Making Elephant Pals in Chiang Mai

I feel as though I should preface this by suggesting that if you’re uncomfortable with or wholly against the concept of elephant tourism, this post probably isn’t for you. 

I thought about turning this post into a long, heartfelt, intelligent discussion of the moral dilemmas behind elephant tourism and animal tourism in general. However, I decided I wasn’t comfortable throwing around my opinions about such a controversial issue that, to be honest, I don’t really know much about. Especially given that there are so many people out there with very strong opinions in regards to the massive issue of animal rights. Perhaps one day I’ll have the time to research the issue properly, and discuss its related ethical concerns a little further. But for now, I’ll be keeping my big, fat, uneducated mouth shut, thanks very much.

I will say though, that when I chose to do this elephant experience, I did not choose lightly. I researched the hell out of at least half a dozen companies to make sure I wasn’t just handing my money over to some dodgy little Thai man with a pack of elephants chained up in his backyard. I decided on Baan Chang Elephant Park, who are regarded as the second most morally conscious elephant experience provider in Chiang Mai. I wasn’t able to go with the number one company because a) they were hopeless at getting back to me and b) they were well out of my price range. Baan Chang definitely didn’t come cheap, mind you. 

The day began in a minivan as I was whisked away from my hostel and off to the Baan Chang site, about an hour up into the gorgeous lush green hills surrounding Chiang Mai. Upon arriving, we saw about two dozen elephants all just standing around in a field, swinging their tails and swishing their trunks around, having a great old time. My first thoughts echoed around the minivan as others said the same thing out loud: they looked SO HAPPY. Honestly, they looked so at peace with their surroundings and just happy to be around all their elephant mates with nothing to worry about.

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We were soon changing into our special elephant trainer clothes provided by Baan Chang (real cute btw) and hearing lots of important and interesting information from our guide about what the day ahead would involve. 

Next, we were each given a huge basket of bananas and sugar cane to feed the elephants straight off the palms of our own hands. Skin and all, the elephants scoffed down entire hands of bananas at once, along with great big bundles of sugar cane.

Taking those 'nanas like a champ.
Taking those ‘nanas like a champ.

Before this day, I’d never seen or even imagined the way an elephant looked and behaved up close. Everything about them is overwhelmingly large. I was struck by how big the soles of their feet were, bigger than dinner plates.

Their entire bodies are constantly in motion. Always flapping their giant ears and swinging their trunks and shuffling their feet from side to side. Their skin is wrinkled and leathery as if from a life-time of tanning while lathered in coconut oil. The little hairs on top of their head are short and spiky and hard, like the bristles of a harsh scrubbing brush. They honestly are very, very cool.

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IMG_2828After another pep talk from our guide we were up and learning how to ride them. There are no little wooden seats strapped to these babies’ backs though. We were riding bare-back, right on the elephants neck, which is actually the best way for the elephant, and the traditional way that mahouts (human trainers/ companions that partner with one elephant for life) have been riding elephants for hundreds of years.

Sorry for super dodgy photo. But look I'm riding an elephant!
Sorry for super dodgy photo. But look I’m riding an elephant!

We rode the elephants for about an hour, and honestly that was enough. My bum was so sore by the end of it I was almost begging to get down. With us on their backs, the elephants trekked through a jungle path that surrounds the Baan Chang site, and lead us to a river, where we got to bathe them. 

Truth be told, this was gross. All the elephants shat in the water, and their huge grassy mounds of poo bobbed up to the surface for us all to dodge wildly while we splashed water on the elephants and scrubbed them clean. It didn’t smell bad or anything, but the whole time I was painfully aware of how squishy the river floor felt beneath my feet. And I’ll never forget that tiny drop of water that made its way into my mouth.

Looking happy despite being covered in elephant shit water.
Looking happy despite being covered in elephant shit water.

After that, it was time to shower, change and head on back to Chiang Mai. This was really a great day, and I think writing about it has actually helped me to realise that. I mean, there’s not many people who can say they’ve hung out with elephants like this.

ALSO, CUTE:

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