Charles has spent a fair amount of time tracking elephants in the wild in Southern India several moons ago. I’ve been faced with one only at a sanctuary as a little child. When I heard about Chiang Mai’s Elephant camps and forest walks, I jumped into it without thinking twice. The fact that I was intending on doing something completely outside of my comfort zone, hit me only too late. But before that, I had to pick from Chiang Mai’s exhaustive list of Elephants Camps and Nature Parks.
- The Elephant Nature Park is 66 kms away, the tour is from 8 am to 5 pm, costs 2500 THB per head, includes Transport, Lunch, Feeding & Bathing and does not allow riding the Elephants.
- The Patara Elephant Park is 66 kms away, the tour is from 7:30 am – 12:30 pm / 15:30 pm, costs 5800 THB per head, includes Transport, Lunch, Feeding, Bathing & Riding.
- The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre is 125 kms away, the tour timings are flexible, costs 3500 THB per head, includes lunch, watching the mahouts feed and bathe the elephants and does not allow riding.
- The Baan Chang Elephant Park is 1 hour away, the tour is from 8:30 – 4:30, costs 2400 THB per head, includes Transport, Lunch, Feeding, Bathing and Riding.
- The Chiang Dao Elephant Camp is 45 minutes away, the tours are from 8-10 am or 2-4 pm, costs 4000 THB per head, includes Feeding, Bathing & Riding.
- The Mae Ping Elephant Village and Maesa Elephant Camps had such bad publicity on the internet, that it sounded like a bad idea to even find out more about them.
We chose the one that sounded the friendliest, and was located the closest:
The Maetaman Elephant Camp is 1 hour away, the tour is from 1:00 pm to 6:30 pm, costs 3000 THB per head, includes transport, feeding, bathing & learning to ride elephants.
I must admit, trying to book a tour with these guys is difficult because you need to do it in advance (preferably before you travel) and they aren’t very quick about responding to emails. Communication can be a problem, so please use simple words and be precise. But are we glad we picked them. This was an exhilarating experience personally and at par with my time swimming with dolphins in Mauritius.
A pick-up truck with a guide and driver reached the Miami hotel where we were staying, to pick us up right on time (12:00 pm) and we bundled ourselves into the backseat. Me, with trepidation, Charles with excitement. The one hour drive took us rattling through Chiang Mai’s city roads, and we watched as the buildings gave way to sparse homestays, and soon we were out in the countryside. We started getting angsty as we spotted signs for several Elephant Camps along the way. The countryside was gorgeous, undulating roads that went like waves through the flats and the hills, all lush green on either side, a small river running parallel to us. Along the way we caught glimpses of Elephants walking through the river, the hills, people riding them, feeding them, and the butterflies in my stomach started fluttering like crazy. The anxiety was building.
We finally pulled into the Maetaman Elephant Camp, and were greeted by an elephant carrying 4 people and another 4 people on an oxcart. They seemed to be having the time of their lives. But I jumped in my seat when the oxcart went dangerously close past us.
We were greeted by a Volunteer Coordinator – Aor who spoke excellent English. She was expecting us, and we went up to their front desk, paid up our 6000 THB, gave her our names and details and in turn were presented with a booklet and neck-board for the commands and our mahout uniforms. We passed the gift store, where we saw paintings on sale that had been made by the elephants. We weren’t too sure how we felt about that. We were then taken to the volunteer quarters to change into the thick linen uniforms, and tied this funny mahout cloth around our waists and we were all set. We were assured it was safe to leave our belongings in these huts as they’d be locked. We handed our camera over to Aor, who promised to take lots of pictures and capture this experience for us. Walking down to the training area, we passed an elephant with her 3 month old baby. It was an adorable little Jumbo. We tried to lean into his enclosure to pet him, but seeing the mother stiffen at our approach, I was super quick to beat a retreat. Nothing more dangerous than a possessive mother.
Finally we were seated in front of two gigantic beasts. Gulp. My throat went dry, and my pace sped up faster than a trance song. I was vaguely aware of a droplet of sweat making its way down my temples as I heard Aor mention these were young elephants. Young? You mean they have more growing to do?? I sized up the two monsters, and immediately whispered to Charles, “you’re taking the one on the right.” He nodded, unperturbed. Aor smiled at me, “Natalie is our dancer. She loves to dance, and she’s always moving, just cannot stand still.” Sitting there, I paid close attention to Aor as she taught us how to pronounce the elephant commands we would need once we were riding them. I paid special attention trying to get the nasal pronunciation just right for ‘How’, which, naturally, meant ‘stop’! I had a feeling I’d need that pretty soon.
