It’s Elephant Day! Yay! I couldn’t have been more excited if today were my wedding, bat mitzvah and birthday all rolled into one. One of the things I requested back in the early planning stages of our trip was to go to Chiang Mai specifically to see (and play with) the elephants there. Apparently, riding elephants is bad for them. My guess is that this refers to the wooden carriages that are often strapped to the poor fellas, so we chose a no-riding elephant camp to make sure the elephants would be having as much fun as we were. We got picked up at 8:30 in the morning. It was the two of us and another girl named Whitney who was coincidentally from Troy. She had been living in Australia for the past year, working in retail at NorthFace, and enjoying her time in a magical-sounding beach town. She was very sweet and we chatted about our adventures as we the tuk-tuk twisted and turned along the mountain roads.
Finally, we arrived. It was pretty insane to see the elephants up close – there were three of them Ma-Noi and her baby Pim and Ma-Di. They were all females, like most of the elephants in these types of camps. This is because males can get aggressive and territorial, so it’s better not to let the tourists run loose with them. Even the females towered over us, though. Their legs were bigger than my torso and their trunks were essentially giant fingers that could snake around anything. Immediately, we called them over waving sugar canes and bananas as bait. Elephants eat an average of 400 pounds a day. Yes, 400 pounds. And here I am thinking Jews love to eat. I guess that makes elephants the Jews of the animal kingdom because they spent 90% of the time we were there eating in some way or another. They were smart, too. After a couple of years nursing, the babies are sent to school together where they are trained in basic commands such as go, turn around and stay. They are also taught tricks like spraying water out of their trunks, giving giant sloppy kisses (that felt like a wet vacuum was sucking my cheek) and bowing with their trunk lifted high. The elephants were basically giant dogs – and they were rewarded the same way – with treats. After emptying our bag of bananas and sugar cane, we joined the elephants on a trek through the jungle. What was nice about this specific elephant camp, compared to the others we passed on the way, was the fact that the elephants had lots of natural space to roam – just like they would if they were wild. Beyond the old rice field where they lived, there was a river and just beyond that a jungle where they could roam and find bamboo leaves to snack on. Trekking with the elephants was a treat, and we quickly learned their temperaments (Ma-Di was bit of trouble-maker where Ma-Noi was more obedient). Since Pim was only a year and half (but still taller than me), she was still nursing. But she was hardly attached to her mom, instead fawning over one of the guys who worked on the farm. Whenever he growled, which is the noise the mama elephant makes to call her babies, Pim would amble over happily, wrapping her trunk around his arm to play with him or pulling him up to chase her. It was adorable.
Lunch was one of the best meals I’ve had all trip. Veggies and chicken in red curry with rice and yellow curry with chicken and potatoes. And for dessert, fresh pineapple and watermelon. The guys who were in charge of the elephants were all from local villages, which is where a lot of these elephants come from. Since they are born and raised in captivity, it’s impossible for them to be let out into the jungle because they rely so much on humans for food. Wild elephants are quite territorial, so it’s dangerous to get too close to them. Thankfully, these not-so-little guys were very sweet and happy (especially considering how much sugar cane they could eat!).
Once we (elephants included) had finished stuffing ourselves, it was time to get muddy at what the trainers called the "elephant spa," which was basically a giant pit of mud at the bottom of the rice patty. The elephants loved the mud, getting down to ground while we scrubbed them with brushes and gravely mud. In case you were wondering, an elephant fart is louder than a megaphone siren. They really enjoyed farting in the mud, particularly whenever you got close to them. Then they would roll around, giddy with the fact that they just grossed you out. See, elephants and humans are not so different after all. All the while, the trainers were slinging more mud at us than at the elephants themselves. Knowing that they contained elephant farts wasn't too comforting, but seeing how happy the babies were rolling around in the mud made being covered in mud and elephant farts worth it. After the mud, it was bath time. This was baby Pim's favorite part. She spent 90% of the time completely submerged in water, her little trunk sticking out like a periscope. Another disgusting scenario that made me reluctant to join in on the fun was the amount of turds the elephants churned out. The trainers would haul them into the woods with their hands like they were nothing but soccer balls (which they equated to in size). You just couldn't think about it. Instead, we focused on how sweet the elephants were and got occasionally sprayed with water from their trunks.
The bathing concluded and the elephants wandered back to the rice fields to find some more sugar cane, while we moved upriver to rinse off a little bit better. The amount of sand and dirt in my bathing suit turned my striped bikini into a slight-brown tinged striped bikini. We dried off by laying out on the rocks that rose from the river, and then headed back to the pavilion where we had eaten lunch. Another round of feeding, was followed by another photo op and a quick rinse-off in the showers. Pretty soon it was time to say goodbye to our new friends. It may have seemed that it was far harder for us to say goodbye, but I like to think the elephants were crying on the inside and that their flapping ears were actually them waving goodbye to us.
I must have been pretty exhausted because I fell asleep on the narrow benches in the back of the tuk-tuk and slept pretty much the entire way back. I did end up with a crick in my neck, though. We coordinated with Whitney and decided to meet up a couple hours later to head to the infamous Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market. The night market was like the Saturday market, but three times as large with that many more people. I felt like I was waiting on a crowded subway platform and no matter where I moved, there were people far too close to me. We learned our lesson from last night and got food first, Pad Thai, of course and some fried bananas that were delicious. We ended up standing and eating because all the rickety little chairs were taken. Right near the big ole pile of trash. Classic, Southeast Asia. Afterwards, we wandered the night market. I headed to six different elephant pants stands, sadly realizing there was no negotiating these pants below the displayed price. In the end, they were less than three dollars each, but it's the principle of it all. There really wasn't much else in the night market that I felt were worthy of my bot - lots of tchotchkes, cheaply made clothing and crafts that were likely made in China.
We finally reached the end of the night market, and celebrated our achievement with smoothies (at this point, we were pros at asking for dairy free smoothies for Mik. I was OK with dairy, later learning that the creamy deliciousness of my smoothie was from the condensed milk that Asians love to add to their fruit drinks.) Heading back to our hostel, some of the vendors were already starting to close up shop. We said goodbye to Whitney, wished her luck on her travels and parted ways. Considering I started my day with elephants and ended with elephant (pants), I'd say it was one for the books.