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Chiang Mai’s wildlife: elephants, tigers and backpackers


I step off the overnight train in Chiang Mai with my small backpack and a tattered guidebook not knowing what to expect. My guidebook isn’t tattered because I’ve been meticulously pouring over it to gain some insight into northern Thailand. It’s in its current depreciated condition because I shoved it, unread, into my overcrowded bag as I was packing for the train. The only thing that I know about Chiang Mai is that some friends in Bangkok told me it was one of the best places to travel to in Thailand, and after spending a month in Bangkok, this was all the encouragement that I needed to book a train ticket.

Not knowing the geography, I ask for a map at the tourist information booth and instead am given a ride to the guesthouse where I’ll be staying for the next week. On the way to the guesthouse the driver of the van shows me how he keeps himself entertained while driving backpackers around. He’s rigged his windshield wiper fluid so that it sprays on unsuspecting motorcyclists at red lights. Every time he hits a rider he falls into a fit of laugher that’s impossible not to reciprocate.

As I check in to my guesthouse I survey the courtyard. There are two raised, blue platforms where people can gather. One of them is currently occupied by a group of about eight people drinking beer and water and chatting away.

Usually, it’s more than a little daunting to make new friends out of complete strangers, and many friends and relatives warned me that I’d be very lonely traveling around the world on my own, but for some reason making friends is one of the easiest parts of being on the road. For the most part, travelers are open and receptive to other travelers, and as I make my way over and sit down on the platform, I am greeted warmly by a hungover-looking Brit who tells me his name is Dave.

From what I can gather, the group had a long night out and most of them are trying to recover. In addition to Dave I meet a cute girl from Kansas named Siena, a sunny Dutch girl named Kelly, a small American named Naomi, and several others whose names and nationalities I forget in the shuffle of meeting so many people.

There is a common perception that backpacker haunts are places where kids get stoned in the day and drunk at night all the while completely oblivious to the culture around them that they left home to see in the first place. There is some truth in this assessment, but the conversation around me has little to do with partying and getting wasted. Instead everyone is trading stories of the adventures they’ve had in Chiang Mai.

Through this conversation I discover that Chiang Mai is the main hub for adventure travel in northern Thailand—something that I would have known had I read my guidebook, but it’s much more enjoyable to discover this fact by hearing first hand tales of the various activities available.

Tomorrow a couple of girls plan to go bungee jumping. Kelly is going on a zip line ride in search of Gibbons through the top of the forests of Thailand, and Dave can’t decide what to do.

“There are too many choices here,” he remarks in his lazy British accent. “Every time I look at the brochures, I get overwhelmed and just come back and sit here. I want to go elephant riding a second time.”

My ears perk up at this. Before I left for Thailand, I ran into a girl who had lived in Bangkok for 8 months. One of her fondest memories of Bangkok was the elephants that you can feed in the streets around central Bangkok. When I asked her if I would be able to ride these elephants, she told me no, and ever since then I have harbored secret fantasies about how I would find a way to ride an elephant. Usually these fantasies involved a ninja outfit and me having to fight off a herd of elephant trainers.

In Chiang Mai though, it seems that elephant riding is pretty commonplace as Naomi has also been elephant riding and Kelly spent two weeks volunteering at an elephant reservation riding elephants every day. I might not have to invest in a ninja outfit after all.

Siena, the only other American that I’ve seen in Thailand, is also intrigued about the elephant riding trek, and after Dave recounts his experiences finishing with “It was one of the best days of my life,” Siena and I are sold. Even though we were strangers 20 minutes before, it feels like we’re old friends as we go together to the guesthouse desk and book the elephant trek for the next day.

Seeing our quick action spurs Dave to make up his mind, and he heads to the desk to book a white water rafting trek for tomorrow. As the sun sets, Dave tells us of a local curry restaurant. With all of our stomachs grumbling by this time, the group heads over to eat curry and drink some local beer as we continue to trade travel tales and talk excitedly about our plans for tomorrow.

