Since Chiang Mai is in the North of Thailand, right by Myanmar and Laos, we naively thought that the weather situation would improve and we would get a bit of a break from the heat.
We were wrong yet again. It’s even hotter than Bangkok…wait is that even possible or do the tires just melt on the road? Okay, it’s not the Middle East, its hot but human habitable…barely.
We got into the city and immediately noticed that the whole sky is covered by clouds. No..no, those are not clouds, more like smog. Gray blanket covering the whole city.
Searching around on the web and asking our friends we came to hand wavy conclusion that the smoke is from people burning shit in the nearby villages, in addition to all the exhaust gases from the cars and filthy tuk-tuks. You couldn’t see it, but the city is surrounded by a hills and a few large mountains, effectively creating a valley with no easy way to escape.
This traps all the heat, smog and smoke.
But the cool part is that you can take awesome pictures of the sun during the day without a filter.
And the sad part is that people get to live like this, without seeing the blue sky.
Ivan…more food pictures? Yes, but this one is special. Back in the states our friend Vikram introduced Hyein to a very special Thai dish – Khao Soi. And we have been on a quest to find the best one there is…probably one of the main reasons we even came to Thailand is Khao Soi, sorry to break it to you Suin.
And Chiang Mai IS the place for Khao Soi, it’s the local specialty that can be found in every market and almost all restaurants.
So what is it? Khao Soi is a delicious light coconut curry, usually made with chicken, garnished with boiled and crispy egg noodles, fresh chopped onion, green onion and sweet pickled cucumbers. Once again, like most Thai dishes it has all the flavors in there, but in addition it has that crispy texture making this dish a total mouth blockbuster.
Seriously, go out in your town and try it. If you don’t like it…they you probably don’t know what good food is and I don’t want to be friends with you.
Fine…fine…food is not the only reason why we came to Chiang Mai. We heard that you can ride elephants here and couldn’t miss this great experience.
We originally planned only 2 days in Chiang Mai. Hyein was all like “there is not much to do there…lets just go for a quick trip and move on to Korea”. And i was like “but 2 days with flying in and out is gonna be too little, plus what if can’t get the elephant tour that day”.
So we settled on 6 days, with first and last days for flying in and out, so a total of 4 full days there. And as luck would have it, when we were leaving Bangkok Hyein developed a bit of fever and proceeded to lay in bed for the next 4 days, unable to even leave the hotel. Back in Bangkok, everyone else including Suin, Mook, Mo and Cherry got sick. We thought we got away lucky, but Hyein succumbed on the last day. I’m sorry she was sick, but happy that we planned for this 🙂
Somehow i managed to be surrounded by all these sick people for 3 weeks and didn’t get sick. I have a theory…genetics. See back in the states Hyein has never caught a cold from me and i have been sick probably 10 times (counting even small runny nose) in 3 years. I say it’s because I’m Caucasian and Hyein is Asian. In Bangkok i was the only person who didn’t get sick and I’m white.
Does that mean that we don’t easily transfer viruses to each other? Are our immune systems complementary and does that mean that our babies will be immune to all viruses? Or will they just get sick by looking at a person with a cold? I hope for the best.
That 4 day break did give us some time to research the elephant riding tours. And what we found was a bit disturbing.
A traditional elephant ride is done in a saddle that is strapped to the back of the animal. Although hard to believe due to their size, adult elephants cannot support a saddle and two adult humans on the back, it will hurt their spine. If you must ride it, ride on the neck. Training elephants to do tricks, painting and saddle riding involves first breaking their spirit. This is a cruel practice where baby elephants are separated from their mothers, beaten…bad stuff. I don’t even want to write about it.
After a bit of research we decided on the Patara Elephant Farm and full day trip, this will set you back about $125/person. I know expensive, but you will see why we are okay with that.
First of, a van picks you up at your hotel at 7 am and drives for about 45 minutes to the farm. While you wait for everyone else to arrive you get to interact with two mothers and their two baby elephants.
This cute little guy was under the close eye of his mother, but that didn’t stop him from running around and messing with people. It is only a few months old but already more than a 100 kilograms. So if he decided to push you over, he can and you realize that you are weak little human.
