We are staying 10 days in Northern Thailand, and Chiang Mai is the most significant city in the area under many aspects: over 200,000 inhabitants, more and more expats are settling here, which makes it multicultural and welcoming. 300+ temples in and outside the old city walls, and a wide range of activities to do all around.
After visiting Wat Doi Suthep yesterday, in the morning we go inside the walls, into the old city. The number of temples is almost uncountable, we see golden facades and coverings everywhere. We are looking for the most famous one, Wat Chedi Luang: there it is rising unmistakable and unique.
Of course there are many people around, but one of the things we love the most is that you just need to walk a few meters away to find yourself in peaceful alleys, surrounded by temples, trees, monks, nature, silence… A true Thai feeling!
After a lovely pad-thai, we head back to the guesthouse, where we meet our mahout guide who will take us to the elephant camp, about 1 hour away from the city, at the gates of the jungle.
Consulting Harry, we had a few options: if you go cheaper, you get places were elephants are just a cruel tourist attraction, so they tie them with chains, fix wooden chairs to their backs, make them carry a lot of people no-stop all day long, and treat them like they were in a circus. We decided to spend a little bit more (1400 baht each, 40$) to be sure not to join an exploiting company, and we got exactly what we wanted: we are only 4 people, us two plus a German couple, there are 6 elephants, 4 of them completely free while a mum is with her new born baby in a special fenced area.
The staff are super nice: the guide is the only English speaking, the other mahouts take care of one animal each. Each mahout can have only one elephant, the relationship between them is very confidential and friendly, but the animal may not listen to other people’s instructions. Some elephants live very long lives, even longer then us humans; they tell us they had an elephant who lived 96 years and outlived to 3 different mahouts during his life!
After feeding them with sugar canes, their favourite food, and becoming more confident with these huge beasts ( Edo was slapped by an enormous ear!), we change our clothes, and learn a few basic commands: pai pai (go straight), yud (stop), bow bow (slow), dee dee (well done).
We are ready to climb on them: listening to the mahout, they bend their leg, making it a step for us to climb on! A pull to their strong ears and we are on top of the world. The skin is rough and hard like the hair too. Sitting on the back is quite comfortable, while on the front, which means on the neck, is more unstable. We head to the river, they are majestic and walk easily into it! We become more friendly with them and there is a lot of playing, washing them, they wash us with their trunks, dropping us reclining in the water, while they drink and relax.
The mahouts do this everyday, tourists or not, they bring them in the river 4 times a day to refresh and drink. They feed them all day long, which is the reason they can keep them free: the elephants don’t need to go anywhere to find food and water. So they just eat, drink, sleep all day everyday: what a life! They can carry up to 500 kgs, they were used in the past to move every kind of goods. It’s not a problem for them to carry 1 or 2 people, as long as painful chairs are not used, and you seat in the right place.
We spend 2-3 hours at the camp, and at 5 pm, after feeding them one last time, we say goodbye to these amazing creatures. At night, we plan the trip to Pai and Mae Hong Son, that we will undertake tomorrow, but we are gonna talk about it in this other post. Coming back from this adventurous loop, we have one last night plus half day to spend in Chiang Mai.
In the evening we go to the Wat Chedi Luang again, to appreciate it by night too: there are celebrations with music and dance all around the shrine. It’s Inthakin, City Pillar festival (contained in a shrine nearby). We dive in the typical Thai atmosphere, challenging the daily showers of the rainy season. In the morning it’s raining again, we visit Buak Haad Park, a tranquil green area just inside the walls. After lunch, we retrieve our backpacks from the guesthouse and take a tuk-tuk to the train station. From there a sleeper train will take us southbound, to the ancient city of Ayutthaya.
Chiang Mai and surroundings were a beautiful stop for us, very different of course from the capital Bangkok and Phuket or Koh Samui beaches, but to truly understand and appreciate Thailand’s culture, it’s a region not to miss.