Elephant Rider

In the morning Siena and I are greeted by a smiling Thai man who introduces himself as Woody. Together with a couple of Scottish girls we pile into Woody’s truck and drive an hour out of town to Woody’s elephant camp. Once there Woody explains that we’ll spend the first part of the day getting familiar with riding the elephants and in the afternoon, we’ll all mount up and ride up to the top of the nearby hill and then down to the elephants’ watering hole.

After Woody’s worryingly specific safety lecture (which consisted mainly of him detailing the various ways elephants can injure you), we walk up to the elephants’ yard. The elephants are all lined up, and the majority are contentedly munching on the pile of leaves in front of them.

Even though the elephants appear docile, the sheer size of them comes as a shock to me. It’s quite easy to see how Hannibal used elephants to terrify the normally stoic Roman armies. The largest elephant’s trunk is bigger than my whole body.

As we all stand contemplating the safety briefing, Woody hands us a piece of sugar cane from a blue bucket on the ground and tells us it’s time to feed Christine, the largest and oldest elephant at the camp.

We all line up, and I try my best to calm my nerves. Woody indicates that it’s my turn, and, my nerves fully under control, I nervously cry out “Bon-soon!” one of the commands Woody taught us earlier. I’m fairly convinced that Christine will hear the anxiety in my voice and respond by trampling me into the red mud, but luckily Christine is much more interested in the sugar cane I’m holding than trampling me into the ground, and so instead of a violent charge, Christine opens her mouth and takes the sugar cane from my hand. Once she’s done eating, Woody laughs as he holds me in place while Christine kisses me with her trunk.

While the rest of the group is feeding Christine, I walk over to get more leaves from the giant leaf pile that sits in the center of the yard to give to some of the other elephants. As I’m bending over to grab an armful of the elephant’s main source of food, a branch just like the one’s I’m picking up sails through the air and lands a short distance from me. I look up and see that the offending branch was thrown by the elephant that is in time out for getting loose and ruining a neighbor’s crop fields. The time out elephant picks up another branch and waves it in my direction. I’m immediately reminded of a two year old throwing a fit because no one will pay attention to him. As I walk back to the other elephants, I hear another branch being tossed in my direction accompanied by an angry snort.

After I distribute my leaves in front of the other elephants, it’s time for the group to get our first experience riding an elephant. The yard fills with cries of “Yo-Kaaaah,” which is the command that tells the elephants to lift their legs so we can use them as a ladder.

When Woody demonstrated how to use an elephant’s leg as a ladder, he was able to gracefully glide atop Christine. When I try the same thing, it takes me twice as long as it did with Woody, and instead of gliding atop Christine like a professional, my assent is more of a fumbling scramble that almost includes me gracefully falling off the other side.

Once I’m sitting atop Christine with significantly less dignity, we’re both put through our paces as I learn how to make her turn, go forwards and backwards, and, most importantly, how to make her stop. Every time Christine turns, I feel like I’m inches from falling off and fulfilling my earlier fears of being trampled into the ground below.

The sky begins to cloud over as Woody calls for the lunch break before we ride up to the top of the hill. For the afternoon trek, each elephant has two riders, one controlling the elephant and one sitting in the back. Siena and I pair up and pick one of the smaller elephants in the hopes that since he’s smaller, he might be easier to control.

As soon as I get onto our elephant, I regret volunteering for the driver’s position on the first part of the ride because our elephant doesn’t seem to want to listen to me. I vainly try to make him stop, as he ignores me and wanders around the yard until he reaches the leaf pile in the middle where he is content to munch away and continue ignoring me. I laugh to Siena and lie when she asks me if I’m doing alright with the steering.

The workers convince our elephant to leave the leaf pile and walk along side him and the others and make sure that they stay on the path and behave themselves with the verbal commands that I’ve already forgotten from this morning. The presence of the workers makes my driving responsibilities considerably less difficult, and as I sit on my elephant’s head pretending to steer, I’m struck with the image of ancient humans riding mastodons through the Arctic in search of food.

“This is really cool,” I remark to Siena, who agrees with me.

As I’m pretending to steer up a steep corner, Siena pokes me in the arm and says “Look at the rain!” I follow the direction of her arm and see that it’s pouring down rain a mere hundred yards off, and as we watch, the rain moves like a surreal wall of unavoidable nature towards us. Soon, we’re both soaked atop our elephant, but the afternoon rain is a welcome respite from the afternoon heat of northern Thailand.

