Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Big Day

Today we had a big adventure. Literally.

We woke up nice and early, which was a little painful as we've become accustomed to our slack vacation hours and most restaurants don't open until 8 for breakfast. But we got some food in us and took a tuk-tuk to the bus station. We made a little discovery. It's really cold here early in the morning and riding around in an open tuk-tuk doesn't help. Then, climbing into a fully air-conditioned bus didn't improve matters. No wonder everyone was wearing jackets around us. I was in shorts and flip-flops.

After about an hour we arrived at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Apparently there are about 2000 wild elephants in Thailand today and 3000 domesticated ones. In 1900 there were over 100,000 off them and in 1952 there were around 13,000. They used to be used in the forestry industry, to move logs around. But with a reduced forestry industry (it's banned in Thailand) and an increased reliance on machines, there has been less of a need for elephants these days resulting in neglect and mistreatment. This elephant conservation centre was set up to take in hurt, ill or abandoned elephants, nurse them back to health, and give them a positive environment.

There are lots of places around Chiang Mai and throughout Thailand to go see elephant shows. Apparently some of them can be a little dodgy, with elephants that have not necessarily been treated very well. We chose this place to visit the elephants because of it's positive nature and approach.

Oh, and we forgot our camera today. We'd spent hours yesterday deleting pictures to make room for today, then left it on the guesthouse floor. We are incredibly disappointed by this because, as you'll read below, there were some incredibly camera worthy moments.

The visit was terrific. It started with an elephant show. This show was perhaps a little less "entertaining" than some of the others that we've heard about, but it was very good. There was a bit about the mahout's (elephant trainer) relationship with the animal. They had a demonstration of how elephants are used in logging. (We could get some for BC.) And some showy elements, like elephant xylophone playing and painting. Following the show the mahouts brought the elephants over to the crowd and we were able to feed the elephants bananas and sugar cane.

After the show we took an elephant ride. Colleen and I got on from an elevated platform that the mahout rides the animal up to and we climbed on to a seat/saddle on his back. The seat will take a family of four, with the mahout sitting right behind the elephant's ears and "driving" it around. We rode around the centre's grounds for about an hour, going up hills, through the trees and wading across ponds. It wasn't an easy ride, with the saddle rocking side to side and pitching us back and forth, but it was terrific. I took my sandals off and rested my feet on the elephants back. It's amazing to feel the huge muscles rock under us as he trudges his way along. After our ride we fed our elephant some sugar cane that we'd kept from the show.

We next went up to visit a baby elephant. At nine months old the thing was huge, but still dwarfed by her mother. Apparently this baby elephant was conceived through artificial insemination, which was a first for Thai elephants. (There's a joke or two in here about bad jobs, that I'm just going to leave alone.) With the limited elephant population spread throughout Thailand inbreeding has become a problem, so this elephant's birth was seen as something of a good omen for the Thais. We fed the baby some apples and sticky rice, then the mahout got a giant baby bottle with 2 litres of milk in it and gave it to Colleen to feed to the baby elephant. Quite an honour for her.

Near the baby elephant's enclosure was the elephant hospital, where the sick or injured elephants are taken. It's really just an elephant stable, but it was interesting to read the list of elephants who had been brought there and their various ailments. It was also interesting to see where the elephants had come from. Some were brought in by their owners, but some were also found just wandering the streets. Tough day for the local dog catcher.

The final event of the day for us was watching the elephant bathing. The mahouts marched their elephants down a hill to a small lake. Then, with their mahout still on their back, the elephants would crouch or lie down in the water. The mahouts would walk around on their backs and sides, keeping their balance not to fall in, and give their beasts a good scrub down. It is really a wonderful partnership between the mahout and the elephant and fun to watch. Apparently it's a lifetime relationship, as elephants will often outlive their mahout, and often a mahout's children will be brought in to the training of an elephant so that they can take on the role after their parent is no longer around.

After the bathing we left the centre and walked down to the highway, where we were able to hail a bus to take us back to Chiang Mai. It was a terrific adventure and Colleen's highlight of the trip to date.

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