The mahouts made climbing the elephants look so easy as they held on tight to their ears, put one foot on the bent leg the elephants held forward, swung the other leg around and voila, there they were practically relaxing on the double domed head of the monster. I tried a couple of times but kept slipping down. Also, I think my palms were really slippery with all that sweat. Finally, Nung Hwong (my elephant) sat down, for me to climb him more easily. And then he stood up. Woah. Nothing prepared me for the dizzying height, finding nothing to clutch at, I pressed my palms flat hard into the flattened head, painfully aware the needle sharp hairs, all the while praying I wasn’t hurting the beast. I broke into a cold sweat but kept telling myself it’s ok, you can do it, you’ll regret it forever if you don’t. With the mahout walking alongside us, we trudged along the length of the show ground, with me feeling like I was on a boat, yawing and heaving with the beast, trying hard not to slip off it’s head. My seasickness got the best of me, and I tried hard to squawk out a muffled “Howw..” I tried a couple of times again but the animal just refused to stop. I wondered if I was getting the command right, so without taking my palms off the head, I tried to look down at the board of commands slung around my neck. That only made me more dizzy, and I just screamed down to the mahout, please please, make him stop. Charles turned his head sharply, asking if I was ok. By that time I was on the ground, I felt much better, but I did feel like an absolute wuss for copping out so soon. I then looked across the river, where other elephants were making their way up the steep path towards the forest, and proclaimed there was no way I could do the forest walk. Charles was very nice about the whole thing, saying he was impressed by how I actually went further than he expected, and he asked the volunteers if we could just skip straight to the river bathing part?
The mahouts then walked the elephants down to the river, and I watched in awe as a group of elephants with people on their backs trudged through the river behind us, coming toward us slowly, like a scene from a massive movie.
By the time I recovered, Charles was already in the muddy river, scrubbing Natalie who was quite enjoying her bath. I looked over at Nung, and he was enjoying getting his back scrubbed by the mahout. I grabbed a cane basket with a brush and lowered myself into the water. That’s when I realised, the water wasn’t muddy. Both Nung and Natalie were letting out massive bombs of dung from their posteriors! I tried to focus on gingerly brushing Nungs spine as I tried to drown out the sound of the dung balls going plop into the water every now and then. Suddenly, I noticed Nung’s trunk move about in the water, like a water snake reaching for my basket. With a loud snorting sound, I saw her slurp all the water from the basket into her trunk. I wondered what she was doing, and the mahout shouted out a warning a little too late. I stood there, blinking my eyes in disbelief, drenched in dung smelling water. “Why you little…” And before I knew it I was losing horribly in an all out water fight with Nung, Natalie and Charles joining in subsequently. Nung rolled about in the water, and I got braver, playing with her and scrubbing her back, and splashing her with water. Charles seemed to be enjoying himself with Natalie as well. Just when we took a breather, to exchange notes, Aor asked us to turn and pose, and both the naughty little elephants as if on cue, sprayed us with water in unison.
Reluctantly, we got out of the water, giggling and energised, and walked back to the show grounds. The frisky little fellas were hungry, and they walloped up the bananas and sugarcane that we fed them. We stood chatting with Aor about these darlings and their food habits.
I walked up to Nung, touched her trunk, looked into her eyes, and didn’t need to say thank you. From the way she looked at me with her kinds eyes, I think she knew.
We changed our clothes, had a quick shower, wishing we’d remembered to bring soap and spent some time enjoying our picnic with Volunteer Coordinators Aor & Nong, and chatting with Elana -an Australian student on a 2 week volunteer programme here.
We asked her what she’s been up to, and she told us of early mornings tending to the elephants assigned to each volunteer, cutting excess crop from the neighbouring farms as feed, helping with the shows, making handicrafts with the elephants, and building a real strong beautiful bond with their elephants. She said she was as petrified as I was at first, but she’s grown to love these beautiful creatures, and she’s glad she chose this instead of a regular holiday because it really gave her a chance to find herself, and do something for herself. To do things she’d never get to do back home in Oz. We nodded, knowing, that with just half a day spent with these fine creatures, we felt changed. I could only imagine what 2 weeks here would do. Elana told us she’d do a volunteer holiday again in the blink of an eye, and who knows, the next one might take her to children in Africa. Amen to that, Elana. We hope you’ve found your next holiday cause, whatever it may be.
I walked away that day understanding what Elana meant about the elephants helping you find yourself. Nung sure helped me meet a side of me I never believed existed. It may have been a molehill for most, but I climbed my Everest that day.
The Maetaman Elephant Camp is located in Kuet Chang, Mae Taeng Chiang Mai 50150, Thailand
Tel : +66 53 297 060
They offer different packages that last from half a day to 3 days, but they take volunteers on for longer. There’s also a hillside community nearby that preserves their ancient way of life for you to visit.
Our half day tour cost 3000 THB per person.
While we have heard, read and seen footage of scary stories, of the horrible manner in which elephants meant as a tourist entertainment in Thailand are treated, we didn’t see any sign of it at Maetaman. The Elephants seemed well looked after, no wounds, got around enough, and had large enough open air enclosures.
We’ve also heard scary stories of scams and ripoffs which we’ve noticed usually happen with tours purchased from touts and travel agents, where they make you pay for all sorts of things every step of the way and give you pretty much nothing at the end of it. A wise thing would be to bear the difficulty of communication and deal with the camp directly.
PS: If you enjoyed this story, pop over to our friend’s page and read about his incredible experience with an Indian Elephant.
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