Today marked the day I was most looking forward to for the entire trip – our day with elephants! We had a 3-course breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, thai soup, and banana pancakes at the hotel with the most amazing orange juice I’ve ever had, and then we met our transport at 8 AM outside of the hotel to head to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. We climbed into the back of the truck bed which had some covered bench seats and were pretty crammed in there as we picked up another 7 people.
We sat across from 2 Canadians who quit their jobs and were traveling for months through Asia and were going to end in Australia. They were really nice and we had great conversations about our travel adventures over the two hours it took to get to the jungle. We bonded even more as it started to downpour while we drove and we got soaked! We were driving up very windy mountain roads and eventually turned off onto a mud path that went almost straight down. Not only was it muddy, but the heavy monsoon rains had turned the dirt road into a part mud-slide, part river! We were scared out of our wits that we were going to slide off the 4 inches we had between the roadside and cliff. It definitely reminded me of the crazy ride I had up a jungle volcano in Guatemala – just as scary, but knowing how we survived that ride, I had faith we would somehow survive this one.
We eventually stopped on the path and parked. The drivers made us get out of the truck and the rains subsided for about 10 minutes during our hike down the very muddy forest path. We had to forge through a waterfall and go over some very small wooden bridges before the sky’s faucet decided to turn back on and drench us again. Talk about an incredibly fun hike! It was gloriously muddy so why not just embrace the monsoon season – when in Rome right?
We finally came upon a long, dry, and inviting wooden hut. Our guides gave us shirts to change into that had big pockets to hold bananas for the elephants. The rains held-off as we walked up and back down a hill into a valley where the elephants were! They were so majestic! There were three adult females, one was 55 years old, and three toddlers that were between 2 and 4 years old.
We walked up to them and said “bon bon” to tell them we had bananas. The elephants were all about the bananas, knew where our pockets were and kept trying to stick their trunks into our pockets to grab more bananas. It was so cute and just goes to show how smart they are…
The tip of the elephant’s trunks was soft but the rest of their skin was very hard and leathery. They were also covered in 2-inch long, black hairs that stuck straight out. The hairs flung mud everywhere when you tried to pet the elephants, but I didn’t care and I got mud all over the place. We fed the elephants all of the bananas we could and then the guides took all of the guys back up the mountain to bring down what looked to be bamboo shoots for the elephants to eat. Boy do they eat a lot! We fed the elephants for about an hour before they took off up the hill towards the huts. We followed them and washed off at some water hoses overlooking the waterfall.
Our lunch of stir fried veggies, chicken wings, and fried rice was waiting for us after we got cleaned up and we ate lunch while watching the elephants swim in the rapids under the waterfall. I don’t know if I will ever be able to top that lunch experience.
We chatted with our fellow tourists, some from Chili, Spain, Canada, and Belgium. They were all really friendly and we swapped stories and talked about world politics. It is always interesting to hear other opinions about world events, especially those from different countries. All of them had similar views on our Donald Trump situation, and we talked about the differences in Texan accents and view points from Texans in cities vs. the more rural country side. All of the people we talked with seemed very down to earth and worldly.
We moved to the edge of the hut and watched the elephants frolic in the water and up the hillside for a while. One of the baby elephants decided to come say hi, despite his handlers best attempt to lure him away, stepped carefully over the fence, and scratched his bum on the mud right in front of us. It was super cute. Eventually, the handler got some bananas and persuaded the elephant back down the mountain to the rest of the pack.
Our guide told us it was time to make the elephants a snack of rice and banana balls, so we helped make those and then got into our swim suits to head down the muddy path to the mud bath area. All of the elephants were delighted at the banana ball treats and, after feeding them, we smeared mud all over the elephants. Our guides picked up piles of mud and threw it on us to get everyone into the experience! The mud was so deep that my legs sunk until the mud was at my knees and we got covered just like the elephants. The only thing I did not like about the whole day was that the guides were yelling a lot during the mud bath time to get everyone excited and were throwing mud around, some of which got in my eye. Also, one of the guides kept running up to the guys to rub mud on them in a bit too-touchy-feely kind of way. *Shoulder shrug* – but, other than that, it was a bunch of fun!
Once we were basically covered in brown, we all headed to the river to wash off the elephants. Since the monsoon rains were so heavy in the morning, the river was rushing and was too strong for us to full get in the river, so we stayed on the banks. It was still a blast to splash around with the elephants and watch them roll around in the water. The babies were especially playful and would fully submerge themselves by laying on their sides under the water. I could have stayed and watched them there for hours and hours.
The experience ended waaay to quickly and we headed back up to the hut to wash off and dry off in the sun for a few minutes. We had some tea and cookies while drying and one of the guides told us that the guide who had been rubbing mud all over the guys earlier had a girlfriend who was a lady-boy. I totally knew it! The guides were saying some pretty crude things about each other which was surprising but really entertaining. Got to love a good culture shock!
Once we dried up, we hiked back up the path to the truck. The rainfall from other areas converged at the waterfall, turning it into a super strong rapid that we wouldn’t dare cross, so we had to take a different path back to the truck. It was all uphill and a bit of a workout! Our guides kept stopping to pick flowers and were being very playful – a very strange but fun pair.
One the plus side, the jungle road had dried up. There was no way the truck could have driven up that slippery, muddy mess of a path we drive down to get to the Sanctuary. Once we got piled into the truck, however, we realized it was taking a while for our guides to start the truck. I looked out the window and saw our guides flinging wrenches in the air while pointing under the lifted hood of the truck. I couldn’t imagine getting stuck in such a remote part of the jungle in monsoon season!
It turned out the carburetor wouldn’t start so we all had to get out and push the truck backwards up the hill so our driver could turn downwards and get momentum to spark the engine. Thankfully, we had 4 strong guys and all of us girls / lady like guides to push the truck. It took about 15 minutes to get it turned around and the driver kept yelling about break problems (not a funny joke!) but we finally got the engine started. Crisis averted! We barely made it back up the mountain path and there was quite a communal sigh of relief once we made it to the main road. All-in-all, with the mountain issues and traffic back in Chiang Mai, it took about 2 hours of driving and good conversation to get back to the Rachamankha Hotel.
My sneakers and clothes were totally covered in mud so I tried to wash all of as much as possible. Re-wearing clothes in Thailand sounds like a good idea, but between the tours where you get super muddy and all of the humidity, there is no way you can re-wear anything without washing it thoroughly first.
Anyways, we got cleaned up and then took off to find something quick for dinner. Street food was insanely cheap compared to our hotel. Per the recommendation of one of our Canadian tour mates, we tried some street grilled pork and friend wontons for 10 BHT total ($0.30 USD) which was amazing! We then found a little restaurant and I ordered “the best noodles in Chiang Mai”, Khao Soi, to try something different. Gosh was it good! It was like a chicken curry with thick ramen type noodles. Ryan’s Pad Thai was also scrumptious and, in total, our 2 entrees, spring rolls, and two drinks were 200 BTH – $7 USD! While we opted for nice hotels on this trip, our fellow elephant tour friends were staying in nice hostels that were $4 USD per night and living on about $20 a day. It is amazing how different the costs are in Thailand!
My mud inflicted eye was really starting to bug me at this point. I was really afraid I had gotten pink eye or something from the elephant park mud that had flown into it earlier in the day and needed to flush it out more with eye drops and water. We walked back to the hotel so I could do so, and then relaxed by the pool listening to the birds before heading to bed.