On our second day in Chiang Mai, we left early for Baan Chang Elephant Park. I had done a considerable amount of research on the different elephant parks and sanctuaries in and around Chiang Mai. Again, I was looking for sustainable practices and humane treatment of the animals. This one was one of the top two on my list. I wasn’t looking for a “dog and pony show,” instead I wanted an authentic learning experience and genuine interactions with elephants. Baan Chang was definitely the place to go! Our tour guide Aof (pronounced “Off”) picked us up at 8 and we headed to the park. It was a chilly morning by Thailand’s standards and, although we were wearing pants and t-shirts, Aof was donning a stocking cap, long-sleeved shirt, and winter vest (after all, it was a balmy 70 degrees).
When we arrived, there were elephants everywhere! There were a few other tourist groups as well. As we disembarked with the others from our group (some Aussies, some Brazilians, and others from good ole Las Vegas, Nevada), we were given shirts and pants to wear while interacting with the elephants. Apparently the old adage “An elephant never forgets” is true because they told us that the elephants will accept anyone wearing this uniform as a friend. So we put on the (particularly unattractive) outfits and prepared to feed the elephants. Joining our group was a local business owner, all dressed up, who was making a promotional video about the park for his/her TV show. So apparently we had our moments of fame as we were a part of this video and somewhere, at some time, we were on Thai TV (our brief and only brush with fame).
The first thing we did was feed the elephants. They brought out basket after basket of bananas and sugar cane and taught us how to give it to them. The first option was to hold it out so that they could grab it by the trunk and bring it to their mouth. The second option (and far more scary) was to actually put it in the elephant’s mouth. At first, Trent and I were timid as we fed these enormous creatures, but as we got more comfortable, we got much closer, touching and petting these gentle giants in the process. It was incredible to see them eat bananas by the bunch and to hear their incredibly powerful jaws chomp down on the sugar cane. We even saw some clever elephants storing extra sugar cane on top of their heads so that people would continue to feed them, all the while stockpiling for later. It was very entertaining to watch!
When we finished feeding the elephants, Aof began telling us more about Baan Chang. It is a sanctuary that rescues elephants from bad situations (most often from circuses or other destructive elephant parks). They chain their elephants only twice a day- at feeding time and at night time. They explained that this is for their safety and for the elephants’ safety. If we fed them unchained, we would likely be stampeded in the process as, obviously, they would all want the food we had. Also, they are easily spooked by loud noises. Especially at night, this could also cause a stampede. Aof continued by telling us about the hooks that they occasionally use on the elephants. At first the hooks made me feel really uncomfortable, but his honesty about them and why they are used put my mind at ease. These too are for the safety of all involved and it doesn’t hurt the elephants indefinitely- it’s more like a little spanking. He told us too, about the elephants’ skin. Even though it is thick, it can easily get cut and infected. Elephants like to rub against trees to itch themselves, but often the trees rough bark can cut through the elephant’s skin and lead to more problematic wounds. He went on to explain to us the difference between Asian Elephants and African Elephants- Asian Elephants are much smaller and have a big head and small ears whereas African Elephants are much larger and have more “Dumbo-like” ears with a smaller head.
Finally, the time came for us to learn how to ride the elephants. One of the things that appealed to me about Baan Chang was that, although they let you ride the elephants, it is not for a prolonged time, nor do they use the large seats, which can irreparably damage an elephant’s spine. We were given the commands to make the elephant get down (“Nalong”) as well as instructions on how to mount an elephant (not an easy task). Once the elephant gets down, you have to step on his leg and grab the top of his ears, then JUMP up and frantically grab for the other ear while the elephant immediately starts to shift his weight back to a standing position. I watched as the other people successfully did it (although not without many panicked looks and some escaped profanity) and nervously awaited my own turn. Trent went first and survived, as did I, although it was terrifying to be up that high! I can’t even begin to describe what it is like to be on top of an elephant. First of all, it is much higher than, say, being on a horse (which I have done many times). Second of all, you have to scoot up, almost to the point where you are on its head, and you can feel its enormous shoulder blades shift with every movement. It’s not exactly comfortable, but it was pretty cool. You have to relax your body (easily said, not so easily done) and move with the elephant.
Then we learned how to direct the elephant- we say “Bai” to make the elephant go, and we say “Kuay” along with a kick of the opposite leg to move in either direction. When we want to stop we say “Ho” and to get back down we again say “Nalong.”
After a delicious lunch of fried chicken, rice and pineapple sauce, soup, fresh pineapple and coffee, it was time for us to put our knowledge into action as we took an elephant ride around the compound, through the forest and along the river. It is now that I should insert that Trent’s elephant LOVED to eat. She wasn’t named “Naughty Girl” for no reason. At any given moment she was pulling at trees and eating plants, and mine, being directly behind his, thought it okay to do the same. It is pretty disconcerting to be sitting on an elephant’s neck when they lean their head back and put their trunks way up into a tree to get something to eat!
At some point we stopped to take a break (seriously, riding an elephant is NOT comfortable). Trent’s elephant had to be chained (because she was so naughty) and the others roamed freely while we rested in the shade and drank some water. It was in this time that we saw two crazy/cool things. The first is not for the faint of heart or for the easily embarrassed. If that is you, skip to the next paragraph. We saw an elephant penis. Yep, you heard that right… and it was… well… elephant sized. One of the elephants was trying to mount another while we all sat back, both horrified and intrigued by what we were seeing. Rest assured, it never turned into full-blown elephant sex (the female elephant played hard-to-get) but it was awkward nonetheless!
The second crazy/cool thing we saw is how elephants drink. Our guide was telling us that we could pour the water from our water bottles into the elephants’ trunks and then they would spray it in their mouths to drink it. I watched and filmed as one of the other ladies in our group tried it. It was fascinating to watch! They sprayed the water into their mouths with such force and power!
The final event of the day was to take our elephants to the watering hole to bathe them. This was probably the most fun. Even though the elephants pooped in the water (yes, there was floating poop as we were in the water), we had a blast washing and brushing our elephants. The guides were playful as they threw buckets full of water at us and at each other. They even told Trent and I we could stand on our elephant’s back for a picture. We did and we had so much fun that we didn’t want to leave. But alas, our time with them had come to an end.
We were extremely blessed to be able to see and learn about elephants in such a personal, up-close encounter. We developed a deeper and more profound respect for these beautiful and powerful creatures and loved our time there. We would recommend Baan Chang Elephant Park to anyone who will be in the Chiang Mai area!
The rest of the night seemed pretty anticlimactic compared to the excitement of the day, but we came pretty close when we found Mexican food! Now, to most, that probably seems pretty trivial, but in China where we live… no hay nada. So “Loco Elvis” had our vote. We ate delicious burritos with chips and salsa (I haven’t had salsa since September in Beijing!) and tried some local Thai beers while enjoying some live music. On the way back we came across a massage parlor that was so cheap we couldn’t refuse. We chose the hour-long foot, head, neck, and back massage for like 7 dollars. Unfortunately 50 minutes of that hour were spent on our feet (I HATE foot massages) and only 10 minutes for the rest. So boo. Then we headed back to our hostel to rest in preparation for our final day in Chiang Mai.