Wow…i know…thanks guys. That is one sexy picture. I couldn’t resist and played in the mud with the little baby elephant. Super fun, until he climbs on your back and you feel like your spine will break any moment.
We probably stayed there for a good hour, while more people slowly showed up. Everyone who wanted to get some hands on experience with the baby, had plenty of time. Once in a while the mother freak out that she can see her baby and come shoo all the tourists away and get the baby in order. It wasn’t scary, just makes you remember your own childhood and when you got a bit too excited playing with your friends and mom had to calm you down.
Hyein feeding some bananas to the mother. Elephants are vegetarians and need to feed constantly throughout the day. So in that hour the mom did not stop eating at all.
Finally everyone gathers, you get a colorful shirt that you will be wearing for the rest of the day, sit down and listen to the tour guide talk a bit about the animals and elephant conservation in Thailand. This farm has animals that were born there as well as rescues from other farms and circuses. Once his spiel is done, you get assigned to a group for the rest of the day. I like how instead of the paper, they used fig leaves to make lists. How eco-friendly of them. I don’t actually know if this a real practice or just to make us, the tourists, feel better about this place.
With your group of about 7-8 people you get in a van, say good-bye to the cute baby elephant, and drive to a different part of the farm. Here you sit down once again and listen to a short lecture on elephant health, husbandry and training.
We will start with the training first. When the elephant is born a train is assigned to be with that elephant the whole time. This person is called a mahout, sort of like a trainer/nanny. Generally, a mahout stays with the elephant for about 3 years before moving on to something else. Remember, elephants can live as long as humans, so in their life they will have 20 or more mahouts.
Each day mahouts check elephant health and well-being. There are 4 main this to look for, when examining the elephant.
- When elephant poop it comes out in a ball, so a healthy elephant must poop at least 3 balls…more like 7 or 8 for the large males.
- The tear trails from their eyes don’t run down all the way to their mouth and are of even length
- Elephants sweat through their toe nails, so those should be nice and moist
- Dirt on their back, meaning they got some sleep (they do sleep lying down)
The instructor proceed to tell you that elephants are strict vegetarians and only have one stomach. That means they don’t completely digest all the plant material they consume. So basically their poop is just grass with water and shouldn’t smell. He then picked up a dung ball split it open with his bare hands and gave us all a chance to smell it. I can attest that it had absolutely no bad smell. I’m not sure if it was ringer poop ball, but there was nothing disgusting about this ball of grass.
A ball from a healthy animals contains a lot of water and if you squeeze it, can probably get a cup of brownish water to quench your thirst. I’ve watched Bear Grylls on his show squeeze the water out of one of these dung balls into his mouth. Now I know that it was one of the less disgusting things that he has done. Yup, that episode with bird poop water and an enema is still stuck in my head. Why must you do this Teddy?
Okay enough with the lectures, we came here to play with the elephants and not to sit in class.
Finally you get assigned an elephant that you will be taking care of for the rest of the day. You get to feed it a basket of sugar cane and bananas, do all the health checks and bath them.
The whole time you are next to the elephant, their mahout is nearby. This calms down the elephant and you at the same time.
As you all know elephants have great memories, sense of smell and hearing. So when feeding the animal you are encouraged to say “dee-dee” meaning good boy or good girl, followed by the elephants name.
I’m not sure if the elephants care at all as long as you keep feeding them . And they go through that basket in about 10 minutes. Once you are done feeding, quick photo with my elephant for the day named Bun.
Forgot to mention that the for each group there is a dedicated photographer that takes pictures of you the whole day. So a lot of the times you don’t even know that you are being photographed.
After feeding you get a leaf broom and start to clean your elephant. This requires you to ask the elephant to lie down…maybe it was my bad Thai accent but no matter how much i shouted, Bun didn’t listen until his mahout told him to lie down.
In the photo above is Hyein’s elephant – Pooh.
Did I tell you I got assigned to the largest male in this group? Yeah, sounds fun until you have to clean him, which is like brushing sand from a carpet with a broom…while the carpet is constantly trying to run away from you. You are wondering, why Bun doesn’t have tusks?
