School was closed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, so I was able to take a four day weekend and head up to Thailand’s 2nd largest city- Chiang Mai. I hadn’t heard much about it, but knew that it was a desirable destination for tourists and expats. One thing I knew for sure was that they have elephants and New Year’s sky lanterns in the North, and I definitely wanted to be a part of it.
Before I left, I was able to sneak in a last minute reservation to spend a day with elephants at one of the most reputable ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand- Elephant Nature Park. There are hundreds of elephant camps in Thailand, but this particular park is known for their extraordinary treatment of the elephants.
I flew into Chaing Mai at 9:00pm, and the tour left the following morning at 8am. We took a minibus ride about an hour outside of the city and up into the mountains. I was overjoyed to be back in a mountainous landscape- even though they’re only about 3,000 feet above sea level. The temperature was significantly colder at about 70 degrees, and I think it was the first time in 4 months that I’ve been without a ” sweat goatee”.
When we started getting closer to the camp, we saw surrounding camps which offered elephant rides to tourists. Initially when I came to Thailand I thought I was going to be one of those tourists- it’s such an appealing thought to be able to sit on top of one of them and trek through the jungle. During my time here I’ve learned that the treatment of the elephants in those types of camps are pretty dismal. Our minivan passed by several tourists on elephants, and each one of the elephants had a Thai man sitting on its neck with a spear pushed into its head to direct them where to go. It was pretty depressing to see.
When we pulled around the hill into the Elephant Nature Park, I was
surprised to see tons of animals. The sanctuary is not only home to elephants, but also cats, dogs, goats, and water buffalo. I got really excited when I saw the first elephant. It was the first time outside of a zoo that I’ve seen an elephant, and I got to be incredibly close to it.
We were given a short safety briefing about how to interact with them- don’t walk behind them, don’t stand where they can’t see you, don’t tease them, and don’t use flash photography. My tour group had about seven people, and we were told to grab a basket of food and head out to feed one of the older elephants. She was over 80 years old! We fed her mashed up pumpkin with rice, and it was adorable. I was unbelievably nervous around her. The guide had reassured us that they’re trained like dogs, but it’s a wild animal nonetheless.
All of the adult elephants had horrible backstories. Most of them had come from the logging industry in Myanmar, or were used as street entertainers as babies in downtown Chiang Mai. There was one particularly awful story that resonated with me:
One of the elephants was blind. She was being used to carry logs in the mountains of Myanmar, and she became pregnant. The loggers did not let her slow down during her pregnancy, and she gave birth on a hill in bad conditions, and the baby did not survive. After that, she refused to work. To force her to work, her owner shot her in the eye. After she kept refusing, he shot her in her other eye. She ended up blind, and the owner of Elephant Nature Park bought her for $2,000 USD.
It was amazing to get to see that she has now made new friends, and she doesn’t go anywhere without them.
The highlight of my tour was being able to see the elephants bathe. We watched a family of them dunk into the river, and they splashed around like dogs. Afterwards, they sprayed themselves with mud to keep cool. We saw a baby elephant rolling around in the mud- a sight which the tour guide said we were very lucky to see. Click here to see the 2 year-old Yindee! We were also able to go with the older elephants and bathe them with buckets of water. I can’t stress enough how simultaneously terrifying and awesome of an experience it was.
One of the elephants started to growl, and the tour guide said it was because she was warning us that she was about to poop. I started to video the growl because I thought it was hilarious, but then got super freaked out when she turned around and made the trumpet noise. I’m sure there’s a better word for it than “the trumpet noise,” but you get the idea. Click here for the video!
After my day with the elephants, I went back to my hostel and rested up for the New Year’s Eve festivities. By 5pm, they were already starting to sell paper lanterns on the street. At around 8, the first groups of people went into the middle of the street to start sending them off.
Looking up from the hostel window, I could see hundreds of them floating off. It was a truly magical sight. They looked like stars. I went out with some new friends from Australia, and we light off some of our own. We were soon after informed by the locals that you’re not supposed to light them upside down-haha. We also made the mistake of letting one go too soon, and we had to chase after it before it hit anything or anyone. There was definitely some amount of guilt when pondering the environmental fate of the lanterns, but I tried to push it aside for a cultural reasons.. haha.
There were tons of fireworks let off at midnight, and the only word that even gets close to summing up the experience is magical. I might have to say that it was the best New Year’s Eve experience I’ve ever had.
For the remainder of my trip I spent the days wandering without plans. I visited over 10 Buddhist temples without trying. Some of the temples in Chiang Mai did not allow women, which was a new experience for me. Women are not supposed to look monks in the eye, talk to them, or offer them gifts. These temples were very strict about it, so I admired from the outside. There were others that allowed visitors to sit and observe the monks making candles, and that was cool to see.
I had the most awkward experience outside one of the temples on NewYear’s Day when I approached a woman who was sitting with cages full of birds. I asked her about them, and she said I could pay 100 baht (~3USD) to open a cage for good luck in the new year. I’m all for good luck, but I couldn’t help but be kind of shocked by the situation. I ended up buying a cage because I felt bad for the birds. The lady placed it in my hand, and they pooped all down my arm. We opened it up and they flew away, and then it was over. I am still a little confused by the ordeal.
On Sunday I spent the day killing time before my 9pm flight. I’m not sure why I booked such a late flight when my hostel check out was at 11am. Luckily the lady at the hostel let me leave my backpack, so I went out wandering again. I found a museum of arts and culture in the middle of the old city, and spent about 45 minutes inside. The museum was mostly dioramas of the old Chiang Mai, but had a few cases of artifacts. I’m not sure if it was just lost in translation, but the English captions on the artifacts only said things like, “pots put together after cracks” and “a part of the building before restored the building.” I wasn’t able to find any dates or geographical information, so the experience was kind of lackluster.
When I went to seek out a place for lunch, I stumbled into a women’s prison. There was a cafe that was open to the public, and I decided to step in. As it turns out, the location is used as a vocational training center for inmates that were within 6 months of release. They also had a spa and a gift shop with “prison crafts.” All of the women were great! Most of them had come from extreme poverty, and were locked up for drug offenses. My lunch was delicious.
By 6pm, I did a Google search to see how far the airport was from my hostel. It took about 15 minutes with the traffic in a tuk tuk, but I realized it was only 3 miles away. I’m not sure if it was the temperature in Chiang Mai or just curiosity, but I decided to walk to the airport. It was the most random and hilarious journey. I had enough time, so I figured why not? I ended up wandering through the Sunday Night Market, and saw some great sights along the way. I was getting fatigued by the time I’d reached the airport, but I was so excited that I caught myself whistling the Thai National Anthem for the last 5 minutes of my walk. I might have been a little delirious, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’ve found that I get quite a bit of satisfaction from walking.
Well, that’s about all there is for now. Today I was informed that this weekend I will be joining 6 teachers and 11 students on a trip to Trang (about 3 and 1/2 hours to the south) to show a school how great our kindergartners can speak English. I’m still really confused about the details. I guess the founder of the English company that I work for has a little side project she’s working on and is trying to convince this school that the program is really good. I can’t stop thinking about the nightmare of taking eleven 6 year-olds on an overnight without their parents. Also the fact that it’s going to consume my entire weekend. It’s all about the adventure though, right?
I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday!!!