6th September, Chiang Mai, Thailand
As a special birthday treat for me, Ian booked us on an Elephant Safari tour. Like many of the other companies offering elephant trekking tours, the itinerary was jam packed with other activities too. They all sounded interesting but we were mainly there to see the elephants!
Oot came over to greet us at the hotel lobby and told us that he was going to be our personal guide for the day. It is the quiet season and we found that we were the only ones booked on this tour. So off we travelled in a spacious people-carrier to Mae Ping Elephant Training Camp, an hour's drive from Chiang Mai.
After being given a brief run-down about the elephant show and where the best seating spots were from the helpful Oot, we went over to a couple of elephants. We bought some bananas and sugar cane to feed these gentle giants. Not knowing how best to feed them, I held out a couple of bananas and let them work it out. To my surprise, they sucked up the food gently into their trunks, like a hoover. The bananas then got manoeuvred over and deposited into their mouths, while the now free trunk made its way over to the remaining bananas in my hand. Sneeky things! Between the two of them, they managed to work through a couple of bunches of bananas and sugar cane - and there was plenty more where they came from as more tourists made their way over. I left with a cheeky hug and kiss from one of the elephants as he wrapped his trunk around my neck and kissed me on the cheek. Ew ... banana breath!
Over to the river next as the elephants were being steered one-by-one by their trainers-on-board into the muddy waters. The river must have been deep in the middle as we watched the elephants almost disappear, leaving their 'mahouts' (trainers) looking as if they were sitting or standing on the water's surface.
The elephants seemed to enjoy the coolness of their bath under a scorching sun. Their trunks doubled as a shower unit and they were able to reach the difficult-to-reach parts, much to the disapproval of some of their passengers! Some of the audience on dry land got a drenching too as the mischievous elephants made their way out of their bath!
The elephant show was entertaining. We watched as a group of twenty elephants took turns walking on their hind legs, fore legs, carrying mahouts on their trunks, dribbling and shooting basketballs, kicking footballs, performing Thai massage on a few courageous volunteers in the crowd and playing musical instruments.
Hearing the elephants jamming was what I enjoyed most in the show. We watched the line-up of drum-players, tambourine-bashers, symbol-crashers and hey, is that a harmonica I could hear? It sure was and Dumbo on the end wasn't just sitting pretty! This was good Elephunk!
We had been looking forward to the elephant trekking all morning and when it was finally time for us to board Nelly, we were both wearing smiles not dissimilar to a Cheshire cat! Elephants are very strong and Nelly didn't even bat an eyelid as all three of us (including the mahout) sat on his back. We made our way into the water, down the river and up the river banks to the jungle. Once on dry land, Nelly couldn't resist pulling leaves off the trees and munching on them. A few harsh Thai words and grunts were exchanged between the mahout and Nelly and soon we were off again. Half way through the one hour trek, we bought him some bananas, which he polished off in no time.
The jungle ground was muddy and we could hear the squishy noises as Nelly took each step. It was such a hot day that Nelly seemed happy to go into the river on the final stretch back to camp. He deserved all the bananas he could eat after that trek!
After the elephant trek, our guide Oot was waiting by the platform, ready to take us to the bamboo rafting. The ride was very enjoyable and peaceful. We sat on the rafts taking in the river views while our bamboo raft punter did the hard work. We spotted a mother elephant and her baby at the river's edge and it was as if she didn't notice that we were there, travelling quietly past on the bamboo.
We spotted Oot's smile, in amongst the pack of guides, as we pulled in. He quickly ushered us over to the ox carts - our next activity. The ride was very bumpy and we felt every single dip in the path. The idea of this was not for the experience of riding in an ox-drawn-cart but to see the Lisu hill tribe. I felt awkward about this as here we were, invading their space, sitting in noisy, clunky ox-driven carts and watching them like zoo animals. What must they think of us?
I did not take photos on this occasion as I felt bad enough already for invading their privacy. A few of the locals came rushing over to the carts, holding out colourful hats and handbags for 100 baht each. There was a campfire burning in the middle of the community, surrounded by wooden shacks. A mother holding a baby in her arms looked up blankly at the parade of carts as if she'd seen this a thousand times before. I was glad to leave them in peace and to get off the cart.
In the afternoon we were taken to a paper-making factory (the paper being made from elephant dung, I kid you not) and an orchid and butterfly farm. These were interesting and we managed to work our way through them quite quickly.
Since we were the only ones on the tour, we were able to call the shots and both Oot and the driver were very happy to return back to the hotel two hours ahead of schedule! As we pulled up to the hotel, we could see other hotel staff shaking their heads, grinning and looking down at their watches. Oot beamed an even bigger smile as he pocketed a big tip from Ian!
In the evening, Ian took me out for a meal at The Resort, a nice restaurant next to the Mae Ping River. For the first time since arriving in Thailand, we travelled in that noisy, polluting little vehicle known as the tuk-tuk - a fun little ride to get to the restaurant. The restaurant staff didn't understand much English but were very attentive, to the extent that they would not place an open bottle on the table, but would keep swooping to re-fill our glasses when they were depleted by anything more than a mouthful! We enjoyed a lovely meal (despite our difficulty in placing the order with our non English-speaking waiter) in a beautiful setting with live music playing in the background. Looking back on the day, it was definitely one of the most action-packed and enjoyable birthdays I've ever had!