Elephants are awesome. They are huge, but don’t flaunt it; they are vegetarian after all. They’ve got the whole tusk and trunk thing going on that other animals don’t have. They have (relatively) smaller babies who look like little mini-me versions of their parents. And they stick together. We enjoyed watching elephants so much during our safari in Kruger National Park, we wanted some more elephant action while we were in Thailand. We came to the right place – elephants have held a special place in Thai culture for centuries.
Visits to elephant parks in Chiang Mai are big business; it is practically mandatory for vistors to hang out with elephants in some way, shape, or form. But not all elephant parks are created equal. Some exist solely for the tourist’s entertainment and the owners’ pocketbooks. In those types of places, elephants dance, give rides, and even paint pictures. Others exist solely for the elephants, and the tourists’ entertainment is a secondary byproduct or a means to support the elephants. Elephant Nature Park seems to be one of the latter places.
I first learned about the Elephant Nature Park from Jessica and Tim over at Hedgehogs Without Borders. Their one day at the park turned into three which turned into seven whole weeks! They even returned to Thailand from the United States to adopt their dog Belly and bring him home from the jungle heat to the snow of New England. (Sadly, Belly passed away earlier this year). Jessica and Tim’s enthusiasm for the park and its mission was contagious, and when I read about Bessie and Kyle’s experience over at On Our Own Path, I was totally sold and signed us up for a day at the park.
We spent the day hanging around the elephants and learning their stories. The parks serves as a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants, and many of them were abused before they came to the park. Although I had the best of intentions to remember all of the elephants’ names and their stories, as usual, I failed miserably. Luckily, I had a cheat sheet. We met and learned about Jokia. Before she came to live at the Elephant Nature Park, the logging company who owned her forced her to work during her entire pregnancy. While she was at the top of a hill, pulling heavy logs, she delivered her baby and the baby rolled down the hill away from her. Her mahout wouldn’t allow her to go to the baby. Jokia, depressed over the loss of her baby, protested by refusing to work over the next several weeks. In return, her mahout slung rocks in her eyes with a slingshot, rendering her completely blind. We met and learned about Hope, an orphaned elephant so named after the founder of the park gained Hope’s trust and taught him to become a gentler elephant through non-aggressive methods. We met and learned about Lilly, an elephant who was forced to work under the influence of methamphetamines, so she could have the stamina to work all day on trekking expeditions and all night pulling logs. We learned about elephants that are forced to put on a happy show for tourists but beaten behind the scenes. We learned about elephants who are forced to roam Thailand’s city streets so that tourists and others will buy bananas and feed them for money, while they rock back and forth from the stress of being out of their element.
During our day at the park, we fed the elephants (watermelon is their favorite but they also need their veggies). We got right in the river and bathed the elephants (and watched them dirty themselves promptly thereafter). We were reminded that elephants are still wild animals (when one of the babies ran away from her protective mother who was determined to not let her own of her sight). I even got kissed by an elephant (which turns out to be a rather wet and smelly experience). And, as an educational bonus, we learned by firsthand experience exactly how big an elephant schlong is (really big, in fact. Really, really big).
Each elephant has his or her own personality, and spending a day up close and personal with these fantastic animals was definitely a highlight of our Thai travels.
Based on the recommendation of Akila and Patrick from The Road Forks, we decided to make a stop in Lampang. Lampang is a city with Lanna and teak architecture, where locals far outnumber tourists, a rarity in Thailand, especially since Lonely Planet marks it as a highlight. Sadly, we missed the weekend market, which I hear is the real highlight, but we enjoyed our little stopover en route from Sukhothai to Chiang Mai.
Stopping in Sukhothai to break up the trip between Bangkok to Chiang Mai turned out to be an excellent decision. Had we not stopped, we never would have gotten to…
…watch a Thai toddler with a full-blown mullet rock it out to Michael Jackson concert footage in a biker bar called Choppers…
…see that Thai school kids are just like their Western counterparts… (We watched them dilly-dallying before getting on the “school bus” they shared with tourists returning from Old Sukhothai – i.e. a truck with a roof and benches in its bed. While the driver honked impatiently, they took their time stuffing themselves full of sugary Thai soft drinks and french fries and making sure they got in the truck with the cool kids.)
…finally, after months of saying let’s rent a bike!, feeling the sun on my face and wind in my hair as we pedaled around the ruins left behind by the ruling class in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Little moments like these are what make travel memories that make you smile.
