I am not entirely sure why, but for a long time I have been obsessed with elephants. I always thought they are adorable and was never satisfied with just seeing them from behind bars at zoos. Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, I knew that one of the things we were definitely going to do was visiting the elephants, as it is a popular tourist activity in Thailand. Thankfully for us, Phung, our ex au pair, and her awesome boyfriend, Lek, were able to drive us to the Maesa Elephant Camp, which is a little over an hour outside of Chiang Mai.
Originally we wanted to take part in helping with washing the baby elephants, but once we arrived at the park we were told that children are not allowed to wash the elephants, so we only had to pay 200 Bhat ($6) per person for general admission to enter the park. The tours that leave from hotels charge tourists 3000 Bhat or more for a trip to the same park! They do offer some more hands on activities, such as the elephant washing and riding elephants, but our kids are too young to partake in those activities anyways. There are even some other tours that cost much much more and take a couple days, some up to one week where you even camp there, but really, how many days you can spend with elephants?
Once inside the park, you can purchase banana bunches and sugar cane and feed any of the elephants of various ages that are hanging around the entrance. The keepers/trainers seemed to be nice enough to the elephants, but as is almost always the case, they do their best to make money off of the tourists. If you don't tip the trainer, they won't really help you get pictures, and sometimes even pulled the elephants back so you couldn't take a good picture. This part was definitely disappointing. Regardless, the kids had a blast feeding the elephants, but boy do they go through those bananas quickly!!
After feeding all the elephants near the entrance, we went to the elephant nursery to see the baby elephants. We did get to meet one silly "little" guy named Big Mountain. He was 4 months old and his mama did not let strangers get near him. We had to stand behind some ropes just to make sure we don't upset mama elephant. Big Mountain was definitely very playful and did all sorts of funny stunts when we were there. There was no trainer in there with him, so everything he did was unprompted and on his own will.
After seeing Big Mountain, we headed back to the first area to feed some of the elephants in the back that seemed to not get as much love because all the ones in the front ate the bananas and sugar cane before the tourists would reach the elephants in the back. Here we got to pet the elephants, and wow, they have such rough skin that is so incredibly cool to the touch! I was definitely a happy camper after my super close encounters with these amazing creatures.
A lot of tourists that visit Thailand go on elephant rides. I could not bring myself to ride on an elephant, especially after seeing how they saddle them up. It just looks really mean and uncomfortable for the elephants. The elephant keepers in the park do not use saddles, instead they just ride on the bare back of the elephants.
Although we weren't able to take part in washing an elephant, we did get to watch the elephant keepers give a few elephants a good bath, and boy do the elephants love it! They were so happy to roll around in the water.
After watching the happy elephants take a bath, we went to see an elephant show. I have no idea what it takes to train an elephant, and even though elephant keepers were riding on the elephants for portions of this show, the elephants did not seem to be forced to perform and they looked like they were having a lot of fun. We watched them play soccer and try to score goals... if they succeeded it was great, if they didn't it was great. The trainers didn't do anything differently in either case, and the elephants had a blast doing it.
The most amazing part of the show was when the elephants started painting. Yes, you read that right. Each elephant got a blank canvas, and an elephant keeper would load up a paint brush with some paint and hand it over to the elephant, who would proceed to paint.
I still can't believe the focus that these elephants had for painting! If a line they previously drew didn't look bold enough, they would meticulously go over it one more time to darken the line! I really wish I could talk to the trainers to find out how they teach the elephants to paint. I also hope that the process involves lots of kindness.
Here's a video of "our" elephant painting a tree. I call him our elephant because he was the one closest to our section, and thankfully also one of the best, at least in our opinion.
In case you are unable to open the videos or you just want to see more, here are some additional pictures of the show.
After the paintings were completed, they sold each painting with the price range between 3000-6000 Bhats! What do you think an elephant would do with all that money?! I have a feeling he/she might spend it all on bananas and sugar cane! :)
Before leaving the park, we got a family picture with one of the elephants, who had a few tricks up his sleeve. One of these tricks was giving a nice big wet smooch to my hubby right on his cheek. According to him, it was also a bit of a smelly kiss!
We were all done with the elephants, but our adventures for the day hadn't quite come to an end yet. We all got back in the car and headed down the road to Tiger Kingdom. I should probably mention this area has tons of different parks, enough to keep a tourist with a big wallet happy for many days! In Tiger Kingdom, the tourists are allowed to pet tigers and take pictures with them. You can pick the size of the tiger you would like to meet, the bigger the tiger the more money you have to pay, however if you are with a child, your only option is to visit the smallest tigers: the cute little tiger cubs!
Prior to entering the area, they review a few simple rules to help ensure your safety around the little carnivores. The tiger cub we met was named Surprisey. He was 4 months old, and according to the keeper slept almost 18 hours a day. At first I couldn't understand how these tiger cubs were so sleepy and had a fear they might be given sedatives. Then I asked the tiger keeper if we could take pictures with Surprisey awake, and when he was able to wake him up with just a tickle on his belly, I knew he couldn't possibly be sedated. I am not sure whether or not he was happy to have been woken from his nap, but after he was fully awake he ran off to play with some other cubs.
What I absolutely hated was how they forced the cubs to pose for certain pictures. We even saw one of the keepers drag a cub across the floor with it's tail! Yikes! I felt bad we gave money to help them continue this awful behavior, but I doubt we will ever come this close to a tiger again. And perhaps that is exactly how it should be!
After meeting Surprisey, who honestly could have cared less about meeting us, we went around Tiger Kingdom to see a few other tigers who were in cages and not part of the photoshoots. We got to see tiger cubs only a month old (so cute!) and some scary big tigers with very sharp teeth! Gulp!! Watching people pose with some of the huge tigers was a little crazy, I'm glad we only met the babies up close!
What a wonderful and memorable day we had! I know Kian will have some memory of the day, and really hope Hannah will remember some of it as well. They did of course get a few souvenir elephants; Kian got a stuffed elephant he named Lucky, and Hannah got an elephant necklace and a small keychain sized elephant. We thanked Phung and Lek profusely once they dropped us off back at our hotel and headed inside to freshen up before dinner.
We walked to the famous Nimman Road, where there are many trendy restaurants, to find a place for dinner, and came across a place called HOBS. It is a very Western restaurant with decent food. We enjoyed some chicken wings and steak and the kids scarfed down some spaghetti!
Our animal and temple experiences have officially completed in Thailand. Tomorrow we need to pack it up and get ourselves ready for New Zealand! But first, I must check out Chiang Mai's Night Market one more time.