towered above.

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Eventually tentative contact was made.

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It was nice to see how the Karen mahouts interacted with their elephants. They explained to us that these were not wild elephants, that Karen hilltribes will look after elephants the same way that we have dogs and cats. These elephants had been rescued from Burma where they were worked hard in the logging industry, but now they didn’t have to work and just lived alongside the villagers.  They roamed the jungle at night and we saw no evidence of pens or restrictions on the elephants. They were free to come and interact with us, but if they wished to wander off they were allowed to, and not herded back to us for forced interaction. The only method of control that I saw were verbal commands – no hooks or spikes.

After a bit of food it was time for a mud bath. We were on the elephants’ schedule so we had to hurry off and get changed before they had enough of the mud. The kids put on their swimsuits on the double!

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After some sloshing in the mud it was time to rinse it all off in the nearby stream. The very cold nearby stream.

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We threw buckets of water on the elephants and they sprayed us with trunk-water in return. It was an amicable, if chilly exchange! Apparently elephants get cold easily so they didn’t spend too long in the water before ambling up the opposite bank, leaving us to go have our lunch.

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The scenery around us was beautiful and I relaxed over lunch, taking in the views while the kids played with a village cat.

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Hard to tell who was happier…

Much too soon it was time to wander back over to the elephants to say our goodbyes before loading into the minivans to head home. The kids were sad to leave and I’d enjoyed it a lot more than I’d expected to – I’ve never been overly interested in elephants but it was a really lovely experience and I’m glad we did it. Now for more photo spam.

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A final pat goodbye.

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