Travel Diary: Elephant March

Posted in Adventure
on October 20, 2016

“We will forever be known by the tracks we leave behind us.” – Dakota saying

Volunteering, food poisoning, elephant parks, and lady boy shows meant week three continued to be quiet the adventure for this quaintrelle.

After my enlightening trip to the slums, which you can find out more about here, I took ill from the lunch I decided to eat there. I holed myself up in my room for a day sick with food poisoning that could have only come from the chicken and rice I devoured from a street vendor in the slums.

It was unfortunate because I did not get to do many things that week. I spent each day on and off with a stomach sickness and could barely eat anything other than plain rice. These were the moments I missed my mother and the medicinal benefits of salty crackers.

Chiang Mai

Getting to and from the hostel from the airport was a less exciting event compared to my trip to Phuket. I hired a taxi for 150 baht (still expensive – but cheaper than the islands). I walked around the area surrounding my hostel and found some street food venders. Since I was feeling up to my old self, I decided to keep it simple and get some mixed vegetables and plain rice. Well, that did not go over well and I ended up vomiting BUT it left my stomach feeling quite a lot better! Luckily, this was the last time I felt ill in Thailand. As much as I wanted to join in all the Friday night fun, I didn’t want to risk making myself more sick. Plus I had to be up exceptionally early to be picked up for my elephant park experience.

Riding up to the temple on the hill was quite the experience

The city of Chiang Mai dates back something around 700 years. It’s one of the most historical cities in Thailand, with architecture dating even further back than the beloved Ayuttaya just north of Bangkok. Chiang Mai was the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom that lasted from 1299 to 1768. It is nestled amongst some of the tallest mountains in Thailand. Along with its rich history, it has an array of attractions that include many animal sanctuaries.  So, you can get the picture why foreigners enjoy visiting this place.

Elephant Park

Elephant enjoying a scratch on an old tree stump

I decided at a relatively young age that I wanted to ride an elephant in Thailand. It seemed so exotic and adventurous. Of course, as I grew older and the news came out with stories about the abuses animals suffer when you bring consumerism and “exotic” animals together.

Yet the thought never wavered that I wanted to ride an elephant. So I took to the internet to research ways in which I could be with an elephant, and possibly ride it without causing the elephant any harm.

First of all, elephants are meant tot be rode bareback. The attachment of a chair to the elephant’s back actually causes more pain for the elephant than it looks. Elephants should be active (riding/working/playing) for about four hours. Anything more than this exhausts them. This means, any place that keeps an elephant tied up or available for rides for all hours of the day are simply abusing the elephant.

I found a great article about the proper treatment of elephants here if you’d like to learn more.

This is actually the website that led me to Bann Chang Elephant Park.

I was so wary about falsified reviews or that I had given money to a place that truly doesn’t care for the elephants. The last thing I want to do is fund animal abuse.

See that baby elephant on the right? He’s trying to make himself as tall as everyone else!

I was picked up early Saturday morning at 8:30 am. I was part of a seven person group. Four from the UK, and two from the US. Yes, I once again was the lone wolf.

When we arrived there was some brush being burned and a few elephants were carrying branches with their trunks fro one spot to another.

The guide told us to have an open mind as we learned about the Thai way of keeping elephants and how to care for them.

All I could think was oh no, this is going to be an awful time.

The brilliant thing about this program is the history and explanation that goes into everything. First, we were given navy blue uniforms to wear. We were given some coffee and water and went over the itinerary for the day. We would be feeding the elephants, learning the proper steps to ride an elephant, eating lunch, riding the elephant, and then bathing our elephant.

Elephant trunks are odd

So why the weird blue uniforms? Well, Baan Chang isn’t simply a rescue park. Instead, what they do is buy elephants from their prospective owners. Some of the elephants come from safe places and the owner could not afford to keep the elephant. Others were used for tourist performances. Elephants have an amazing memory, so these elephants that had suffered abuses and were forced to be entertainment for tourists do not have a tendency to react well to the site of tourists. Yet, all the elephants know the people in the funny blue outfits are their friend and will give them food and a bath.

To say the least about my experience, I learned that elephants terrify me. And it has nothing to do with their size. Instead, I think elephant trunks are the oddest thing I’ve ever seen and they really creep me out the way they reach for things!

There are only around 3,000 elephants left in the wild of Thailand. At one time, there were more than 30,000. Around 2,000 elephants are domesticated. In the wild, elephants live in packs and usually there is one leader that ensures the elephants find enough food and water. Male elephants do not live in the packs. They instead live on their own and return to the herd once every three months for breeding seasons.

When an elephant is domesticated, they do not have a leader elephant and they will not work together in packs. They take on a very individualized mindset but still need guidance. This is where a mahout come in to play.

Officially an elephant rider

Mahout means “elephant keeper”. These individuals (always male) work with elephants from a young age. This means not just anyone can be a mahout.

Fun fact: Elephants cry. But not often. An elephant will shed tears if it is dehydrated. But it will cry only if it’s baby dies. They will also cry if their mahout dies.

Being a mahout may sound desirable but these men work 12 hours a day 365 days a year. Because an elephant needs to be looked after every day.

I’d rate my experience training to be a mahout for a day a solid 9 out of 10.

Mahout bathing his elephant

Riding an elephant was such a unique and different experience. Mad respect to the mahouts that watch out over their elephants. It’ definitely something I could not do.

Lady Boys

When I arrived back in Bangkok on Sunday, the day was still young (it was 3:00 pm when I made it back to the house). One of my roommates at the hostel in Chiang Mai told me about a lady boy show he went to that weekend. His experience struck my curiosity.

So I asked one of the staff members if he knew of a good place which lead me to the gay bars and clubs of Bangkok.

A katoey, or lady boy would more often than not be referred to a transgender in American society. Although lady boys could also be womanish gay men. This community of people are more widely accepted in Thailand than any other country in the world although when a lady boy comes out to their family, parents find themselves disappointed.

I was excited to get to experience a lady boy show. My friend took me to the gay district of Bangkok to see which bar or club would offer the best show. As the club filled with men and other lady boys, as well as the female friends of all these gentlemen, I found myself in the gay bar paradise I’ve always loved: a place where people who feel more or less repressed by the outside society can freely express their true selves without condemnation.

The lady boy show felt exactly like a drag queen show in the states. Except it was significantly shorter and there were backup dancers!

I didn’t get back to the house until well into the morning. I had so much fun dancing carelessly to the music (a typical Katie moment, to be sure). My after drinking snack was some strange pork soup that included way too many bits of the pig I would have preferred not to have…

Until next time, sawadee ka!

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