He does…they are just very short…you can barely see them protruding under the skin on either side of the tusk. And don’t mention it to Bun, he is sensitive about it.
To clean their back you proceed to beat the poor elephant with you banana leave broom until your arm goes numb and all the mahouts have had their laughs for the day. Then you give the elephants a bit of water to drink, roughly 200 liters. Spray them down with the water to get the last bit of dirt off.
My Bun was so big, that I didn’t even get close enough to completely cleaning him. Felt like I have failed you man, I’m sorry.
Just like elephants, tourists need to eat 12-14 hours a day. In the morning we traded breakfast for the extra 15 minutes of sleep, so by this point we were HUNGRY. Luckily, you get this feast for lunch. Mostly fruits, various types of sticky rice, some KFC and grilled pork skewers. Definitely enough food for 20 people. We took that as a challenge and ate it all ourselves. Well, except the bananas, those we fed to a little baby elephant.
After the lunch the instructor teaches you how to get on to the elephants neck to ride. One way is for you to use the elephants front leg to climb up. This requires the elephant to bend the leg creating a little step that you can use to get up. My elephant was so large that we couldn’t easily do this, so he had to bow his head down and I needed to jump onto his neck, and then turn around.
I’m Russian, I can parkour this shit. The landing can be a bit rough if you are a guy, but you don’t need to be Russian to be able to do this.
Once everyone gets on you cluster together for a moment to take this picture. The elephants don’t seem to mind, as they probably do this everyday. They listen to all the instructions without any disobedience.
Pictures done you move on with the elephant ride to a little waterfall. I’m not sure why, but Hyein and Pooh were in the front for the whole time. Probably because they were both the best behaved out of the whole bunch.
People say that the instructors try to match the elephant with the personality of the human. Well i can tell you that my elephant did not enjoy being in the back of the pack and made sure to make his way to the front by the end of the ride. Hm…doesn’t sound like me at all 🙂
The ride lasts about an hour, but to me it felt much shorter. Time does fly when you are having fun. The last stop on the ride is a small pond where you get to wash your elephant with a brush. That’s Ryan and his mahout cleaning their elephant.
Mallori with here cute little elephant.
And Hyein with her Pooh.
Once again since I had the largest one, it took me forever and i didn’t even finish all the way. Check out that sexy pose…lets pretend that it’s not a belly fat but a small six-pack…right?
You splash water onto the elephants as they stand there, enjoying all the love and care.
As a final hoorah, you stand there in a line, facing the camera, while the elephants spray water on you from their trunks. Sound like a fun experience, but the water is muddy and i saw the mahouts lugging poop balls out of the water right before we got there.
By the end of the day you get attached to your animal and it is hard to say good-bye. I swear the animals respond with kindness when you give them a hug.
So, would I recommend this experience for you guys?
Yes, the whole point of this day was to educate ourselves about elephants and their care. I feel like i did not just participate in a tourist activity, but donate some of my time and money to an organization that really cares for their elephants. I’m conflicted about the ride on the neck, a lot of blogs mention that you should not ride the elephants at all. But when we did it, i did not see any violence, the mahouts never used anything stronger than a banana leaf. The animals look healthy and happy, there are absolutely no marks of abuse on them. The babies stay with their mothers the whole time. From this whole day it seems like a healthy environment, but I am no expert.
The only thing that was in pain…were my knees by the end of the ride. I’m 6 feet tall (182 cm) and had to bend my knees really hard to ride on the elephants neck. By the time we were done with the ride and i had to jump off, i thought my knees would buckle on landing as i have lost all feeling in them after 20 minutes of the ride. Hyein did not have any issues.
On the way back to the hotel, we organized a little get together for dinner with our new elephant crew. Btw the photo above completely summarizes Thailand to me: a golden stupa in a buddhist temple, a dirty tuk-tuk, smoggy skies, and a thousand wires overhead (symbol of a developing country).
After the Patara farm we organized a little dinner meetup with our new elephant crew.
fun was had…next day we fly out to Korea, where we meet Hyein’s family, friends and continue our adventures.