Few experiences are more emblematic of a “proper holiday” in the collective mind of the British than a trip to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand.Typically – and possibly unfairly -this particular outing has become associated with gap year students ‘doing’ Asia in their obligatory brightly patterned cotton ele-pants.
But yet, as the family of elephants came bustling around the corner at the Elephant jungle sanctuary in Chiang Mai, those thoughts were instantly dissolved. I couldn’t think, I was way too excited.
Chiang Mai, in the Northern mountainous region of Thailand, feels a lifetime away from the white sands of popular and better known holiday destinations such as Bangkok or Phuket. Famed for its old town, the city is seen as more of a cultural centre with endless options for day trips and adventure activities.
As a group (five of us in total) we decided to spend one full day of our weekend white water rafting and half a day visiting an elephant sanctuary. Flying back to Hong Kong on the Sunday left little time anything else.
Booking accommodation for the weekend was easy and incredibly good value. After a short search on booking.com we found an apartment just outside of the old town at HK$1,210 (￡128 between us) for two nights. The accommodation included everything you would expect in a hotel -but at a fraction of the cost. It also had an outdoor pool with a less than ideal water temperature and stunning views across the city. If you’re looking for the full holiday hotel experience it isn’t for you, but for a weekend on a budget with four friends, and slightly too much luggage, it’s perfect.
Our first night, we dropped our bags and headed straight out in a tuk tuk to Si Phum – Chiang Mai’s nightlife district. Hong Kong’s roads scarcely need more traffic, however, I would fully endorse the introduction of tuk tuks to the city – they are without a doubt the most exhilarating way to travel.
Si Phum area has the distinct vibe of a student town, or Lang Kwai Fong – Hong Kong’s clubbing street. Bars line the roads with music blaring and travellers (often with full backpack attire) spilling out onto the pavement. It’s a great district but relatively indistinct from others similar across Asia. The absolute stand out was the street food. At 1am I was happily tucking into a pad thai made freshly as I waited for 20 THb (46p). The dish is served with sachets of chilli and sugar and (for reaons I cannot fathom) I added sugar. It wasn’t terrible; it just tasted like noodles with sugar. That said, I wouldn’t recommend the addition.
The next morning, feeling a little woozy and ravenous we went on the hunt for breakfast and water before the bus arrived to take us rafting.
More often than not the search for exactly the type of food you feel like, particularly when you’re travelling, is fruitless. You end up settling for whatever is closest, or cheapest. But there are also the rare occasions where the only thing on offer is exactly what you need. At 8am, from the one open street food stall, we ordered an omelette each for a mere 10THB (26p) and bought a machine coffee from 7/11. The omelette was delicious, the coffee drinkable, and together they provided the catalyst needed to start the day.
The drive to the white water rafting was more enjoyable than we had envisaged. Once we met our guide Nob, (blissfully unaware of the English language connotations of his name) and a group of Swedish NGO workers (who lived permanently in Chiang Mai), we were on our way. An hour and a half later – involving one minor travel sickness (read hangover) incident and one stop for ice cream and coconuts, we arrived.
Siam Rives Adventures the white water rafting company appears out of the middle of nowhere, buried in the all enveloping jungle surrounded by mountains and elephants. Locals live in houses along the river and the feeling you get is one of collective serenity.
It’s not a luxurious hotel with an infinity pool and a spa, but you are left with the impression if you stayed for long enough the effect would be the same. A wooden hut on stilts over the river was used as a dining room where we were served mussamun curry (a creamy chicken and potato dish) with rice and fresh pineapple before a brief, and frankly hilarious, safety warning.
Opting to go white water rafting we all had a pretty good idea of what we were letting ourselves in for, but had been advised the rapids were relatively tame. Not so. After using up most of our energy getting splashed by fellow rafters in rival boats (much to the upset of one of our crew who was less than impressed by such antics), we quickly became undone as we approached the rapids . This despite a determined attempt at roman miltary discipline for a sprint to the front.
As we had insisted in all going in the same boat it weighed more than it should and rather predictably we got stuck on, over and between, every rock.
