Chiang Mai 2/3: The Elephants Strike Back

Trip Start Jan 03, 2012
Trip End May 02, 2013

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

After checking back in to Eagle House #2 we decided to check out the khao soy at Momma's Kitchen, a hole-in-the-wall joint down the street.  The crispy noodles were perfect this time and the tender chicken simply fell off the leg.  Despite this being a traditional northern Thai dish,
everyone seems to make it differently, with some having a thick nutty sauce and others a thinner brothy version, not to mention the chewy vs crispy noodles, which we think was just a bad batch.

Then it was temple time again.  Since each complex has several sights, we limited ourselves to three for this outing.  It is interesting to note that despite feeling hot, fatigued and templed out from the beginning, these sites are so captivating that we couldn't help continuing on to the next one.  For the first time we encountered wax replicas of devoted monks staring straight at us.  To be honest it was difficult to differentiate them from their living counterparts, also deep in meditative states.

We briefly exited the old moated city through Chiang Mai gate, the crumbling brick southern entrance.  By no means the most attractive moat and walls we've seen it was still suitable for a few photo ops.

After booking our visit to the Elephant Nature Park for the following day, Jason took time out to get his second haircut in Thailand, this time at a much more low-budget salon for 100 baht.  It was still early for dinner but we needed a snack so we reconnected with the little plastic stools and supped at a street vendor outside.  Although we'd planned to go out again later, Jason passed out and the guesthouse wifi worked well enough for Sylvia to book our flight to Bali, so there was no need.

Our day-long visit to the Elephant Nature Park was both heartwarming and heartbreaking.  The sanctuary is the only one of its kind and the passion of one Khamu hill-tribe woman named Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert.  She has received worldwide recognition for her work.  The park is currently the home of 35 rescued Asian elephants of all ages (from several months to 80 years) and the numbers are growing as education and funding improve.  Several of them are either blind or lame as a result of abuse or stepping on land mines.

As Sylvia's extensive research uncovered, many other local tourism operators market their beasts with elephant riding, painting and tricks.  Mahout is the name given to each animal's trainer.  Many carry sticks fitted with nails or hooks to ensure the elephants follow the tour's agenda and the animals are chained up when not 'performing'.  None of that happens at the Elephant Nature Park.  Instead the elephants roam freely over a vast expanse that includes feeding areas, shelters, mud pits and a river for bathing.  When the animals do need a little guidance it is given gently by simple voice commands, hands or with food and always with love and respect.  There is also a medical clinic with three veterinarians on site.

In Thai culture, elephants are highly revered animals and religious symbols.  However, until the logging ban in 1989, they had also long been mistreated as hardworking tools in that industry.  Before an elephant could be used in such a way, a centuries-old torture (called the Pajan or crushing) ritual was conducted to break a young animal's spirit and force obedience to their human master.  After the logging ban, owners could no longer afford to feed their animals so the elephants were either abandoned or sold.  Unable to fend for themselves in the wild, they starved or were killed while feeding on valuable crops, leading to a 95% decline in their Thailand population from 100,000 to 5,000 individuals.  Today, some elephants are kept in the big cities and walked through the streets as tourist attractions.  These are high-stress environments for the animals and many go hungry when their owners are not selling food for others to feed to them.

So what did we do all day, you ask?  We arrived and were given a briefing on same basic rules.  Then it was feeding time.  These gentle giants eat up to 10% of their body weight every day and the biggest one weighed 4,500 kilograms.  That means 450 kg or about 1,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables per day!!!  We fed them big baskets full of pineapples, watermelons, pumpkins and whole bunches of bananas, all with the skin on.  We wandered the grounds alongside these magnificent creatures, stopping to feed more of them on the way.

All that feeding made us hungry so we were thankful when the bountiful buffet lunch was ready.  It was a vegetarian feast and everything tasted fantastic. We got a few more New Zealand travel tips from a Kiwi couple in our group.

After our lunch it was bathing time for the elephants.  They sauntered down to the river in their 'family' groups and we threw buckets of water over them.  A couple even toppled themselves over for a more thorough submersion.  They all seemed quite content.  In a seemingly contradictory sequence the animals either throw dirt over their bodies or take mud baths after being rinsed. They do this to protect their skin from the sun and insect bites.  Don't try this at home.

We were pleased to see Lek interacting with the animals in the most natural way and even had the opportunity to meet her.  This seemed like something that would be so unlikely back home where the owner would likely be caught up with looking after the business side of things.

Sylvia liked the place so much that she took more pictures than Jason for the first time ever.  As a reward, he bought her the shirt.
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Lloyd and Jane on

What a wonderful experience - it's also neat to live vicariously through you.

Great blog!!

Dana on

Hey Slyvia and Jason! It took me long enough but I've finally subscribed :) Got lots of catching up to do.. can't wait to read it all! Miss you!

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