On Monday evening, Dad looked at me from across the table in my Bangkok apartment and said, “You know what’s not on our itinerary that I really think ought to be?” Worried that our already packed schedule was about to burst at the seams, I cautiously asked, “No, what?” And Dad said, “Elephants! I can’t go to Northern Thailand without hugging an elephant!” The only reason I’d never done any elephant-related activities in Thailand is because I fear that they are inhumane. Dad and I were discussing this, and he mentioned that he had learned that elephants are not meant to be ridden; it’s actually quite unhealthy for their backs. Indian riders ride elephants on their necks, which does not hurt the animals, but in Thailand, they pack four adults on top of an already heavy saddle right in the middle of the elephant’s back. We knew we didn’t want to do anything like that. So I Googled “humane elephant sanctuary near Chiang Mai” and lo and behold, I discovered Elephant Nature Park (ENP), which is exactly what we wanted: a human elephant sanctuary about 60km outside Chiang Mai. We went on Wednesday of our week together! But first…
We arrived in Chiang Mai, after a quick 55-minute flight from Bangkok, on Tuesday afternoon around 4:00. (By the way, we 100% recommend Air Asia and travel in general in SE Asia. It’s just so easy and cheap!)
There’s Dad, outside “our” gate. Well, that’s what we came to call the Tha Phae Gate, which is on the western edge of the old city of Chiang Mai, and the gate that we went in and out of to get from our hotel to the old city and back. The old city is surrounded by a moat and remnants of an ancient wall. Certain parts of the wall are still intact, like the part shown in the photo above. The old city is one big perfect square, which makes it easy to navigate (or at least it should; I, however, can get mixed up even on a perfect square).
My co-worker suggested that we stay at the Tha Phae Boutique House, a cute little hotel/guesthouse just outside the Tha Phae Gate and central to everything — restaurants, temples, massage parlors, markets, and bars. I’m really glad we took his advice because this hotel was perfect for us. The room was on the second floor and had a working AC unit, a clean bathroom, a safety deposit box to secure our passports, and hard but comfy beds. The staff were very nice and helpful; upon arriving, the receptionist had already been in contact with tour guides for the Elephant Nature Park. She even offered to call them back to confirm our pick-up time.
That night, we ate a Mexican restaurant called Loco Elvis. My veggie fajitas and guacamole were quite tasty, but unfortunately Dad’s chicken quesadilla was what one might expect of Mexican food in Northern Thailand…no buena. Shaking off our only less-than-delicious meal so far in Thailand, we got some drinks and wandered along the perimeter of the wall (which is only about 4km) until we got to where we thought there would be a night market. Our front desk lady marked a spot on our map, but there was no market to be found (still not sure what happened there). Luckily, tuk-tuks are easy to hail in Chiang Mai, so we asked one tuk-tuk driver to take us to the night market. He knew exactly where to go, so for 60 baht (about $2), we got a ride to Walking Street, which is jam–packed with vendo and shoppers every night of the week. Dad was able to get a bunch of great souvenirs that night. I learned that we were getting better prices when I spoke Thai to the vendors, so Dad stood by with the cash while I negotiated!
We decided to walk back to the hotel because the cooler-than-Bangkok weather was so nice and because nothing is too far in Chiang Mai. We walked past a massage parlor, and I noticed that for 80 baht (less than $3), one could get a 30-minute head/neck/shoulder massage. That price is less than one-third what people pay in Bangkok, so I said to Dad, “You know, it’s still pretty early, and we could just stop to get a head/neck/shoulder massage.” Well, it didn’t take any twisting of his arm to get my dad to sit in a lounge chair on the porch of a massage parlor and let a Thai masseuse massage him for a half an hour! We were in heaven. It was so much fun to sit outside in Chiang Mai, people-watch, feel the cool breeze, and get pampered for $3. What a great way to end our first night!
Because nothing opens early in Thailand, except for the bastions of globalization, Dad and I went to Starbucks for a quick breakfast and good cup of coffee (sorry, Thailand, but Starbucks is honestly the best coffee in the whole country — except for Kuppa in Bangkok and Libernard in Chiang Mai, which wasn’t open yet!). At 8AM, we got picked up for our elephant adventure in a van that was already full of people from all over. We soon became friends with everyone, since Dad is the most sociable person I know. We met a guy from San Francisco who now lives in Chiang Mai, a young couple from Spain, a young couple from Austria, and two women from the UK.
After an hour-long ride, we arrived at Elephant Nature Park. ENP is a beautiful, wide-open sanctuary for elephants who have been rescued from shows, circuses, street-begging, and elephant adventure parks. Our guide for the day was very knowledgeable about elephants in general, and he also knew the life stories of all the 35 or so elephants that live at ENP. It was really sad to hear the stories of their lives — the abuse, neglect, and cruel training practices that each experienced. The mahouts – elephant masters – at ENP use only positive reinforcement to train their elephants and treat them like kings and queens. It was fascinating to learn about how difficult it is to care for so many domesticated animals who can no longer live in the wild. Their goal is to provide a happy place for the elephants to carry out the rest of their days. With more time, money, and hard work, ENP and its founder hope to release elephants born at ENP into the wild. But that’s a long, complicated process, especially in Thailand where elephants are still illegally captured. To read about each of the elephants, check out this page.
Dad and I got to feed the elephants (they eat whole squashes, entire bunches of bananas, unpeeled pineapples, and more — to total up to 250kg per day!), touch them, and even bathe them in the river! It was so much fun to be up close and personal with such magnificent creatures. We will never forget that day. I am SO glad Dad suggested spending time with elephants!
My friend and fellow blogger, Casey, wrote an insightful post about elephants being used for entertainment. Read it here. I found only THREE reputable elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Check out this website, especially if you’re considering an elephant adventure here someday.
Wednesday night, after a full day of loving elephants, Dad and I met up with Casey (yes, my blogger friend!) and her mom, who were also spending time in Chiang Mai. We met up at Aum, which coincidentally was a restaurant where Sean, Kitty, Tori, and I ate at TWICE during our trip last October. It’s really that good! Vegetarian food (both Thai and Pan-Asian), freshly squeezed juices, nice staff, and cute decor. We tried khao-soi: “Chiang Mai’s khao soi (variously spelled khao soy and kao soi) is a bowl of egg noodles and a chicken leg covered in a soupy mild coconut curry, topped with crispy noodles, lime, shallots and pickled cabbage to your taste.” That’s from this article at Pure Chiang Mai. We tried the vegetarian version and really liked it. After some great food and great conversation with our friends, we said our good nights outside the Tha Phae Gate.
After a very tiring day on Wednesday, we decided to have a quiet Chiang Mai morning before flying back to Bangkok. It rained overnight and was still raining when we woke up. We grabbed our umbrellas and wandered over to the quaint Libernard Cafe for some outstanding banana pancakes and good coffee. The owner is a sweetheart and was happy to make us, her only customers, feel at home.
One of my favorite moments was when an old man outside one of the temples gave Dad and me each a blessing and a red bracelet for good luck. We then got to ring the bells outside the temple for more good luck! In Thai, “Good luck!” is “Chope dee”.
Around noon, we met up with Casey and her mom to split a taxi with them to the airport. The four of us climbed into the bed of a red pick-up truck and enjoyed the short – yet bumpy – ride. I’m glad Dad got to see Chiang Mai for its mix of history, culture, food, and laid back atmosphere.