Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Quentin and me and our preferred mode of transportation in the jungles of Thailand.
Day 5 (Jan. 28): I rode elephants in Chiang Mai!
Everyone says that the most fun things to do in Chiang Mai require you to get out of Chiang Mai and go into the rural mountainous areas outside of the city. Dozens of adventurous "treks", like ziplining, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, or elephant riding, are all available year-round and can be booked through your hostel.

I had only planned to stay in Chiang Mai for a day, because I was itching to cross the border into Laos, but Quentin convinced me to join him on a day trip to an elephant reserve organized by Jumbo Trekker. The 1-day "mahout training session" is 2400THB (~$75), and the overnight trek is 5000THB ($155). It was recommended by our hostel, though I'm not sure what sets this one in particular apart from the many other organizations that offer the same tour package. I wanted to make sure the elephants at this reserve weren't forcibly orphaned, mistreated, or taken advantage of to appease the ceaseless flow of tourists... but in the end, I never got a straight answer and don't know. I don't know how to make sure an elephant is happy, but at least I know how to feed it as much corn and watermelon as its heart desires.

Dumbo's mother! Maybe.
Anyway. The tour group picked us up from our hostel and then wandered around the city to pick up several more amateur elephant enthusiasts(1). After an hour, we found ourselves outside the city driving past beautiful fields in our open-air songthaew, and soon after that, the paved roads gave way to bumpy, dusty dirt roads. It wasn't very comfortable, but half an hour later, we'd arrived at the elephant reserve. There were elephants wandering around freely, others being guided by mahouts (elephant guides), and lots of cows, too.

After changing into ponchos and parachute pants (our "mahout uniform" -- basically clothes that could get wet or dirty), we were briefly instructed in the commands for guiding an elephant. Basic phrases like "go", "stop", "snack", and "lift up your trunk to look photogenic". I believe the language being used was Karen, since it wasn't Thai and I'd heard that the Karen ethnic group had a special bond with elephants in this region. After practicing and mastering the commands, we were all introduced to the elephants and fed them watermelons!

My first impression: okay, elephants are huge. Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, but even the babies were intimidatingly large. But they were also gentle. I noticed that they were tethered to trees, but soon the ones we were to ride were let go.

Hungry for something, elephant?
The local guides demonstrated how to climb onto the elephant's back via its foot and then lead it around with the commands. After scrabbling for something to hold onto, I made it safely onto the top of an elephant! I then soon learned that the elephants aren't very well "trained". They must understand the words to some degree, but our elephants were following the mahouts' unobscured bags of fruits more than they were following our voices. I am okay with that -- I'd rather the elephants be completely wild and left to their own devices, but being simply untamed and safe in the compound is a good compromise.

So on our leisurely walk through the jungle, my elephant would often stop to eat some leaves off of a bush, and I had no say in the matter. As much as I'd yell, "Kai! Kai!" that elephant wanted to eat, and eat it would. After an hour's walk, we broke for lunch(2), which was a simple curry, and then climbed aboard the gentle giants again for a longer ride that took us into the river to bathe the elephants! That part was quite fun.

I hope that the elephants enjoyed the walk, the food, and the attention. Since they're not being used for any other work anymore and are still endangered, being a tourist attraction seems to be all that's left for them. I also hope that the local mahouts enjoy their jobs. Some of them seemed to really care for the elephants; others looked like they'd rather be doing anything else.
Taking a bath with an elephant and our mahout (elephant guide).
We rode elephants for a few hours at least, and my butt was pretty sore by the end of it. But it was still a thrilling experience. It was also very relaxing, in a way, because we were out in the middle of nowhere, Thailand, riding elephants along the riverbank. Does that sound like paradise? All I needed to complete the picture was a mango smoothie and a sunset or something.

We finished up in the afternoon and were back in Chiang Mai a little after 4pm. I was exhausted, but very happy to have had such a worthwhile experience. I'd recommend a visit to an elephant reserve to anyone in Chiang Mai, but be sure that you book with a legitimate and humane organization.