As I mentioned earlier today, my absolute favorite thing about Bangkok was the Pak Khlong Talat nightly market and its kaleidescope of colors. So, because I couldn’t choose just one to show you what it is like to be surrounded by flowers, here’s a bonus post for your Monday:
I love Bangkok. I know some people hate it. They say it is crowded, noisy, and smoggy. Maybe this is so, but coming off a month in India, Bangkok seemed positively calm, orderly and clean. Bangkok reminded me of an Asian New York City – no matter how many times you go, you can always find somewhere new to explore and something new to do. It being our first time in Bangkok, we barely scratched the surface in our week in the city, but coming up with reasons to love Bangkok was not hard. Bangkok, we’ll be back.
1. Bangkok is where you can get things DONE. We had a big to-do list in Bangkok and accomplished everything with ease. As compared to say, India, where it took us four days just to buy a train ticket out of Delhi. In a matter of days, we finished Christmas shopping for our families; shipped said presents home; bought Christmas cards featuring a monk with sunglasses and who-knows-what sort of message in Thai; bought new shorts for Sean and a new dress for me; got Sean’s hairs cut; replenished our toiletries; bought guidebooks (at a discount, of course) for our southeast Asian travels; and got my camera cleaned at an official Canon center in the MBK mall for a fraction of what it would cost at home.
2. Bangkok is modern. Although other cities in southeast Asia can fool you into thinking they are modernized and sleek, eventually something crazy happens to make you remember that you are in the middle of an area that operates with inefficiencies, corruptions, crazy rigged vehicles and squat toilets. Not that this description couldn’t be applied to Thailand, but for the most part, Bangkok can hold its own better than its regional neighbors against other world-class international metropolises. There’s something comforting about knowing that no matter where you are in southeast Asia, as long as you get back to Bangkok you can accomplish tasks (see number one), experience modern conveniences you can’t find elsewhere, and obtain healthcare if needed on par with what you would receive at home.
3. Bangkok has movies galore. Nothing erases homesickness quite like watching a Hollywood film in the theater. Although we’ve tried to catch good movies on the road before, our timing was never quite right. In Bangkok, however, we had our choice of films from a plethora of theaters, prompting us to go twice in one week. (We saw Eat, Pray, Love and the Pittsburgh-based Next Three Days, if you are wondering. We also caught the Social Network for $2 the following week in Chiang Mai). Just like home, movies in Thailand come complete with giant popcorns and Cokes. Quite unlike home, movies are cheap (about $4), seats are assigned, and everyone gives a standing ovation to the King before the movie starts.
4. Bangkok has cheap, tasty street food… From our favorite pad thai in Thailand for under a dollar, to stir-fries galore, to fresh fruit stands, to fried pancakes with bananas and Skippy peanut butter, to mango and sticky rice, Bangkok is yummy.
5. …and Bangkok has street laundry. We paid way too much at our guesthouse for our first load of laundry before we discovered the coin washing machines randomly stuck outside shops and homes. Awesome.
6. Bangkok has fabulous, cheap massages. $4 neck-and-shoulder massages. Need I say more?
7. Bangkok is shiny and pretty. Whether illuminated by sunshine or street lamps, the wats in Bangkok positively shimmer.
8. Bangkok has a BIG Buddha. I’ve decided that I like my Buddhas big. The bigger, the better, and Bangkok has one of the biggest in Thailand. The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is HUGE. I was memorized by his giant marble-inlay feet, relaxed posture, and melodic pings of coins hitting metal as Buddhist devotees circled the room.
9. Bangkok has nooks and crannies. While dodging the zany traffic on Bangkok’s main streets and street vendors on the sidewalks can drive you bonkers, the sois (side streets) are quiet and peaceful. You’ll find families living in their shops, children playing in the streets, budding guitarists, tropical flowers, tailless kitties, and you-never-know-what-else in the sois.
10. Bangkok has shopping. From everything under the sun at the enormous Saturday market, to cheap knock-offs on the street, to fancy stores at the malls on Silom Road, to up and coming designers in Little Siam, you can shop until you drop in Bangkok.
11. Bangkok has waterways. I loved discovering random canals lined with tropical greenery tucked between streets, and loved even more that Thais put their rivers to good use by running water taxis up and down to avoid the congested streets.
12. Bangkok has flowers. If there is one thing that makes me happy, it’s colorful flowers, and Bangkok’s nightly market, Pak Khlong Talat, has them in abundance. Strolling through the market, surrounded by tropical flowers on all sides, made me feel like I was in a kaleidescope. The market was hands down my favorite part of Bangkok. I loved Pak Khlong Talat so much, I’m saving my photos from the market for its own post.