Elephants and rafting

Elephants! We were so excited to finally see elephants!

We booked a budget-priced full-day tour that included elephants through our hostel in Chiang Mai. I had heard some of the debate surrounding elephant camps, riding, and possible abuse of the animals, and hoped to pick a good camp. The “most humane” sanctuaries in the area are also the most expensive, and so out of our price range. So we picked from a book of options at our hostel, talking with the hostel employee about a good choice.

“This one, Thong Elephant Camp,” he suggested, which included river rafting, lunch, and more for the easy price of 1,290 baht a person. “Six English people went yesterday. Said it was good, that they could tell the animals were well treated and there weren’t any chains.”

“That sounds good,” I agreed.

“You get to ride them too,” he added. “But just on their backs, not in a carriage.”

That also sounded good to me. I’d read that riding elephants can be harmful for them. Personally, I think, as long as the elephant is in good condition, one or two people on its upper back or neck shouldn’t bother them. A carriage, obviously, is heavy, especially for the places on their back that isn’t very strong. But one or two light people shouldn’t be a problem if the animal is fed right and has no previous injuries.

More and more backpackers (primarily Europeans) refuse to visit elephant camps as they read about abuse and mistreatment. It’s always good to be aware of what you’re getting into ethically, but it’s also good to keep things in perspective. Jordan and I talked it over and decided three things:

  1. They’re animals. They were used for hard labor in the past (probably), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
  2. Westerners still use horses and other animals for labor purposes. For goodness sakes, we put bits in horses mouths to guide them, so a simple rope harness around an elephant’s middle shouldn’t bother Westerners.
  3. Elephants with obvious scarring (at least, recent scarring) and oddly shaped hips/spine, as well as elephants with chain marks on their legs or previous injuries are most likely being mistreated and we don’t want to support that.

In a later conversation with a dorm mate, we learned that many of the handlers aren’t actually Thai, but Burmese migrants.

“Here’s the thing,” our new Irish friend said. “Personally, as long as it isn’t carriages, I don’t really care about people riding or not riding elephants. It’s quite popular these days to have the moral high ground, but you’ve got to remember that most of these owners are just trying to feed their families. And they’re losing a lot of business because of the elephant riding aspect. Backpackers sit in hostels and talk all day about animal cruelty and like, but no one’s talking to them about it. If we talked to the tour guides and elephant handlers, if they learned that the riding is keeping people away rather than drawing them, that could really change the market.”

Our tour had four other people, and three of them knew Spanish(!). I got to practice Spanish with them, which was wonderful. I had just been thinking how much I missed speaking Spanish, so it was a lovely surprise. I stumbled over far too many words and the past tense, but at least I was still able to speak.

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Our first stop of the day was at the orchid and butterfly farm. It’s a pretty small place and only worth a visit if it’s included in a larger tour. Their butterflies were pretty lethargic, and I wondered how the constant surge of visitors through a small enclosure impacted them. The orchids, however, were absolutely gorgeous. I’ve never paid much attention to orchids, except to know they’re expensive, but these took my breath away. We wandered the rows of orchids for about ten minutes, enjoying the patterned petals, and then left the way we’d come.

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On our way out was the souvenir shop, where we learned that the broaches and earrings were actual orchids, lacquered, painted, and edges coated in gold. I’m not a big jewelry person, but that knowledge made me look closer at the gilded and speckled petals. Jordan noticed a few butterfly necklaces and broaches, which made us realize this was an actual farm. As in, harvesting butterflies and orchids for making jewelry.  Grimacing a little, we hopped back in the truck and wrapped ourselves in jackets as our driver took us on to the “sticky waterfalls,” or Bua Thong.

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Water cascades over white rocks near a national park. Thai people believe the spring is sacred, so we were instructed to keep quiet as we gazed into the clear water and treat the spirit house nearby with respect.

“But you can yell at the waterfall,” our guide said with a grin.

And whoop we did. After a hike down the hill beside the falls, we took of our shoes and stripped to our swimsuits and waded into the small pool. The water was warm, and we edged our way to the white rocks of the falls.

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“They aren’t slippery,” our guide called to us. “You can climb them. Go ahead!”

