We caught our flight to Chiang Mai from Koh Samui and instantly felt welcome and relieved when we landed to find the people here to be honest and friendly. The biggest reason we wanted to come to Chiang Mai was to spend a day pampering rescued elephants at Elephant Nature Park. Suzie told us about this sanctuary and how much fun she had with the elephants there doing the Pamper a Pachyderm experience. First, I must say please never ride an elephant and never pay money to any organization that offers rides. It is heartbreaking how they treat the elephants to “break” them and make them subservient to commands. Elephants are incredibly smart, and we all know they never forget so they literally have to break the elephant’s spirit with torture before you can ride them. There are also a lot of elephant sanctuaries that claim to be cruelty free because the tourism industry has caught onto this tragic practice. Many sanctuaries put up a front during the day to please the savvy tourist, but at night put the elephants in chains and abuse them or starve them. Not trying to be preachy here, but Lauren did a ton of research on the topic to make sure we picked one that was truly a sanctuary for elephants so if you care about the elephants save yourself the time and go to Elephant Nature Park. They may be a little more expensive, but it is so worth it when you get to spend the day walking next to the elephants while feeding them. The two go hand in hand because if you don’t have any food for them, they are not interested in following you. Another good sign that they are no longer under abuse and free to do as they wish (Some “sanctuaries” offer mud baths with the elephants. Elephant Nature Park makes it clear that if the elephants don’t feel like taking a mud bath during or visit then they won’t).
We started the day of pampering by cutting up watermelons and making fiber balls for our two elephants named Sad and Happy. Sad is 65-70 years old and mostly blind, but that does not stop her appetite! Happy is younger and timid, normally found hiding behind Sad who gets territorial over her food. We learned the age of an elephant is difficult to determine, but the deeper the indentations on the side of their heads indicate the older they are. We also learned that their ears are the most sensitive part of their bodies which makes it even sadder when looking at an elephant that has been abused because their ears are all torn up from the years of punishment by bullhooks.
We were scared at first feeding the elephants because they were so grabby with their trunks plus our guide told us to never pick up food that drops in front of the elephant. They are very good at picking it up themselves and may think you are taking it away from them. We started by holding food out at arm’s length for them to gingerly grab with their trunks. After several tender grabs we started getting more comfortable until our guide dared us to feed them directly in their mouth. That took some more courage and a strategy of putting one piece of watermelon in their trunk with the second directly in the mouth to avoid the trunk searching for food on approach. It was so interesting to see how gentle and agile these huge creatures are with their incredibly strong trunks. When we ran out of fiber balls and watermelon it was time to take them on a walk, so we were each given a satchel filled with bananas.
A dozen dogs flanked us to join in on the walk who also lived at the sanctuary. It was essential that we kept one hand in the satchel on a banana ready to deploy if Sad or Happy were on approach searching with an empty trunk. If you were not banana ready it turned into a dance off as you squirmed to avoid their demanding trunk whilst fumbling for a banana. It was so funny watching Lauren’s face every time she fed them because she would light up with a beaming smile every time the carefully grabbed the food from her hand. Their trunks were so soft on the underside and often a bit drooly from putting the food in their mouths. The drool was not slimy or gross it just felt like water. The front of their trunks was rough and bristly from the tough short hairs. Their mouths also looked very funny because of how small they are in contrast to their bodies and they would sometimes just throw the food from their trunk into their mouths.
At the midpoint of our walk we stopped at a place for the elephants to have a drink and a mud bath if they wished before we humans continued up hill to our lunch. Watching them drink was fascinating as they sucked up water in their trunks to spray it in their mouths. I was wondering how they don’t choke on the water if they suck up too much in their trunks? While we ate, they took some mud baths and patiently waited for more bananas. On our walk back we stopped at the river crossing to give them a bath to cool down which they seemed to love. At the very end of the day we were driven up stream for a short white water raft ride down the river. The rafting itself was fun, and we definitely got soaked from people in the other raft splashing us with their oars. It as sad though to pass by a group of tourists in the river with two elephants who had chains around their legs and a handler with a bullhook nearby encouraging them to splash around. Unfortunately right around Elephant Nature Park (ENP) are riding camps and fake sanctuaries still making money off of tourists wanting to be entertained by elephants doing tricks or riding on elephants. Every once in a while you’d hear a painful elephant cry out int he distance that just broke your heart. ENP is trying to encourage these camps to give up their bullhooks and elephant tricks and chains for a more ethical tourism option of banana rewards and free-range roaming, but it’s a slow and difficult process when these people make their livelihood off of elephant tourism and still have many people paying for elephant rides (99% of these elephant riding tourists are Chinese, according to our van driver).
