Northern Thailand offers a plethora of travel adventures to travelers, but riding elephants in Chiang Mai is certainly among the most enjoyable and interesting experiences you can be part of and certainly one of my favorite. It had actually been a dream of Liza for many years, and shortly after arriving to Bangkok we made our way to the train station hoping to travel overnight to Chiang Mai and ride the elephants the day after.
Our plans changed once we learned that the train was full, but it was while deciding what to do that a lady approached us and offered all sorts of trips within the country (here’s a Chiang Mai itinerary you may like) . Realizing that she could be helpful we followed her to a nearby travel agency where many other backpackers were arranging their travels and after an hour of thinking and bargaining we found ourselves with a pretty good deal: for less than 100 USD/person we had arranged an overnight bus trip to Chiang Mai, 2 hotel nights with breakfast included, a trip to visit the Padaung ladies and transportation to the Golden Triangle and Chiang Rai.
We saw an elephant in a backstreet of Bangkok, and hoped the elephants in Chiang Mai we would be seeing were nothing like this one: the poor animal was completely out of place. We sat back, I pulled out my book and let time go by. The overnight trip in the sleeping bus was not too uncomfortable, but nevertheless we were deadbeat once we arrived Chiang Mai at about 8am, and were dropped at the hotel where we went straight to bed for a quick nap.
The hotel staff was very welcoming as is that of almost every hotel in Thailand, and eventhough we woke up at around 11 am they were still happy to offer us breakfast, which we gladly accepted. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city, walked to Wat Suan Dok hoping to take a picture of this great temple during sunset (it was unfortunately too cloudy),visiting the night bazaar once it was dark and tasting exquisite food in what I consider one of the gastronomical epicentres of the world.
Exhiliarating as the previous day had been we were up early the following morning ready to leave the hotel as we would be riding elephants in Chiang Mai, an event we had been looking forward to for many weeks and an experience we were eager to enjoy. We hopped on a van at the hotel, and after picking up other travelers we were taken to the elephant camp, barely 34 minutes out of the city.
The camp itself was rather simple, and after crossing a rope bridge over a river we were soon standing on a platform where the elephants would walk up to and we were on our way through the jungle shortly after.
The first few minutes are perhaps the most uncomfortable of all, but once you get used to the the animal’s rythim it is farely easy to relax and enjoy the ride. Sure, you musn’t forget that you’re in the jungle and there are branches sticking out to you at all times, but there is time to pull out the camera and take pictures or shoot video for as long as you want.
About 15 minutes after leaving, one of the mahout (elephant “drivers”) asked me if I wanted to sit on my elephant’s head and atempt to guide it through the jungle. Sure, why not, it can’t be that hard can it? Besides, it will simply follow the elephant in front and that’s it. Without a second thought I got off my seat and crouched to the animal’s head, and immediately regretted my decision.
Why? You cannot imagine how tough elephant hair is! It felt as if dozens of razor sharp wires were sticking through my pants and right into my a”@##!! I of course felt like swearing and making my way back to the seat, but with all the mahouts and travelers looking at me and taking pictures all I could do was smile helplessly and pretend I was the happiest man in the world.
I got used to it shortly after, and had heaps of fun along the way although eventually I did move back to my seat. We crossed a river, made our way through what seemed impossible slopes, and fed the elephants dozens of bananas that were given to us at the end of the jungle trek.
Elephant riding tours in Chiang Mai cost about 450 Baht and last about 1-1.5 hours. You don’t really need them to be any longer as the ride is slightly uncomfortable and the animals will get stressed anyhow. Don’t be surprised if an elephant soaks you wet when crossing a river while the mahouts laugh, and you’ll be asked for tips at the end of the trip- remember you don’t have to give them anything if you don’t want to.
In my opinion the treks are very interesting, and although many voices seem to disagree with the practice because of the stress and treatment the animals endure these tours still exist today. It is important that you research the company you are going to work with, hopefully one in which the elephants in are free to walk around, all are well fed and receive medical attention when needed.