Playing with Elephants in Chiang Mai

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It’s not every day that you get to feed, bathe, and play with a herd of elephants. In Thailand though, there are tons of opportunities. We knew that hanging out with some massive, grey teddy bears was on our Asia bucket list, and when we found an elephant retirement home in Chiang Mai, we knew we were in the right place.

It was important to us that we find a place where we felt comfortable with how the elephants were treated, as unethical tourist traps are everywhere here. It’s quite common for the companies to use abusive training or to sell endless rides (which is hard on them) at the animals’ expense.

We had heard nothing but good things about the Elephant Retirement Park, so we signed up.

At 9 AM, we met our guide Yui. We drove in a van with eight other people to the market where we grabbed bananas and sugar cane to feed the herd. It was an hour out of the city, but we had Yui to crack jokes, sing, and tell his life stories in broken English to pass time.

Once we got to the park, we hopped into the back of a pick-up truck and went out to meet the six elephants. As we drove up, we could hear them trumpeting out to each other. It was quite surreal. As we rounded the final jungle hill, we saw all six of them eagerly waiting to be fed.IMG_0750

The herd consisted of two matriarchs, one older male, two adolescent girls (6 years old), and a six month old baby girl. The first command we learned was “bon” – which was what we said to make them open wide for treats. It was important for us to feed each elephant individually, as they had to learn our scent before we joined their play time.

The baby by far was the cutest. She acted like a rambunctious puppy dog, ignoring commands and horsing around. She would constantly head butt people, trying to get them to push back as hard as possible.

The whole group was incredibly playful. Each elephant had their own owner (mahut), who lived and played with them.

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(Luke wrestling with the 6 month old baby girl)

A girl volunteering at the park told us that elephants in Thailand are no longer for sale (unless by black market), so all of these magical animals had been passed down within their respective families, always going to the eldest son. The bond between the mahut and elephant was fascinating to see. You could really see the love between them all as they tugged on the elephants ears, wrestled, and worked with them.

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(Luke before he got stepped on!)

After lunch, we went back to give the elephants a mud bath. The mahuts quickly escalated things to an all out mud-war (which was understandable… they probably didn’t get out much) and the elephants happily flopped around, getting covered in clay and cooling down.

Luke was a bit too eager and got underfoot one of the biggest elephants as she slipped in the mud. The result was a pretty big scratch and bruise, which made any more muddy horseplay off limits. I happily sat on the sidelines watching with him, since I’m not a “get muddy” kind of person anyway.

Overall, it was a great experience hanging out with elephants all day. The guys running the place were so friendly and loving, and the opportunity to spend a day with the gentle giants was priceless. We would highly recommend picking their elephant home if you’re considering something like this in Thailand.

Backpackers, Buddhas, and bold street food in Bangkok

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Our week in Bangkok has flown by. We finally got our bearings and decided to try some street food, check out a temple, and meet some other backpackers.

We felt a bit lost in Bangkok, so our hostel host mentioned we should check out the backpackers’ street, Khao San Road. It was a 10 minute walk from our hostel and when we got there, we could tell why it was aptly named. Almost everything was in English, Thai locals were selling everything under the sun, Lady Gaga music was blasting from open bars, and there was a sea of other backpackers.

Luke decided he needed some lighter shorts, so we haggled with some venders to get him two pairs for $12 CAD. We sat down and had some Pad Thai and garlic chicken, watching all sorts of backpackers walk past. While it was a welcome change to the confusion that Bangkok had been thus far, it still left a bad taste in our mouths. Seeing hordes of loud, obnoxious and predominantly very white pedestrians from our restaurant table was at first amusing, then disheartening. Is this how we looked to the Thai locals? Our bar had a band of overly vocal Aussies draining draft beer from a tower, and the bar across the street wasn’t faring much better. Still, we were eating something that had an English label on it, so we took the good with the bad.

After that, we headed back to our hostel to meet up with some friends so we could head to the vegetarian food festival in Chinatown. The seven of us piled into two Tuk Tuks and swerved through rush hour traffic before hitting the busy Chinatown festival. The streets were packed and there were food venders everywhere.

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At long last it was time to dig into Thai street food in earnest. We ate veggie fried noodles, roasted chestnuts, and a delicious cashew fruit slushie. If you’re not sure what to picture when we say cashew fruit slushie, don’t worry – neither did we. It looked like a Sunny D concoction, but tasted like they had added butter and some subtle herbs. We tried imitation sausage, which was tofu seasoned and seared just right. For sweets, we had coconut griddle dumplings and pure frozen coconut ice cream.

There was a man selling Durian fruit, which could be described as a mix between avocado, mango, a spike ball and a stink bomb. Our American friend told us that it’s illegal to transport fresh Durian on public transit in the United States on account of the smell. IMG_2633To get to the edible part, you have to crack open and discard nearly 80% of the fruit matter to get to the heart of it. Our verdict: It tasted pretty gross. It had the texture of foam but had a sweeter taste with a sulphur finish.

The next day, we woke up nice and early to check out of our hostel. After I made sure Luke didn’t forget anything, we wandered towards our first temple in Thailand. We had decided on Wat Pho so we could see the Reclining Buddha. This Buddha is 43 metres long and fully ensconced in gold leaf; the feet have over 100 symbols of Buddha engraved on it. To say impressive and ornate would be an understatement. The entire chamber seemed unable to fully showcase the beauty and overwhelming size.

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The entire area was awe-inspiring. Beautiful gardens, many little Buddha’s, all wrapped in gold-leaf, mini-waterfalls, and decorative bonsai trees, all littered the grounds. Since it’s Thailand’s rainy season, we got caught in the daily monsoon-style rain at the end of our tour. We took cover in one of the shrines while the water absolutely beat down for an hour, but we didn’t mind.

When the rain let up, we headed back to our hostel and collected our bags and headed to the train station. Up next, our overnight trip on the Oriental Express.