The rest of the afternoon I spent washing tons of dirt and dust off my body. In the evening, I got in touch with Gwen and Xavier (the French couple I met on the train), and we had dinner at a small market just outside the Vielle Ville that has no English name. There was street food galore, and all of it was delicious. Coconut sticky rice with mango? Check. Pad thai and kao pad (fried rice)? Check. Durian? Check. Roasted taro? Check. Fruit smoothies of every kind? Check. Giant rice-stuffed sausages? Delicious. We had a great conversation, too, and I wished them good luck on the rest of their journey. At night, I went back to the Night Bazaar for a 90-cent mango-strawberry-avocado smoothie, and it was just as good as before, and then I chatted with folks from the hostel while planning the next leg of my trip: to Laos!
I'm on an elephant!
- - -
(1) I want to write about our fellow tour members. There was a French couple (why are there so many French tourists in Southeast Asia?); la femme ne parlait pas beaucoup d'anglais, et le mari was a very typical French man: brusque, opinionated, and not at all inclined to get on the back of an elephant, but since his wife really wanted to do it, eh bien. By the end of the day, I'd managed to hold a conversation with this rather dismissive man and he was impressed with my speaking ability! I don't know why there were so many French tourists in Southeast Asia, but I wanted to meet them all! ... If only for my own validation...

The second pair was really interesting: two friends who were traveling together for the first time in ten years. One woman was from France; she was rather taciturn and didn't seem at all excited to be on vacation. The other was from Socal, and everything about her practically screamed, "I'M AMERICAN!" Elena hails from "the County of Orange". She loves music festivals. She loves traveling and saves up her precious vacation days. (Europeans seem to be able to simply leave their countries whenever they damn well please.) She seems to me like someone who wants desperately to be chill instead of anxious. She is very, very talkative.

It was kind of shocking to meet someone so overwhelmingly American, let alone try to chat with her for the duration of a bumpy, ninety-minute ride into the jungle. I was amused that of the six passengers in our tuk-tuk, the four French people quickly began to debate issues of politics and culture (on the subject of headscarves for Muslim women, if I recall correctly), and the two Americans managed to sustain "small talk" for the entire time. Well, I tried to slip into the French debate as often as I could, and when that happened and I forgot to translate for Elena, she immediately whipped out her iPhone to look at her camera roll.

Elena and the French woman didn't really seem like good friends. I learned later that they'd been having a rough trip so far, since they'd approached the whole itinerary with very different goals in mind... to say the least. I encouraged Elena to dive into her Socal roots and just be as chill as possible about everything. Roll with the waves, dude. I hope that they enjoyed the rest of their trip.

(2) A smiling, demure woman came up to our table during lunch. Her face was painted with a tan cream of some sort in an interesting, indigenous-looking pattern. She was selling beads (and of course Elena bought several of them. Buy local always!) and other trinkets. We later learned that she was from Burma (Myanmar), which explains her face paint and the fact that she could not communicate with the Thai people at the reserve. I wondered how she had found herself in Chiang Mai and if she was displaced as a result of the violence in her home country.
Sorry, this is just too good not to put here. (She was trying to get on the largest elephant.)


  1. During my short-lived stint at Southeast Asian Ministry in St. Paul, I had coworkers who spoke Karen! They were from Burma. The Karen community is growing in the Twin Cities (mostly St. Paul, I think). It's interesting that the elephant commands might've been in Karen! I think there are different kinds of Karen, though.

    Also, unrelated to anything, but I *just* realized I can control which way the snowflakes fall on your blog. Kind of ridiculous, considering it's been snowing on your blog since, like, December.

    1. First of all, it's great that you got to work with members of the Karen community! They're an ethnic group that I want to learn more about.

      Secondly, I'm glad you discovered that! It actually took me a while to realize that it was possible, too. But, well, happy March! The snowflakes are going to have to go...