After our raft ride, we were driven to the actual sanctuary at Elephant Nature Park to see all of the other elephants in the sanctuary roaming around the grounds. We got a good laugh when the oldest elephant came over by us for a booty scratch on a large post. We saw some sad sights too at the sanctuary like the one elephant that had a custom boot strapped onto her foot because she had stepped on an abandoned landmine. We also saw baby elephants following their nanny protectors who took up parenthood after the mothers died. These baby elephants grow up into “Bad Boys” because at some point they stop listening to their mahout’s which his not a bad thing as it shows they have worked past the torture they were put through and no longer recognize humans as authority figures. These “Bad Boys” are kept in a separate area together, but sadly can’t be released into the wild because they depend too heavily on humans for food.
The rest of our time in Chiang Mai we spent walking all around the center of the city which is in the shape of a square and surrounded by a moat. Some walls and gates remain along the moat showing the city defenses of long ago. Our best and cheapest meal in Thailand may have been here. We had heard of the northern dish called Khao Soy and didn’t bother trying it until almost our last day in Chiang Mai which was a horrible mistake on our part! We tried it for the first time in a hole in the wall vegetarian place that had a lunch buffet called Ming Kwan and it was delicious! We each had Khao Soy to start and then split a few more appetizer and desserts and the whole bill came to a whopping 120 baht or $4. Now your starting to see why we got so upset in Khao Sok paying $11 a meal each right! Our best meals in Thailand were the cheapest ones.
Two of our nights in Chiang Mai we visited their infamous night market(s). Not really sure if we visited the right one because there seemed to be several along Changklang Road so we spent time at the ones that interested us! At one of them we found a hip food court with a stage and live band in the center. They were charging 300 baht for a beer here…excuse me while I walk across the street to 7-11 for a 100 baht beer to bring back and drink in defiance. The night market was an absolute hot spot for Levi’s shirts. We hit our all-time high counts when we visited both night with more than 10 spotted both nights! Exhilarating!!! 😊 All in all, we loved the vibe of Chiang Mai with all its entangled central streets confined within the outer moat.
One day, Lauren decided to take a Thai cooking class. We were eating at Vegan Heaven, a restaurant around the corner from our hotel, when she saw a flyer for a vegan cooking class offered from one of the chefs from the restaurant. If you were the first one to sign up, you also could pick which 5 dishes from the menu to learn how to cook. The day she wanted to do already had two other people in it, so she couldn’t decide which dishes to cook, but she liked the ones they had picked, so she signed up. She asked me if I’d like to go, but cooking isn’t something I enjoy doing, so I declined. Once there, she met the other two people in the class, a couple from Germany. They were very friendly and very good at documenting the class (They’re very active on Instagram and want to build a following so they can travel full time). The chef was friendly and patient as he explained the ingredients and cooking methods. They took turns chopping and cooking the 5 dishes on the woks set up in the classroom. The most surprising thing Lauren said she learned was how to properly make a Thai curry dish. Most recipes call for a full can of coconut milk and you end up with a light colored dish. But to bring out the flavor of the curry paste, you’re supposed to fry the paste first before adding only a ladle or two of coconut milk and further cooking that down. Then you only add enough water to thin out the sauce. Just a little tip for the next time you at-home cooks make a Thai curry (I will not be one of you). Afterwards, all three of them went downstairs to the restaurant and ate the feast they had just cooked. Lauren brought with her a recipe booklet, so when we get back to the States let us know if anyone wants a Thai night. Lauren’s cooking. 😊
We had heard about the overnight sleeper train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok before coming to Thailand and had hoped to get tickets for our trip back to Bangkok. This train is a favorite of backpackers and obviously no secret as every ticket was sold out! We tried to buy a ticket online a couple weeks before and struggled with the crappy website getting a reservation. When we called, they said they only post about 60% of the tickets online with the remainder available for purchase at the station. We tried to buy a ticket over the phone which is possible however you must pick up said ticket from the train station within 24 hours. So, we didn’t have much choice but to wait until we arrived in Chiang Mai to buy our tickets in person and hope there would be some left. Which there was not. Good thing we are veterans of long train rides from Europe because our only option was to take the day train leaving at 8:30am and arriving at 7:30pm. This sounds awful for most, but for us it is not that big of a deal to spend a whole day stuck on a train. We have learned to spend this time both productively and for leisure. We couldn’t get tickets together either so I was sitting next to a nice little lady I would guess in her 50’s. We didn’t speak because of the language barrier, but we grew close while she slept on my shoulder for a couple hours.