By the time we reach the gazebo at the top of the hill, however, the feeling of refreshment that the rain originally brought has been replaced by a feeling of severe cold. I almost loose my straw elephant-riding hat that I borrowed from Woody as Siena and I make a run for the shelter of the gazebo.

Inside, Woody chops up sugar cane with a rusty machete and the other trainers pull bananas out of burlap bags for us to give to the elephants who have taken refuge from the rain under the gazebo. The elephants stick their trunks up through gaps in the floor of the gazebo in order to grab the food, and Siena makes lewd comments about what their disembodied trunks remind her of.

When the worst of the rain is over, I don my straw hat and manage to get back onto our elephant with a little more grace than this morning. I’m secretly glad that Siena’s steering for the downhill part of our journey because she at least remembers most of the commands and is somewhat helpful in stopping our elephant when he tries to impress us by passing the other, slower elephants on worryingly slippery downhill parts of our trek.

When we started the day, both Siena and I were nervous around these mammoth creatures; they’re just so big and powerful. But by the time we arrive at the river, any of that nervousness still remaining evaporates as the elephants allow us to climb all over them as they use their trunks to snorkel under the water. They’re no longer mammoth creatures left over from the last ice age. They’re more like big, playful dogs.

We soon find out, however, that anyone sitting on an elephant’s back while in the water is in fact in danger. Not of being trampled or thrown off into the water. Rather, the elephants seem to think it’s quite funny to fill up their trunks with water and then spray their unsuspecting riders in the face before happily going back to splashing their heads in the water.

Back at the hostel, there were a few people who told us that many elephants are mistreated in Thai elephant camps, but as we use brushes to clean our elephants, it’s clear that those people have never been to Woody’s camp. Just watching the trainers, riders and elephants interact, it’s clear that the trainers care very much about their elephants and it’s equally clear that the elephants couldn’t be happier as they play in the water.

Eventually, the elephants’ bath devolves into a massive water fight where the elephants obligingly allow us to use their trunks to spray one another. As we get out of the water, it’s time to say goodbye to our elephant and return home.

As we ride back to the hostel, I can understand why Dave wanted to go to Woody’s elephant camp again.

When Siena and I arrive back at the hostel, we rejoin our group from yesterday. The group has decided to grab a bite to eat at the night market and then head to a Mauy Thai bout.

At the restaurant, we talk about each other’s days. Kelly, the Dutch girl, tells us about overcoming her fear of heights as she went ziplining through the Thai forest. Of the two girls who went bungee jumping, Lily, a dark skinned English girl, tells us that she loved it, while the second girl orders an extra large beer and refuses to talk about the incident. Dave enjoyed the white water rafting, but wishes that it had been a bit more intense.

The conversation eventually turns to what everyone is going to do tomorrow. Siena, Kelly, Dave and I decide that we’ll make a visit to the Tiger Kingdom, where travelers are allowed to pet and play with live tigers. There’s some fuss at our choice of activity and a few people tell not to go because the staff drug the tigers to make them docile.

Lily tells us that she went a few days ago and that the tigers were not drugged. The four of us decide that the only way to find out is to visit the Tiger Kingdom tomorrow and see for ourselves.

After that our group gets lost on the way to the Mauy Thai fights, and instead we stumble in to some fake mauy Thai fights where “fighters” go back and forth with numerous kicks and do ridiculous things like fall out of the ring onto concrete and then go on to win the match. Since it’s free, we sit down at a bar that’s ringside and play Jenga as we sip on local beers.

Since we’re westerners, pretty soon we’re surrounded by Thai children who try to sell us flowers. We switch games and I show off my connect-four skills until I am mercilessly beaten by one of the child flower peddlers who can’t be more than 10 years old. My overconfidence costs me 40 baht (about $1.30) as I placed a wager with the flower peddler before the game. As I pay him, he gives me a rose in return.

