When I first went to South East Asia last year, visiting and riding elephants was at the top of my to-do list, and despite having a horrendous hangover at the time it was as amazing an experience as I had hoped. I’ve always been fascinated with elephants – mainly because they’re these massive, powerful creatures and yet when you’re around them you don’t feel in the slightest bit scared. They’re intelligent and gentle and just generally really amazing animals. So although I’d ridden an elephant before, and plan to do it when my boyfriend comes out (you can’t come to Asia and not do that, surely?) I was happy to also experience it with Jess in Chiang Mai.
After seeing and hearing about a lot of animals being mistreated in Asia, I was set on finding somewhere with a good reputation and no reports of cruelty. Save the elephants was recommended to us by some fellow travellers. I also knew I wanted to find somewhere to ride them bareback instead of on seats, as apparently that can be painful for the elephant.
We were picked up at 8am, unfortunately after much debate we had decided not to bring our songkran weapons. We regretted this when we soon realised we were going to spend a lot of the day getting drenched. The drivers are in on the fun and will slow down every time you pass someone with hoses/buckets/water pistols. As a result we were drenched before we even reached the park – but obviously it was all in good fun! But anyway, I’ll write more about songkran in my next post.
Before we reached the elephants we were made to change into ‘Mahoot’ clothes. As you can see it made me look more attractive than ever!
I was really rocking those rags. Then it was time to meet the elephants. I was excited to see that there was a baby amongst them – something I had been hoping for. We had a bit of time to feed them all with bananas before riding them through the jungle.
We soon realised that the baby was the naughtiest of them all and kept pushing us over to get to the toilet water!
Obviously the baby wasn’t trained as well as the adults and so acted in a more spontaneous way. At one point I had my hand on it’s head for a photo opportunity and he picked my leg up, put it in his mouth, spat it out and kicked it away!
Another highlight was when someone was riding what must have been the most intelligent of the elephants (since they used him for our first rides and for the photo poses in the river at the end) and dropped her flip flop. He picked it up with his trunk and passed it back to her! They really are amazing animals – so clever.
Anyway, so we had one ride before lunch, where we made our own spring rolls and ate noodles from a banana leaf, and one afterwards. The first of the two rides I went on the front and for the second and longer ride of the two I went on the back. This was a bad choice. I had realised from sitting on the front that bareback riding an elephant was not a comfortable experience, but riding on the back, right on the joints of the elephants shoulders was just pure painful! my legs were rubbing against it’s spiky hair and my arse cheeks were basically being lifted up separately every time he moved his leg to walk. So despite it being an amazing experience, by the end of the ride (which took about 30 minutes) I was dying to get off the elephant and not be in pain any more!
It’s also a pretty dangerous activity, as we discovered from what I liked to call my near death experience. At one stage our elephant was trying to undertake the one to it’s right and so my leg was getting crushed between the two. I was so focused on getting it out that I didn’t notice the approaching branches on my other side. I ducked but it was a little late and I had to hold onto the rope with one hand for dear life as I darted backwards almost falling off the elephant. That fall would have been onto rocks and would not have been good. I imagine quite a lot of people get injured that way. There is no such thing as health and safety in South East Asia!
We then had to go down quite a steep slope to get to the river. I’m not going to lie – this was pretty scary and it was pretty difficult to hold on at times. I think Jess and I both feared for our lives a little bit and this was also the most painful part of the journey! Eventually, and to our relief, we reached the river and it was time to bathe the elephants. By this point we had been getting increasingly frustrated by our lack of photos – we had paid to have them taken and yet the ‘photographer’ was barely taking any. Our suspicions were confirmed when we received the disk and saw that not only were there barely any photos of us but the ones we did have were mostly blurry, wonky or just completely cut the elephant out of the picture. They were nothing compared to the brilliant images I got from my first elephant trek last year.
It was lovely to watch the baby elephant, who had followed it’s mum the whole time, swimming and playing in the water – that was my favourite part, and washing the elephants was nice too as they clearly enjoy it.
After our time washing and posing with the elephants it was time to have some fun with the white water rafters who had been coming down the river. Since it was songkran they armed us with our washing buckets and we had a water fight with every boat that came through – I loved that added touch to the day!
After we left they explained that the elephants were left off chains to do their own thing, and that they also rotated them so that it wasn’t always the same ones having to do the trek. A lot of them were also rescued elephants. If there was any evidence of them being mistreated then I didn’t see it.
After a full day we made our way back to Chiang Mai at around 3pm, again getting completely drenched on the way, and made our way out to experience our first proper night of Songkran – something that would make me laugh a lot but also be very wet and uncomfortable for the next 4 days!