You can’t escape elephants in Thailand. An integral part of the Kingdom’s history and culture, elephants – and their image – are everywhere. To the Thai mind, any touri tschoke has got to be better if you stick an elephant on it. Sitting in a street side cafe in Bangkok, unless your nose is buried in a guide book looking for things to experience instead of experiencing them, you are bound to see an elephant pass by.
But the government has banned elephants from Bangkok’s streets. The noise and traffic isn’t good for an elephant’s peace of mind. Being Thailand, that means on any given evening while out and about the city you’ll only run across one or two elephants. When one makes an appearance, touri flock to pet the animal, feed him, and pass a few baht on to his owner. Savvy visitors know to keep their distance; sooner or later that pachyderm is gonna empty its bladder and anyone within half a block stands a good chance of being splattered. Eau de elephant piss is not an attractive scent.
As fun as that may sound, for most touri the ultimate elephant experience is hopping on one for a ride. And the best place to do so, due to sheer numbers available, is Chiang Mai. Riding an elephant is something every touri has to do at least once. Okay, it’s something every touri has to do only once. Expectations are rarely met.
Newer elephant attractions allow touri a full day of livin’ an elephant’s life. A few places even offer two and three day programs. But most visitors settle for an afternoon of communing with elephants, there is so much more to do in Chiang Mai. Elephant camp tours are one of the more popular activity options for Chiang Mai touri. Signing up for a tour ensures you’ll get to see and play with the elephants while making the tour operator richer. The camps are not hidden gems. It’s cheaper to grab a private car or baht bus and strike out on your own. You’ll save a few baht and be able to spend the amount of time you want instead of experiencing the camp on a rigid schedule.
Disappointing that the Maesa Elephant Camp replaced their rickety rope bridge with a wooden one of less challenge, it’s still your greeting on a visit to the camp. A morning visit usually means elephants bathing in the water below, an afternoon’s just the thrill of making it across the bridge. Souvenir stands await at the landing, filled with every conceivable elephant related memento you could imagine. The greeting cards made from elephant dung are a great purchase to send to family and friends you really don’t care for. Surprisingly, the vendors show a bit of commercial restraint and an acknowledgment of the visiting elephant lovers’ sensibilities: you won’t find any wallets, belts, or briefcases made from elephant skin. There are numerous items made from fake ivory, but the real stuff you’ll have to wait to buy when you’re back in town.
The first elephants you see will be chained to a post, guarded by a local who thoughtfully has bunches of bananas for you to buy to feed the beast. A small museum accounts for the cultural part of the camp, then the remaining options come into view. If the show is about to begin, grab a seat. Otherwise grab a seat on the back of an elephant instead.
Riding an elephant, the main purpose of most visitors, is an additional cost that you pay for at the entrance. You can buy an E ticket for a quick ride, or opt for the lengthier journey through the jungle. Hate to post a spoiler, but you do not get to wrap your legs around the elephants neck and guide him along the trails. Both rides mean you’ll be sitting on a hard wooden seat mounted on the elephant’s back. The elephants plod along at the same pace the locals use walking down the city’s sidewalks. And frequently come to a grinding halt for no apparent reason, too.
Slower than a turtle on Prozac, after the initial rush that you’re actually riding an elephant, the experience quickly becomes mundane. On the short ride, you’ll make a circle of the camp and unless it’s peak visiting time it’ll be just you, your elephant, and the mahout. Pick the pricier jungle journey and you’ll be joined by a few dozen of your fellow touri, elephants lumbering along in single file. Your jungle view will be of the elephant’s ass in front of you. You’ll know it is his ass because at least once during the 30 minute ride he’ll make use of it. Then your trip to Thailand will be complete: shat upon by both the locals and an elephant.
The shows, years ago, were just a demonstration of the historical use of elephants in Thailand, primarily as part of the logging industry. Boring. But hey, it’s still elephants so all the touri still have a smile on their face. Over time they’ve added more and more acts to the show and now the elephants play soccer, and challenge a visitor to a dart throwing game ala a cheap roadside carnival. They usually pick an Asian visitor for the contest, knowing they are as skilled at throwing darts as they are at driving a car. The elephant always wins.
And then a half dozen of the beasts are led to their personal studio and paint a picture in front of the rapt crowd. Each has his own school of art, reproducing a similar painting at each show. Easy to scoff, but whether talent or just good training, it’s still pretty amazing. One even paints a self-portrait. The poster paint artwork is displayed as each finishes and touri can lay claim to their favorite for a few thousand bucks. The paintings get grabbed up quite quickly. And I have to admit I’ve bought one myself.
The newest act comes when the show is over. The mahouts bring their elephant over to the crowd for a close up viewing. Several place straw hats on touri head. Lucky visitors get hugged. Then, proving these are Thai elephants, trunks extend outward for a tip. The whole thing is a bit corny. But the joy on the face of a touri enveloped in an elephant’s trunk shows you what a sucker we are for these wondrous creatures.