Monday, 11 September 2017

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai

Alongside beautiful beaches, hedonistic parties and delicious cuisine, one of Thailand's biggest draws is undoubtedly the elephants. Powerful, playful and incredibly wise, elephants are some of the world's most fascinating creatures, and visiting them is a regular appearance on many travel bucket lists.

However, animal cruelty remains prevalent throughout the tourist industry, with controversial elephant riding in particular still being highly advertised throughout Asia. Therefore, while I still wanted to experience the elephants up close for myself, it was very important to me that anywhere I visited used no form of cruelty whatsoever.

For my travels throughout Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, I booked onto a hop on hop off bus with Stray Asia. Along with the freedom of being able to hop off whenever and wherever I liked, one of Stray's biggest selling points is its dedication to sustainable travel. Advocates of conservation, each tour and company Stray uses has been tried and tested to ensure that it is both environmentally and culturally friendly. That's why, when I booked my day with the elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary recommended by Stray, I had every faith that they had chosen a company where the elephants were truly cared for and protected.

After a very bumpy 2 hour "songthaew" ride deep into the jungle, we were each given a big bag of bananas to carry down the steep hill to the sanctuary's camp, catching our first glimpse of the elephants huddled together.

We settled down in a wooden hut and were introduced to the sanctuary, learning the brief history behind it. Founded in 2014, the sanctuary first began with 5 elephants - today there are over 30 situated across 8 camps (we would be in camp 1 for the day), ranging from 55-years-old to just 6 months! There is no riding, no chains, no whips, just a rattling wooden device placed over the elephants' necks so the workers can hear where the elephants are (in the jungle it must be quite easy to lose track of the elephants!)

We were given some very snazzy tops to protect our clothes from the elephants' bristles, picked up 2 bunches of bananas each, and walked to our first group of elephants to feed them.

Like most people, the only experience I've had with elephants has been within a zoo, but nothing can compare with being face-to-face with these great creatures. Their strength is incredible, and while having three 4 tonne elephants come rushing towards you all at once can be just a bit intimidating, it became very clear quite quickly that these elephants were just a bunch of big puppies!

Moving from elephant to elephant, we handed them banana after banana, laughing each time an enormous trunk would wrap around our hands to take the food. One greedy elephant decided the single banana I was offering wasn't enough, and proceeded to grab the huge bunch out of my other hand and gulp it down in one!

We were lucky enough to get up close to one heavily pregnant elephant, and could even see the little baby moving around inside the bump. If 9 months carrying a baby seems like a long time, spare a thought for the lady elephants - their pregnancy lasts for 2 years!

We proceeded further along down the river, through the trees and across bamboo bridges to the next group, where we all squealed in delight as we saw some adorable 6 month old babies! Understandably shy from the huddle of humans surrounding them, the babies hid behind the more confident adults, though a few sugar canes gained their trust. I would be lying if I said I wasn't close to happy tears at this point!

After a delicious homemade meal of chicken, vegetables, rice and fresh pineapple, we prepared the elephants' afternoon dose of herbal medicine. A combination of mashed bananas, rice and bark chippings all rolled up into balls, it sure beats my multi-vitamin pills, and the elephants were more than happy to gulp them down in one.

Finally it was time to give the elephants their bath. A mud bath that is! Alongside the herd, we clambered into a small mud pit, picking up handfuls of mud before slapping it on the elephants and rubbing it over their backs and heads. Not wanting us to miss out on the exfoliation, we got our own mud baths as the local workers cheekily threw mud balls at us.

Once both the elephants (and us!) were well and truly covered, we walked over to the river and jumped on in, throwing buckets of water over the elephants until they were nice and clean.

Sadly our day had come to an end, and soon we were driving back up the bumpy dirt road out of the jungle and to Chiang Mai where the heavens opened and poured it down with rain. Although we were leaving the elephants behind, it was an experience I will remember forever and one that has made me truly appreciate the special beauty of these fascinating creatures.

Now, how can I get one past customs at the airport?

Love, Beth xxx

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