Maerim Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai
I don’t think I need to say much about this; the photos speak for themselves! This day was magical! I was collected bright and early on Christmas day, so no change there from the usual early wake up by my excited family. We then went on to collect a Brasilian couple from another hotel and then onto the sanctuary. We had a great chat on the journey, we all know my love of Brasil so it was exciting to hear all about where these 2 were from and their journey, plus hearing the accent and speaking some Portuguese always makes me smile. We arrived and instantly my heart fluttered as I saw the 5 elephants for the first time. We had a short welcome video and then changed into Mahout clothing – denim on denim haha. Apparently the bright colours and patterns of people’s clothes can scare the elephants so they keep us all in the same kit to keep things simple. We were instructed to fill our pockets and an over-body bag with over ripe bananas – so gross, but the little guy Seti, couldn’t eat them in their skins so they had been peeled in preparation. We entered the enclosure and were explained that this big space was where they were in the day apart from when we walked them out to the mud pits, then at night they went out to a larger field at the back of the sanctuary to graze and sleep. The elephants immediately came over to get their snacks, all apart from Heidi. She was an older female who had been used and abused by the illegal logging trade, doing 20 hour days and now had a weariness of humans; to be understood for sure! She came to take some bananas and had a gentle grace to her. Seti was acting as a pickpocket, as was his Mum, sneaking up on us (yes elephants can sneak) to get at the goods in our pockets and bags.
We then went off to collect some banana plants for them and came back for our feed time and time to learn how to make Thai noodle soup. This was delicious and was so easy. The toppings were fab too, sweet chilli salsa, ground peanuts, chilli vinegar, chillies, beansprouts – yum! We then went in for round 2 of feeding time and observed as they smashed up the banana trees to get at the sweet centre. Seti also watched and then tried to steal what was inside, cheeky boy!
We walked them out along the dried up river to the mud pit. We were prepared with swimsuits and jumped in. The elephants soon joined us, again apart from Heidi. We had fun covering them in mud and them covering us in mud, and then I was stood at the edge and much to my delight Heidi came to join in. I covered her in mud as she sucked it up with her trunk and sprayed it everywhere. She especially seemed to like having mud rubbed under her chest, I guess it’s a hard place to scratch yourself as an elephant, and their skin gets very dry in the heat so they use the mud to moisturise and protect.
We left the mud on us (it’s good for our skin too) until we got to the pool where we rinsed off, and were joined by the elephants for a swim. We were told that the elephants do as they wish and some days don’t want to swim or mud-bathe and so they don’t, which means that we were extra lucky to have this experience with them!
We said goodbye with heavy hearts, but feeling very blessed to have met them and had such a brilliant day. I was glad to see that times seemed to be changing and that instead of riding elephants, people were now paying to come and volunteer at the sanctuaries where the elephants were living since being taken out of work. Please please avoid the elephant camps and consider what you are paying for if you ride an elephant. Elephants are not naturally close with humans or trained to be ridden; they have to be broken, much the way a horse is, but more brutally due to their size and strength. The trainers use bull hooks (see below) to teach the elephant what it must do and what it cannot. This is a long painful process for the elephant and that’s just the beginning before they are made to work all day to satisfy a tourists’ desire to sit on their back. Obviously the aim is to stop all elephant riding and elephants being used for work or entertainment, and then eventually there will be no sanctuaries either, as there won’t be any elephants that need resucing, and the elephants will only be in the wild – that’s the dream! In the meantime though, supporting these sanctuaries is important and it shows the Mahouts that there is a sustainable way to look after their elephants, and still provides them with a living. These traditions are being phased out and soon it will not be normal to have an elephant that you own. I have a later post about when I came across elephant camps in Pai if you want to see the reality :(
When I had cleaned all the clay mud out of my hair, I skyped with everyone in succession, this was lovely and I got to see what everyone was up to on Christmas morning due to the 8 hour time difference. Christmas dinner was very nothing this year, I couldn’t even find a Thai curry nearby and in my post elephant sanctuary hunger I settled for Thai red curry noodles instead haha. I then headed to meet some new friends and maybe have a dance for the first time in months. I didn’t really get my dance, but did meet some interesting people. Tasi and I instantly hit it off and she showed me around the area they call Zoe’s. This was bars all around a few DJ rooms, mainly outside, and full of chaos. A Thai girl started dancing with us and Suresh (Skye and Tasi’s friend who had left his boyfriend at home), she was very elaborate with her moves and as I commented, Suresh shook his head, “That’s not a girl, my lovely”. I had met my first lady boy (that I knew about ha!). I had sensed there was something different here and had an idea, but she definitely pulled off something, I said as she whooped her top off, showing off her very fake boobs in a strapless push-up bra. Y face must have said it all, as Tasi pulled me off and we went to get a cocktail. Now when I say cocktail, I mean a spirit and mixer and sugar, even the Pina Colada was I think just juice drink from a carton mixed with rum. Oh well. First drink I had had in ages and it was yuk.
The lights came up shortly after as Zoe’s had to close at midnight. We headed to a club, which I forget the name of, after I gave up trying to convince everyone we should just go home. I hadn’t had a dance yet so I didn’t mind really. Again though, no dancing, the small ‘club’ was rammed, and I mean rammed; we could barely move. Tasi and I had a bit of a dance, encouraged by a group of mainly Thai girls who seemed to be fascinated by how we danced, and then headed out because it was just silly busy.
The next day I had to check out of my nice room as they had double booked it. Doing this with a slight hangover was not so fun. My body does not agree with alcohol so even the slightest whiff of it and I feel rough the next day. I guess keeping healthy and being in touch with your body means that when you deviate, your body really tells you about it! I chose a cheap little place in a different part of the city so that I could explore more. It was quiet and clean, or so I thought until I got a rash that may have been bed bugs, oh well. I tried again to research and ask about trekking that I could do without a guide and long treks, out in the glorious mountains that could be seen around Chiang Mai, and it seemed like that kind of thing didn’t really exist. There wasn’t trails, and I guess because of no demand from tourists to do long treks, there wasn’t a great deal of options. I eventually found one company that did a 1-day trek that was more than just 2 hours stroll then several visits in a car. They also did a 2-day trek with a stopover in a Karen Tribe village, but I had heard mixed things about these often being a bit of a human zoo type scenario, and that the villagers didn’t get any benefit. So to be cautious I booked the 1-day and was told it was all day challenging walking in the jungle, with views of the peak in Chiang Dao National Park.