For some reason, the flower peddler has taken a shine to Dave and tries to get into every picture that Dave poses for when we walk up to the ringside where the fake fights are taking place. Dave only manages to escape from the flower child when it’s time for our group to leave well after 2 a.m.

Tiger Boxing

By the time I wake up, most of the group from my first day in Chiang Mai has headed off to the nearby town of Pai or the nearby country of Laos. In addition, today Dave is headed back to Bangkok on the 7 p.m. train, and Siena is leaving tomorrow morning. Even though I’ve only known these people for a few days, the feeling I have is the same as when a longtime friend moves to the other side of the country.

We’re determined to make the most of our time together in Chiang Mai however, so Dave, Siena, Kelly and I head out into the streets of Chiang Mai not really knowing how to get to the Tiger Kingdom. As we enter the main street around our guesthouse, the first Thai man we encounter tells us that he is a taxi driver and offers to take us to Tiger Kingdom for 120 baht per person. We manage to get the price down to 40 baht per person and pile into the back of his taxi, which is an old, white Jeep Grand Cherokee with no air conditioning.

As we head down the bumpy road to the Tiger Kingdom, we speculate about whether they drug the tigers and come up with various theories about why or why not the trainers would think it’s a good idea to drug the tigers.

When we arrive at the Tiger Kingdom, we purchase a ticket to interact with the smallest tigers they have as well as the largest ones. As we enter the smallest tigers’ enclosure, I think that there might be a good chance that the tigers are drugged since all of them seem to be laying in the shade and not doing much of anything.

Each tiger has his or her own individual trainer, whose job seems to consist of shaking a bamboo branch for the tigers to play with while tourists pet them. Even though these are not the big tigers, the smallest tiger in the enclosure is easily bigger than most dogs and has paws the size of small frying pan.

As I lean down to pet one of the tigers, she looks at me and then rolls on her back so I can rub her stomach like a dog. As we pet the tigers we chat with one of the trainers who it turns out is a volunteer from New Zealand. He tells us that this is his second day. When broach the subject of the possibility of the tigers being drugged he tells us something that should have been obvious.

“Yeah, a lot of people who come at this time of day think that we drug them because they just lay around, but think about it. It’s the middle of the afternoon what did you expect the tigers to be doing? They play in the morning and at night, but they like to lounge in the shade when it’s hot,” he explains in his New Zealand accent. Once stated out loud it seems obvious.

It clouds over while we head to the big tiger enclosures. As we step up to the first cage, it begins to rain, leaving us as the only group waiting to see the big tigers. The big tigers are significantly more intimidating than the baby tigers. Every time I make eye contact, I get the distinct feeling that the tiger knows all of my secrets and insecurities and that he doesn’t necessarily approve of them; this must be what it’s like to meet Aslan.

The rain begins to fall harder, and the trainers let another two tigers into our cage. Since the rain has cooled everything down by several degrees, we find out once and for all that the tigers are not drugged as they begin to stand on their hind legs and battle like boxers only feet from us. It’s far more entertaining than the fake mauy thai fights.

As it quits raining, we head back into town talking about how cool it is that you can play with elephants one day and then turn around and play with tigers the next in Chiang Mai.

“I don’t want to leave,” Dave says as we arrive back at the guesthouse.

“Me either,” Siena replies.

We hang around with Dave until it’s time for him to make his way to the train station. We all make sure we’ve exchanged contact information, and after a round of handshakes and hugs, Dave finds a tuk-tuk to the train station.

Dave’s departure mixed with the realization that Siena too will be leaving soon hangs over the group that night as we play pool in a local bar run by a Ladyboy who generously allows us to stay well after closing time to finish our game of cutthroat that nobody can seem to end.

In the morning, we repeat the contact info routine as Siena prepares to head to the train station and Kelly prepares to find the people she volunteered with at the elephant camp. After another round of hugs, I’m transported back to where I began: I’m in Chiang Mai and have no idea what to expect or do.

In a few days, I’ll head to Vietnam looking for a new series of adventures, and as I write this finishing a Chang beer and a slice of pizza, I can only hope that the friends I find to share new adventures in Vietnam will be as fun and interesting as the ones I found in Chiang Mai.

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