Day 6 (30/01/2014) – Our last full day in Chiang Mai. I told my sister Angelita, before our trip to Thailand, that I would love any opportunity to spend time with elephants at an elephant sanctuary. We had not pre-booked anywhere to see elephants, so it was hard to find a place that was not already full. Luckily, however, we managed to get a morning at the Ran-Ton Elephant Camp, not our first choice, but I had read good reviews of this place, where they look after their elephants well and are helping to combat the declining numbers of elephants in Thailand through a breeding program, as well as practising a safe and humane tourism model for their elephants that have in the past often suffered from abusive situations. We were picked up from our hotel at 7 am, to be driven on a pickup truck about 1 hour out of Chiang Mai. On the way, we stopped to pick up 2 Canadian girls and another couple from Kent (England), although he was English and she was Polish. It was quite chilly in the cool morning air as we sped along, but everyone was very friendly and the chatter and exchange of travel stories and tips kept our minds off the chill. After quite a bumpy, but not unpleasant, ride through the North of Thailand’s countryside via lovely green farmland and rice paddies, we arrived at the elephant park (about 1 hour out of Chiang Mai). It was a very humble place with some facilities such as a toilet, changing room and a little stall selling small gifts. The gift crafts were mostly made by Burmese women. I bought some beautiful colourful bracelets from them. We were given trousers to change into since the elephant skins are hard and scratchy and can hurt your legs if you are not wearing trousers. We were also given a very colourful top to wear. Later we were glad to have had these clothes on since we got soaked at the river and it was nice to change back into our own dry clothes. We felt like honorary Mahouts for few hours. We started off by being introduced to a 3-year-old baby elephant, incredibly cute and we fed him more bananas than seemed possible, he could not have enough bananas, and we got hugs and sloppy kisses from him in return.
After a brief history about the camp (given by a Swedish man, we believe, who was volunteering at the camp and who spoke very good English) and was able to explain to us about the close relationship between the elephant and the mahout. It was then time to meet our elephant. A female called “Machong”, she was amazing, big eyes looking at us, a gentle giant. She went down on her knees in order for us (Brian and me) to climb on top of her. The orange plastic tube around her body was for us to hold on to, but it was very loose and it did not hurt her at all. We were given very specific instructions on how to climb up and where to sit, so as to not hurt her. Also basic commands such as go and stop. It was surreal to be riding an elephant, a dream come true for me. I thought it would be very scary because of how high you sit on top of the elephant and the possibility of falling off with a big elephant on top of you (and I don’t mean Brian). But it really wasn’t scary at all as she was so gentle and took each step so very carefully, so together with the mahout walking by us we made our way to the river, where we could bathe and play with her. In our group, there were five elephants, each carrying two people and all absolutely loving this rare opportunity. At the river, there was a small waterfall. All the elephants walked into the river and laid down, so we could wash them and splash them with water. The river water was cold, and we got very wet, but we did not mind that at all. Some of the elephants decided to do their toilet business in the water, and I saw massive big poos floating by, I could not stop laughing, our elephant decided that she had enough of all these messy poo poo’s around her and indignantly stood up (with me on top) and started moving out of the river. Brian (who was at this point on top of a rock taking pictures) then climbed back on board also and we started the way back to camp. Soon all the other elephants and mahouts also had enough of the cold water and started walking back to camp and onto higher ground where lunch would be served for us. We changed into our dry clothes and all sat down around the table chatting excitedly about this amazing experience and bonding over a lovely Thai curry and fruit. After lunch, e spent some more time with the elephants, before being driven back home.
Since being back home, although we don’t regret taking part in the above activity, In the future, we feel that we would rather see elephants in their natural, wild habitat where these magnificent creatures truly belong.
Wat Pra That Doi Suthep
After a good rest back at the hotel, we decided to visit Wat Suthep, which is perhaps the most important and sacred temple in Chiang Mai. The temple is situated on top of Doi Suthep hill at 3, 570 feet (1, 676m) above sea level and it houses an interesting collection of Lanna art and architecture. The easiest way to get there was by hailing a red cab on the street near the hotel so Brian and I hired a Songathew for 600 B, to drive us up the winding mountain road to the temple and bring us back again. The road up is long and steep and winding and we were impressed by all the cyclists who took on this challenge. We felt just a little bit guilty at how lazy we were! To walk up to the Temple (from the entrance, where the songathew left us) you have to climb over 300 steps, via a beautiful stair case with a balustrade in the shape of a giant snake. A beautiful monument, but one which gives you a good cardiovascular work out as well as time to wonder in contemplation of this spiritual place. On the steps I took a picture of this lovely little Burmese girl, all dressed up in her traditional costume. I have since coming back home, spotted her again in a Chiang Mai holiday program, so I guess she must spend a lot of her time there and maybe will get some pocket money from tourists(?), who would perhaps ask to have a photo taken with her (?). As we explored the grounds, we noticed that there were lots of monks having a gathering inside the temple. I took my shoes off and went inside, just in time to get blessed and sprinkled with holy water by the Monk Master. It was so lovely kneeling down, among the orange robbed Monks , even though I am not a Buddhist, I found it to be a very soothing and relaxing moment. We walked around admiring the intricate work, the Buddhist relics, the smell of burning incense and the offerings of flowers and candles brought here by pilgrims. Building of the Temple (Wat) was started in 1383, under King Keu Naone and the story tells a tale of a King who was instructed by a Monk from Sukhothai to take a relic mounted in the back of a white elephant, an elephant which was allowed to wander until it chose a site, on which a Wat could be built to enshrine it. From the terrace, you can see Chiang Mai town and have panoramic views of the surrounding country side (clouds and dust haze permitting). We wandered around and thought of our children, Chloe and Jamie, who back in England were busy with their University studies. We missed them, and felt that they would have loved to be part of our adventure and it would have been nice to share all that we were seeing and doing with them. We wrote their names in the golden banner that was going to be wrapped around the temple and carried on exploring more of the temple and its surroundings.
We wandered around the temple and grounds for a while longer, see below some more pictures, before meeting our driver (who has been patiently waiting for us) to drive us down the winding road back to Chiang Mai. The sun was about to set, and it got dark quite quickly, the traffic was busy down in Chiang Mai and the city came alive for another eventful evening. Our last night in Chiang Mai
We found a lovely restaurant in the old town to have dinner and ponder over the day’s adventures, the food was deliciously spicy. After dinner we walked to the romantic Iron Bridge we had visited on our cycling tour, enjoying the warm evening and the sounds and smells of Chiang Mai. From the bridge we spotted a double decker British red bus, which was now being used as a bar, down by the river with tables on the top deck and also tables along the side of the river. So we decided to go there for a drink and sat on the top deck of the red bus. At a table near us there was a group of people who later invited to come over to their table ( a Austrian guy called Stephan, a Chinese girl, Sarah and a Korean- American, called David, originally from New York but is at present living in China and dating Sarah) and together we shared drinks and stories about travelling, life back home and future dreams. We watched the fire works over the river, celebrating Chinese New Year. We loved this random moments with other travellers and local’s, in which for a brief time you became a friend and share something memorable. It was a surreal ending to our time in Chiang Mai. We loved it here and realised that 3 days was just not enough to do all that this Northern town had to offer. We were feeling sad to leave this place. We had managed to pack in a lot of activities ( cycling tour, cooking class, elephant camp, visiting temples etc.), and we loved all the people we met, travellers and local’s who made our trip feel so special. We would like to be back here one day, but tomorrow we will be boarding a flight to Phuket, to continue our short but fantastically enjoyable backpacking adventure.