Posted by: aitzko | December 24, 2009

I learn to cook and bathe some elephants. Seriously!

Sorry it’s been a while since I last posted- there hasn’t been too much going on!

I got into Chiang Mai on the afternoon of the 21st, and pretty much relaxed.  Chiang Mai has got a LOT of tourists and expats – I think I’ve seen almost as many Westerners here as Thais.  My guesthouse is great – the owner has two little schnauzers who are anxious to come say hi and get some scratches behind the ear.

On Tuesday morning Iwas picked up from my hotel for a cooking class!  You can actually see pictures here:  http://www.asiascenic.com/images/webphoto/2009/Dec/22Dec/22.htm  (I’m the chubby one in the bright pink – all this Thai food is not doing me much good.)  I was with a really fun group, a couple from the States, a couple from Canada, a couple from the Netherlands, and a guy from Taiwan.  We had a blast, and I learned how to make all sorts of delicious stuff.  My favorite was the chicken with cashew nuts.  It was great that we all got along so well – it really made the class a lot of fun!  Our instructor was lovely, and she was so funny – she kept saying “It’s okay,” when we showed her something and asked if it looked the way it was supposed to look – and it quickly became the refrain of the class.  As in, it’s not great but… it’s okay!

The next day (yesterday) I got picked up bright and early again for a trip to the Elephant Nature Park, about an hour north of Chiang Mai.  This place is pretty incredible.  It’s run by a Thai woman who goes by Lek, which means “small” in Thai.  She basically rescues elephants and brings them to her reserve, which is a gorgeous area in the mountains – it’s seriously breathtaking.

The elephant has a complex place in Thai society.  While it’s often seen as a sacred and revered animal, the reality of how actual elephants are treated is vastly different.  There are wild and domestic elephants in Thailand – special laws protect wild elephants, but domestic elephants are considered livestock, and are not protected by any legislation.  Elephants were instrumental in building this country – they were used most often in logging operations, which stopped in the 90s.  While this was a good thing for the elephants’ natural habitat and preserving the environment, it wasn’t a good thing for domestic elephants, because now thousands were out of work.  As a result, mahouts (elephant trainers) often take their elephants to the street to beg.  They sell food to tourists, who then feed the elephants.  The mahouts can make more in one night than an average Thai makes in a month, but this is horrible for the elephants – they wander the streets, with cars zipping by.  The headlights at night are really hard on sensitive elephant eyes, and their sensitive feet can detect minute vibrations in the ground, so being in a rumbling city is sensory overload.

The elephants who escape street begging are often used in villages to do the heavy lifting in building projects and farming.  Unfortunately, many Thais believe that an ancient training ritual is necessary to domesticate the animals and make them fit for work.  Young elephants around 4 years old, are separated from their mothers for the first time and forced into small cages for days at a time.  They’re then basically beaten in an effort to “teach” them appropriate behavior.  The young elephants are confused and in pain, and get no treatment for their considerable injuries.  This is a deeply ingrained ritual in Thailand, and it’s not an easy task to convince people that rather than being an effective training plan, it’s actually tremendously cruel and totally unnecessary.

Anyway, this is all to give some background on the current situation for elephants in Thailand.  Lek has managed to rescue about 35 elephants at this point, with the help of devoted staff and volunteers, and money from tourists like us, who come for the day to see and learn about the elephants.  It was such a fantastic day.  While it’s heartbreaking to hear what many of the elephants have gone through, it’s awesome to see them all getting to enjoy their lives, tended to by caring mahouts.  We got to get right up there and feed the elephants –  they eat a tremendous amount of food, and all you have to do is hold out a cucumber or a bunch of bananas, and they’ll stick their trunks right out and grab it from you – it’s actually pretty funny, too often, you can’t feed them fast enough, and they’ll stick their trunks in the baskets, rooting around for extra food.  We also got to give the elephants a bath – we put on boots and got right into the river with them!  You basically throw buckets of water at them, while they kind of stand there and look blissful.  It was great!  It was so cool to be right up close.

As I said, some of these elephants have been through a lot.  There was one particular pair that had become fast friends, and really stood out for me.  One elephant was mostly blind after being forced to beg on the streets – the headlights from cars at night had seriously damaged her vision.  After arriving at the park, she had befriended another elephant who has a broken hip – it looks seriously painful, but the vets at the park have done everything they can to make sure she’s in as little pain as possible, and since she’s walking on it, it’s a good sign.  After she had hurt herself and could no longer work, this elephant was sold to a breeding facility.  A male elephant climbed up on her already injured hip, and broke it.  Anyway, these two elephants are older – both in their fifties -and they look out for each other.  It’s really rather sweet.

There are also two baby elephants at the park, which are ADORABLE.  We got to get fairly close to their group (but not too close, since elephants are fiercely protective of their babies) because Lek was nearby – the effect that she has on the elephants is palpable.  They’re all much more relaxed when they’re around her.  The babies came by, and Lek let them put their trunks all over her face – it was kind of funny!

All in all, a fantastic day.  We were there all day, until 5 pm.  Another nice thing was that I was with a fantastic group of people!  It was me, a Scottish couple (Ros and Trevor), and a big English family.  The daughter lives here in Chiang Mai, so the whole family was coming to visit for the holidays!  They were a seriously wonderful group of people, and when I wasn’t marvelling at the elephants I was chatting with my tour mates.  Nikki is the woman who lives here in Chiang Mai, and her mother is Sue.  Sue is turning 71 this week, but nothing slowed her down!  She was obviously very well traveled, and we had a great chat in the car.  They kind of adopted me for the day, which was so lovely.  Nikki’s sister Sarah and her husband Nick were also there with their three children, George, Harry, and Rachel.  I had a blast, and we all exchanged email addresses to send each other the pictures from the day.  As it turns out, Ros and Trevor are actually staying in my hotel, so we got dinner together!  They left today for Phuket, so it turns out I might see them there! 🙂

Today is my last day in Chiang Mai, and I finally did a little bit of sightseeing around the city.  It’s great – I saw a whole bunch of temples, which are constructed in the Lanna style of architecture, which I quite like.  I don’tknow what it is though, but there are so so many expats here, and I can’t quite figure out the appeal.   Don’t get me wrong, I really like Chiang Mai, but from the way many people described it, I was expecting to be floored!  Maybe at this point I’m just totally touristed-out.  Honestly, I’m really ready to go to the beach for a few days and just zone out.  I’ve had enough sightseeing!  I want some beach. 🙂

Flying down to Phuket tomorrow, so let the beach time begin!

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Responses

  1. To repeat: sounds great.

    Also, you may not know it yet, but we are definitely going to try to recreate your Thai cooking experience. Alex and I did a Thai food feast night (were you there for that one?), so I’m curious to compare.

    Keep having fun, travel safely, and see you soon!

    • Jason!! Glad you found it. 🙂 Sweet! I got a cookbook from the class, so that should help. Now we just have to find the ingredients… my favorite was the chicken with cashew nuts and the pad see euw was a close second. Can’t wait! 🙂

      And Merry Christmas! Dave said you guys are leaving the tree up for a bit? I’m glad, I really want to see it!


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