Chiang Mai - Baan Chang Elephant Park
I let out a yell of joy as we swam down the rapids, having just jumped out of the raft on a relatively calmer part of the river. The scenery was unbelievable and we were swimming down a white water river nestled into a steep, lush, green valley in north west Thailand roughly 50 kilometres north of Chiang Mai and our trip was just about over. We'd ridden and bathed elephants, drank Thai whiskey, eaten sticky bamboo rice with the Mahouts (elephant trainers), swam in water falls, and now white water rafting back towards Chiang Mai.
Duane and I had made it up to Chiang Mai for a quick weekend side-trip, not totally sure what we were going to do when we got there but with some vague ideas. We found out about Baan Chang Elephant Park online after we arrived. We wanted to ensure we would be somewhere that the elephants were treated respectfully. Most places where you see elephant treks offered you can almost guarantee they're being poorly treated. Fortunately in the north of Thailand this is much more rare. Asian elephants live for 60-80 years and the mahouts are basically paired with an elephant for life. If your elephant moves to another park, you move with it. The day prior to our arrival one of the mahouts was ill and the elephant was so distraught she refused to do anything. There really appeared to be a loving relationship between each mahout and elephant. I didn't observe this kind of dynamic between elephants and guides anywhere else in Thailand.
The first thing we did after arriving at the camp was to feed each elephant a bunch of bananas. Each of us needed to feed each elephant so they could smell us and familiarize themselves with us. Apparently after they smell you once, they will remember you for at least 6 months (or was it 2 years?). Elephants are also one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, right next to dolphins.
"Bai Bai Bai!!" our mahout yelled repeatedly ("go" in Thai). Our elephant was a bit touchy and had stopped to eat again. As much as the mahouts attempted to get her to move, she wasn't budging. Both Duane and I held on with our lives and wailed with laughter as she grabbed a branch of sugar cane with her trunk and yanked and swung her head. We were in the middle of a jungle, riding bareback on an elephant... two days into the side trip to Chiang Mai and it was turning out to be more amazing than I could have imagined.
The previous night we'd been out to watch a Muay Thai fight, and truth be told I think both our heads felt a bit like we'd actually partaken in the match. The Changover was in full effect. Fortunately it wore off quite quickly as soon as we got into the fresh air at the park. The entire area is lush green, tall grasses, bamboo, sugar cane, banana plantations, and mud everywhere else. The air was as fresh as anywhere I've been in Thailand, in spite of the fact that there was the excrement from a dozen elephants to take care of.
We were spending the night at the camp along with three girls from Paris who were also going rafting the next day. The cabins were partway up the side of the valley and had an amazing view over the mostly undisturbed rain forest. We spent the evening drinking Thai whiskey, releasing wish lanterns, and singing/playing songs around a camp fire. Most of the workers in that area of Thailand are Burmese and can't speak any English but after a few bottles of whiskey communication barriers mostly fall down.
The next morning we headed out for a 2h hike to a waterfall and natural pool followed by a river rafting trip down the Mae Tang river. Almost on queue as we climbed out of the water, the skies opened and it poured most of the way back to Chiang Mai.
I was heading back to Bangkok the following day on what I thought would be about a 10h train ride. Things didn't go quite as planned though...