Friendly Giants

Trip Start Nov 20, 2013
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Flag of Thailand  , Chiang Mai,
Saturday, April 26, 2014

MORE PHOTOS TO FOLLOW IN THE COMING DAYS

Earlier in the week it was tigers and today we got up close and personal with elephants. While the tiger experience was more of a photo opportunity for us, we spent the entire day with the elephants and learned how to train them. Similar to the tigers, we had heard conflicting reports about how the animals are treated by their owners and trainers. We spoke with the people from our hotel, who we trust a lot, and they did confirm that unfortunately some of the elephant parks don't treat the elephants great as many of the elephants are overworked. They did say that there are some really great companies out there that may be "lesser known." Tartar from our hotel told us even though Trip Advisor reviews may be great for some of the better known parks, often those parks will put on a "show" to be on their best behaviour for tourists, but once the tourists leave, their true colours show. While at the same time, other parks won't be afraid to discipline their elephants in front of customers as when they have customers, they're there to experience a day with the elephants and nothing changes for the elephants or the parks whether there are customers there or not. Since we wanted a more authentic feel and not wanting the elephants to put on a show for us only to be abused after we left, we elected to visit Woody's Elephant Farm.

When we arrived there were 9 people in the group, so it was small and intimate. First we met our trainer for the day who talked to us a bit about the elephants and how they're treated here. He explained the elephants would be chained up for a part of the day because they can't go free as they'd end up eating grass that was beyond the park's boundaries and also there would be a risk of them running across the street into traffic and the park couldn't afford the fine if there was ever an accident or death of a person driving into an elephant. Elephants are also big business here and wild elephants are at risk of being poached. He also explained that we will be provided with hooks which are used to discipline the elephants if they don't act appropriately. Similar to what we had been told he said other camps may not use hooks when tourists are around because tourists don't like the hooks, but they would certainly use them once the tourists leave. Our trainer said that the hook is more of a deterrent these days as once they're used on the elephants when they're young, they tend not to act out since the hooks can be quite uncomfortable. We were also told the hooks are used to direct the elephants when people ride them, but using them in the way that doesn't hurt them.

We then learned 9 elephant commands in Thai since this is what they understand. We learned things like slow down (bow), left (sai), right (qua), stop (yood), and more. Then it was time to meet the elephants!

We went down to the area where they were and saw 10 of them. They ranged from a couple of years to 40 years old. The big ones were really big. The first thing we were to do with them was feed them to show we are their friends. We fed them bananas and sugar cane. We'd tell the elephants to open their mouths (ban soong) and feed them. Their teeth are at the back of their jaws, so there was no chance of them biting us. Their mouths and tongues were smooth and slobbery, but it was a fun experience. Elephants sleep only 3 hours a day and literally eat the rest of the time. After feeding them, we got on their backs. To get on an elephants we command them to lift their leg (yo ka) and we basically climb up their leg and then swing around their backs. I don't think Garyn and I did it so gracefully, but we did it. We told them to go forward, backward, left, right, and stop. We rode bareback on these elephants as many of the companies offer elephant rides on chairs that are put on their backs, but this can be harmful and hard work for the elephants.

Next it was time to pick up their you-know-what. Not the highlight of our day, but we were there to train them for the day and that was part of our duties! (Pun intended!)

We instantly felt connected to these massive animals. While huge in size, they seemed to be very calm and very friendly. We hugged and kissed them and they seemed quite content and easy going. They even kissed us back at times. They are also very smart and have big brains (hence the expression "an elephant never forgets"). We especially liked watching them pick up the hoses themselves and take a drink.

After lunch we rode the elephants around the park - two to an elephant. We had a trainer (called a mahout in Thai) beside us the whole time just in case. The elephants had to go a bit uphill and downhill, which made for a bumpy ride at times. After the ride we bathed the animals in the lake. We were given sponges and wiped them down. It was fun to see how much they love the water. They were so happy and relaxed and it felt surreal to be in the lake right beside a 300kg elephant who was lying down. We had a fun time with them as not only did we wash them, but the trainers had them squirt us over and over again with their trunks.

We thought that was it for the water, but we were wrong. After getting out of the water we went back on an elephant (this time with a trainer in between us) and the elephant walked into a different lake. Throughout our time in the water the trainer would command the elephant to swim and since we were on her back, when the elephant dropped to put her full body in the water, we dropped with her! This was a ton of fun and a few times I felt as if I was going to fall off (Garyn did too), but we didn't. The highlight of my day was swimming with the elephants. Then it was time to say goodbye. We were sad to leave, but had a great time with the elephants. We left feeling that the animals were well taken care of. In fact we didn't see some of the elephants since they were in another area of the park "taking a break" from working. 

After a quick shower we headed to the Saturday market outside of the old city. As per usual, we thoroughly enjoyed the market and definitely didn't leave hungry.
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