Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Chiang Mai - day 3

5 October 2015

Today was the highlight of the trip - the elephant jungle sanctuary! Chiang Mai has a lot of elephant camps you can go to and interact with elephants. I was looking for something that treated the animals well (no chains, no rides, no elephants painting, etc.). Though I found one initially that had a lot of interactions with the elephants in their natural surroundings, including the opportunity to feed and bathe them, it was a full day affair, and we were not sure the kids would be able to take a long day out. They did have a half-day option, but then you didn't get to bathe the elephants, which was the most enticing part. 

Finally I found the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which ticked all the boxes and could be done in half a day. The price was on the steep side, around 70 dollars per person, but it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so everyone agreed quickly. It was an early start - the van picked us up at 7 am. But we had no trouble getting up early due to the 1-hour time difference between Chiang Mai and Singapore. (Most days, my body clock would wake me up at 6 am, even before my alarm rang, and I found the early morning time with nothing to do, very refreshing.) 

It was a super long ride to where the elephants lived, about 2 hours from the city. We were in a 4x4 pick-up truck, laden with bananas (Xena was a little shocked to see so many, and then we told her they were for the elephants, not us!) and with plenty of fresh air blowing at us. To pass the time, Viv suddenly came up with a question. What I expected to be a riddle turned out to be this - What is the number of zeroes in 87 factorial? Oh dear lord. If the journey was not enough to put me to sleep, this sure was! I didn't sleep though, I just watched as Pizzadude cast aside his pain and actually attempted to work out the answer. (Don't ask me for the answer. If I cared about what it was, I'd tell you.)

The loooooong road to see the elephants

Xena wanted to wear a bandana just like me!

Once we were close to the sanctuary, our vehicle got on to a winding downhill dirt track, and I have to say it was quite the experience. You have to hand it to these drivers. It's not everyone's cup of tea to drive on that kind of surface! There were two other people in our truck and they were armed with anti-motion-sickness pills! Normally, I get motion sickness if I'm in the back of a car for too long, but I was fine this time, possibly because it was open and there was plenty of fresh air. Maya felt quite sick though. Luckily, we reached quickly and she felt okay. 

We could see the elephants in the distance and Xena was getting super excited! 

We were welcomed by the elephant handlers and we joined a group already seated in a thatched hut. 

The hut was ready with mats and cushions.

Our group of fellow adventurers

We were given traditional clothing called 'Karen' after the tribe, to wear so that the elephants would take to us the way they did to their handlers. 

Viv and Xena in Karen clothing

Xena and me in Karen clothing

Next, we had a quick briefing on the dos and don'ts. I found it heart-warming that they asked us to wash our hands with soap and water, especially if we had put mosquito repellant on ourselves, as they didn't want it getting in the elephants' mouths when we fed them.

Armed with bunches of the small bananas, before we made our way down to feed the elephants. 

Xena thought it was too much food for the elephants!

Our guide told us that the tusked Asian elephants were males. Xena quickly identified all the tusked ones and christened them Eddy and the ones with no tusks Elly. 

Step 1: Approach elephant, while waving banana in air. 

Step 2: Let the elephant take the banana with its trunk.

Step 3: Watch it gulp the banana down!

Step 4: Repeat. (And try to keep up with the elephants' appetite!)

There was a 1-year-old baby elephant, which was the most adorable of the lot. Obviously. Xena was scared of the bigger ones but she managed to feed some bananas to this one. 

Xena offers baby Elly a banana.

Here's a video of her going, "Eat it, Elly, eat it!"

She wanted to touch it, but was too scared so she sub-contracted the job to daddy. 

I couldn't get over how cute the baby elephant was! 

And friendly too!

Some of the bigger elephants were also eating corn. Our guide said that each of them ate like 300 kg of food every day! 

Me just about to get whacked by the elephant's tail... no, I didn't. Phew!

Next, we followed the elephants as they walked up the hills, grazing on grass! It was an amazing experience being so close to them that you literally had to make way for them to pass, and save yourself from getting a sharp tail slap from them!

Xena was tired so she hitched a ride.

We went up the hilly path and the handlers got the elephants to follow.

We saw some of them blowing dirt on their backs, scratching themselves against tree trunks, hitting the plucked grass against their legs to get rid of the soil before they ate it, and generally having a blast.

Spot the elephant scratching itself, precariously perched on the edge?

Next, we were to take them into a large mud puddle for a mud spa! We unanimously decided to skip the part, though it was quite sad as we were the only ones that did that. The rest of the group changed into their swimsuits and swim trunks and dived right in, some quite literally. One of the ladies laughingly said as she rubbed an elephant with mud, "After all, when else am I ever going to do this?"

The elephants were obviously loving their spa session, and many of them plonked down on their sides to truly relax and let their masseurs and masseuses get to work. 

The guides were also in the mud, splashing one another. One of them was very playful and the guide who had driven us said, "Don't mind him, he's a little crazy. Too much time with the elephants I think." 

And then came the bestest part of all. We walked up the hill again and over a bamboo ladder precariously balanced over some rocks and branches and came to... a waterfall! It was amazing! The elephants had been lovingly led there and they immediately headed for the water. It was starting to drizzle, adding on to the sense of excitement. 

We were given plastic basins and hard brushes to clean the mud off the elephants. It was a little scary at first to be in the water with 6 elephants, but it was amazing! It also got less and less scary by the minute, and by the end of it, I felt like I was so much more okay with being around elephants than I was before the visit. Xena was happily splashing the elephants. 

All of us splashing the elephants, who seemed only too happy about it

We scrubbed and cleaned this elephant!
The elephants were having so much fun splashing and rolling around in the water that it was difficult to tell where one elephant ended and another began!

Soon, we heard loud laughter from the handlers. We turned to see what was going on and realised that one of the elephants had pooped! In the water! But one of the handlers quickly fished everything out with a deep triangular net. I was surprised to see how it didn't mix with the water, but stayed floating in the form of lumps. 

We made our way back to the hut where there was pad Thai wrapped in leaves waiting for us, as well as freshly-cut fruits and bottles of water. We were quite hungry so we gobbled it all up gratefully. 

I took Xena to a very primitive looking bamboo toilet which was surprisingly well-equipped on the inside!

A happy little girl at the end of the tour

Then we said goodbye to the handlers and made our way back. Our guide dropped us off in the lane where we'd had dinner the previous day. We checked the menu at a few restaurants along the way, but decided to go back to De Zaab for another hearty meal. 

De Zaab restaurant

Yummy lunch and drinks!

Daddy and baby trying to mimic the mascot outside De Zaab

The daddies went back with the kids, while Maya, Pizzadude and I went to get our two-hour massages. The boss lady there was quite chatty and told us how she'd lived in Calcutta for 6 months. When I asked her if she liked it, she smiled and said, "No." It was hilarious. 

Our masseuses were really strong! They pulled and pummeled us for two hours, until every bone was creaking and and every muscle was aching. It was strange that they were the ones getting the workout, while we were the ones aching. My calves were still sore from the Doi Suthep walk and now they were hurting even more. I think I much prefer the Balinese gentler massage. But it was nice overall, and it gave me two long hours of mulling time. 

We returned home after the massage and as we were in no state to go out for dinner, the guys set out to pack dinner for everyone. They came back with some amazing Greek pizza, cheesecake and apple strudel. Yum! The kids fell asleep quickly and we finally had a chance to arm ourselves with wine glasses and talk about anything and everything without any interruptions. 

Read Chiang Mai - day 4 here



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