Notable incidents include scrambling out of the boat as it was perilously teetering over a cascade of rocks, onto a larger rock while four frantic guides helped to dislodge us. From below our rafting companions, safely floating in calmer waters, helplessly tapped their helmets – the practices rafting signal for “are you okay.”? Quite evidently we weren’t but there was little they could do about it. The somewhat vacuous platitudes of the downstream rsfters were appreciated all the same. However, we survived to tell the tale with slightly less dramatic photos than we had hoped.
Once you get past the rapids the rest of the course is slow and pleasant with plenty of opportunities for more water fights, swimming (not often by choice) and time to simply enjoy views of the valley.
Back on dry land we opted to be dropped off at a food market where we enjoyed fresh thai pancakes with noodle salad. As we were eating a monk attempted to take a sneaky selfie on her smartphone with us all in the background, a happy reminder globalisation isn’t dead yet.
After getting a ride in a public bus (more by luck than skill) we made it to the night market where we decided it was time for more food and Chiang beer. I opted for chicken satay with an exquisite peanut sauce for 75TBH (￡1.70) and a giant vegetable spring roll (￡1.15). As it turns out spring rolls are better enjoyed regular size; the vegetables were watery and tasteless, the satay, by contrast, was fresh and flavoursome but without too much heat. The food market was predictably filled with ele-pant wearing travellers eager to divulge their greatest travelling secrets, which turned out to have more than a passing similarity to the lonely planet guide to Thailand.
The main night market has around 10 varieties of stall each one repeated at least 5 times along the Chang Khlan road and in the main market area. There are bargains to be had but it is aimed predominantly at the hapless tourists like us with a penchant for elephant patterned tops. The highlight was a one hour foot massage for 100bht (￡2.30) with a beer to enjoy while you relax. If i’m honest I would go for food and massage over wandering the stalls, but there is a nice atmosphere and if you need a break from drinking and 1am Pad Thai’s it’s a decent enough way to spend an evening.
Despite our relatively early night, when the alarm went off at 5.30am for a 6am pick up to see the elephants on Sunday, no one was thanking me for organising the trip. The only mitigation I had to offer was that there would be an hour long bus drive where we could catch up on sleep. I was wrong. We were hauled into the open back of a 4×4, sat on tiny wooden benches, squished up against three others.
But as the elephants loped happily round the corner to a backdrop of rolling hills no one regretted the trip. After an introductory talk about the sanctuary and elephant protection efforts across Thailand, you are handed barrel loads of bananas and sugar cane with which you can coax the elephants over. The group of six, ranging in ages, appeared perfectly content to roam around their visitors posing for photos.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was founded in 2014 as a joint initiative between Karen hill-tribes and Chaing Mai locals who were concerned about the welfare of Thai elephants. The project now has eight camps across Chiang Mai and Phuket. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary rescues elephants from outfits offering rides, where the animals are overworked and frequently starve to death. The practice also fuels the illegal trade in baby elephants, often captured from the wild and trained to work.
The elephants we visited were free to roam the camp and in no way obliged to play with us or their trainers, but they seemed happy to. The half-day trip also includes a mud bath with the elephants and a river swim – during which the elephants exhibited their prowess by proceeding to pull down two trees, much to the irritation of the keepers who quickly ran to fetch axes before a dam had time to build.
Lunch of chicken and potato curry is then served after post-swim showers and you clamber back into the open van to enjoy the scenery descending the mountain before heading, exhausted, to the airport.
Visiting elephants, getting to swim with them and play with them is without doubt one of the best experiences of my life, and if you ever get the chance I implore you to go.
It is clear a significant part of the Thai tourism community is trying to change for the better to protect these animals and their home after decades of misunderstanding and abuse. Bangkok is an experience in itself and Thailand’s islands are undeniably idyllic but if you have ever fostered dreams of visiting elephants, or even the slightest inclination towards adventure, I wholeheartedly recommend Chiang Mai.
To top it all, the food is sublime and the scenery untouched. The beer is good too.