Riding Asian Elephants in Chiang Mai Provence, Thailand was really unique, but more importantly, getting to know these wonderful, gentle, and intelligent beings made for a trip of a lifetime!
Almost an hour north of Chiang Mai, the camp is close to the Myanmar border. Very rural and cooler than Bangkok, and very much in the jungle.
I was very excited for the elephant show, which I had heard so much about. Elephants kicking soccer balls? Scoring goals? Elephants painting pictures, including self portraits? Elephants giving massages? This, I had to witness!
It was all true, and at the end, I bought the self portrait done with pink ears and green grass which I witnessed being painted. I also got up close and was able to have a picture taken with her, and stroke her cute face.
She first carried out the paints in a metal tray with a handle, started the painting using a paint brush dipped in black paint and finished it up with pink and green. The trainer does help to guide her to the paper with his hand on her tusk, but she did the painting herself with her trunk!
I found out that the elephant trainer boys have a very intense relationship with each elephant, bathing them and even sleeping next to them. They devote their entire lives to these long lived beings.
I was sad to see a false and negative review on the camp when I Googled it. This “journalist” totally missed its essence and accused the trainers of being cruel. They do speak in a commanding voice, which is akin to the way an owner may speak to a dog so they know who is in charge.
It is precisely because of camps like these, that the once necessary elephant is still in Thailand. Since logging was banned in the eighties, and the need for elephants became obsolete, people who owned elephants had to take to the streets of cities to beg for their sustenance.
Of course it is a tricky situation any time a wild animal is domesticated, and 95% of all elephants in Thailand are. Ingrained in the Thai culture and history for hundreds of years and once only thought of beasts of burden, it seems the elephant’s status has risen and respect is given to these incredible and deserving creatures.
Aroon (our favorite guide in Chiang Mai), told us that elephants are protected and loved in Thailand and that they have an incredible sense of smell. For example, an elephant may reject a rider who is wearing strong perfume.
There was a line to board the elephants, so getting on was a bit rushed and not a lot of instruction was given out. We “boarded” from a ten foot high platform, and there were no seat belts, only a bar to hold onto. I was never properly introduced to the sturdy fellow who would transport me and my friend Elina over several miles of rough terrain up and down hills in the jungle, but we bonded instantly!
The hour-long elephant ride was a bit bumpy and with each unexpected dip, we laughed (the entire time). Sitting side by side in a howdah, a saddle specifically designed for riding elephants, we tried not to elbow each other. Taking pictures was challenging. I felt like I was in the Flintstones!
The path meandered through the camp, up hills, and we even crossed a stream, more like a river, since the elephants were up to their necks! It was great fun and we had total confidence in our elephant Mahout (trainer). We were following a group with eight elephants in front and a similar amount behind us.
At one point we were allowed to feed our elephant a large bunch of bananas which he ate whole, and he stopped a few times to munch on tree branches, reminding me of riding a horse when it stops to eat grass. After we got off the elephant by carefully hopping onto a platform, we rode back to the main camp on a cart led by two white oxen, and then floated down a river for 45 minutes on a bamboo raft.
The rafting was very peaceful and smooth, and we enjoyed wearing Chinese bamboo peasant hats! Except for the fact that I felt like I was in a scene from “Apocalypse Now” (based on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”), the relaxing rafting contrasted beautifully with the exhilarating elephant excursion. The gift shop had unusual, interesting items, such as paper made from elephant dung, elephant shaped padlocks, and great t-shirts. There are also opportunities to purchase handicrafts from local Indigenous tribal people.
We had lunch at a nearby boutique resort- RAWEE WAREE. They were serene villas set amidst a tropical garden. I witnessed a Mahout giving his elephant a bath in the Mae Taeng River right outside a Rawee Waree cottage. It was great to see the connection the two had and how this slight man was in total control of the large animal. People can spend three days here and visit the special elephant camp at Maetaman.
Being a Westerner without any opportunity to ever get up close and actually touch an elephant without fear, was a thrilling experience for me which I will never forget and hope to do again soon.
This trip was sponsored in part by Thai Airways and Tourism Thailand
About the Author: Hi, I am Georgette, a writer and artist based in Connecticut and Vermont. I am also Johnny Jet’s older sister, who quite possibly ignited his first spark of interest in traveling to exotic places, when at the impressionable age of 14, he saw my two-week trip to Australia last four years! Whether skiing in the mountains, snorkeling in the tropics, or exploring faraway cities, I am always game for traveling and the privilege of writing for my baby brother’s website JohnnyJet.com. Of course, coming home to my husband Cam, our dog Baci, and my cat Ace – is great, too! Visit my website at www.georgettepaintings.com.