Wild elephants in the mountains and a serendipitous journey to a bridge in Mae Taeng river.
A little research into Thailand and you would see that the best voted activities for families, and people who love wildlife are elephant camps and tiger kingdoms in Chiang Mai.
After our first day riding up to the hills of Doi Suthep, the second day hiking up to the hill village of Hmong tribes, we decided to go visit these elephants on the third day.
Now I am completely against animal cruelty and prefer to see animals in their natural habitat alone. I completely avoided the tiger kingdom because the tigers are drugged to behave domesticated as tourists take selfies with the tigers. Come on! Get a life. Leave the Tiger to its greatness. Keep your selfie decadent culture to yourself.
After talking to our bike rental hosts, they pointed to us about the hills in Mae Rim and Mae Taman. It seemed that most day tours picked guests from hotels and drove them to the elephant camps there and dropped them back in the evening, for an exorbitant price. I immediately got an idea — we were doing this on our own, biking 80kms to Mae Taman with a short rest in Mae Rim.
A short history of the elephant camps in Thailand:
In 1989, the Thai government banned logging in all protected areas to prevent further deforestation. While it seems a good move, an unexpected fallout of this ban was that most elephants employed in logging were now jobless. These elephants became a liability for their owners because to feed an adult elephant the expenses were enormous and without any income from these elephants, there was no way they could feed them.
The solution came in the form of elephant tourism where camps were set up, and elephant rides were given to tourists so the elephants could earn their keep. But in order to get more attractive, these elephants were cruelly trained to do feats like elephant foot massage, or trick shows.
Over time, some ethical camps came up where they claim that tourists just bathe, feed and play with these elephants. I do not know enough to claim if they are telling the truth. I wanted to be a spectator of these elephants in their camps. If I were richer, I would have surely volunteered in an ethical elephant camp for a rewarding time with these gorgeous Asian elephants. But we were on a tight budget so all we did was to stare and learn.
The Road Trip
We started early morning on our rented motorbike. Even in March, the heat was bearable. The vistas of Chiang Mai sports centre, government buildings and Thai houses on the highway gave us a view we would not have otherwise seen from the city.
We stopped at a local market in search of breakfast. An old couple was roasting some meat on skewers and when we asked them what it was, failing to say in English, the man grunted like a pig and said, “Peee Peee”. Haha.
We bought it, but it tasted so weird, my friend guessed it was pork liver. We could not eat it, so we bought sticky rice from them and a fish wrapped in plantain which was yummy. After this breakfast, we got back to the highway.
We passed several unnamed temples and botanical gardens named after Queen Sirikit. After an hour and a half ride through jungle roads strewn with maple leaves, we reached a camp in Mae Rim, but as I said already, the cost of the camp was beyond my budget. It was actually cheap(1500 Baht per person) compared to the prices online. I believe prices are always lower at the source without any middlemen agencies involved.
We got back on the road and I urged my friend to continue to Mae Taman just because I wanted to go higher up in the hills and to the forests on a whim. We continued for an hour when we saw boards to Mae Taman elephant camps and river rafting boards on a road junction. We took the turn and continued.
The roads were steeper, the forest wilder and the roads full of leaves because of the late march climate. I got excited when we chanced upon an open ground where an elephant stood in a shack. I asked my friend to get down. He was scared that we would be caught for trespassing, but I was adamant that we explore the area as I saw no tourists around.
The detour was a lucky stroke because we entered what happened to be the mahouts’ area. These poor mahouts in thatched huts, and the elephants in their shacks were a very moving discovery. The elephant that I first saw seemed to be in a bad mood that day, and had not been assigned the tourist job for the day.
We ventured further downhill and came on the river banks. We realised that it was the mid-point of the river where the elephants laden with tourists and the bamboo rafting tourists were passing by. Some elephants came back to their abode after a round of the job.
Since the elephants and everyone seemed to be coming downhill, we guessed that the river must be originating further upwards. The possibility excited us and we got back on the road to drive further uphill.
We soon came to the commercial hub of the elephant camp, where tourists lined for the activities that included river rafting, elephant ride, and ox-cart rides. If you visit Chiang Mai with your family, be sure to get into these rides. We did not take any of the rides, and continued uphill to discover more.
It was hot, and we were famished, and we stopped at a local stall that seemed to be the only one for miles in the hills. The family was really kind, and seeing that we were eating the noodle soup the noob way, the guy came to us and showed us how to mix the sugar, the red chilly, the vinegar and another spice to flavour the noodle soup. All of this he taught without speaking a single word since he didn’t know English. It was only smiles and eating.
After lunch, we kept riding, and came across a clearing where the elephants were roaming free and an ox lay lazily.
Beyond this, we serendipitously came across a bridge which was the highlight of the entire day. We could not go any further because we had come to what we were seeking. A perfect view point. We crossed the bridge, parked our bike on the road and walked barefoot to the river.
Thanks for reading and read my other travel stories too.