I put my foot on one of the rocks, still unsure about the idea of climbing and falling, and was surprised when the friction was strong enough to step on it. Climbing the waterfall wasn’t difficult, but I did have a sense of accomplishment when I stood at the top, grinning down at Jordan.

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We drove another 30 minutes (almost every stop was 30 minutes to an hour away from one another) and grabbed lunch (which was included in our tour). Then we went off to see the elephants! Everyone was really excited but a little nervous, each person hoping we had picked an ethical place.

After another 30 minute drive, we arrived at a small Thai/Burmese establishment on the river, a family business. They had six elephants of different ages, ranging from 10 to 45 years old, and I began looking them over for pink scars, which is evidence of the handlers using spikes to direct elephants. None of them had any, thankfully, and I breathed a sigh of relief. My money seemed to be going to a poor family running their own business rather than a smuggling ring that abused animals.

All the elephants wore a rope harness around them that disturbed four of our group. They quickly changed their minds, deciding that they were uncomfortable and didn’t like the situation. I’m not really sure what changed their minds, but I got the feeling that none of them had ever really been around animals before, besides the family dog. A few of the boy handlers yelled commands, but verbal commands were all that was given–besides holding on to the lead rope, they never touched the elephants.

In the end, only four of us rode the elephants. Jordan and I shared an elephant, with him up near the elephant’s neck and me, the lighter of the two, on it’s back. This also seemed to be in line with a more humane treatment. We only road them for about 15 or 20 minutes, and it was actually very bumpy and not that fun. At the end Jordan confided that he’d have rather walked beside the elephant, perhaps with his hand on a leg or side, to understand just how big elephants are. We don’t regret riding the elephant, but if we had another chance, we probably wouldn’t ride again (we were pretty sore the morning after!).

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After spending about five minutes wading in the river  with the elephant and pouring water on her (they were all females), we gave them bananas. Everyone loved feeding the bananas, from the tourists to the elephants. I plucked a banana off a cluster and handed it whole and unpeeled over to the elephant, who took it daintily with her trunk (it was very soft and wet), then promptly stuffed it in her mouth. Eager, she switched back and forth between Jordan and I, determined to get as many bananas as we would offer.

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When our guide called us away we climbed back into the truck and went to the whitewater rafting. I wish I could remember the name of the river. I’ve never been rafting before, though Jordan had been on the Illinois River (not exactly Class V, but more than I had done). This was a Class II during this time of year. Four of us climbed in a raft with a guide. We were required to leave everything in the truck, including our shoes, so we don’t have any pictures to show. We wore helmets, but those were more protection against the oars of our boatmates rather than the water or rocks around us.

Our boat captain was either more inexperienced or less intuitive than I was, or he just enjoyed tourists making fools of themselves. He splashed us with the oar, told us to lean right when we should’ve leaned left, and didn’t steer until it was too late to avoid rocks. This was particularly annoying for Jordan, who had a little experience and not only knew how things should be done (that’s a pet peeve of his) but also how fun the activity can be when done well. In Jordan’s opinion, we had one moment glory when he and I ignored our boat captain and paddled how we felt we should, and our boatmates followed along behind us. Then the boat captain didn’t steer and we wedged ourselves against a rock. It wasn’t a particularly fun experience in and of itself, but it did whet my appetite for real whitewater rafting.

“When it’s done right, it’s so much fun,” Jordan promised me. “We’ll do it for real one day.”

Our ride was about 45 minutes downriver, then we transferred from our boat to a bamboo raft and were poled downstream by another guide. We were all cold and tired and not really sure what the point was.

“If we had our own rafts,” one girl said to me, “and they taught us how to pole, that would be really cool. But if it’s just this I just want to go back to the hostel and sleep.”

But there was one stop left before we returned to Chiang Mai, and that was a small village in the mountains. The Akha people are an ethnic minority in Thailand. This village has 40 families that have lived there for almost 200 years. Before that, the Akha were in Laos and originally in China.

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Talented farmers, the Akha live in these remote hills growing bananas and other plants. The school bus arrived at the same time as we did, a pickup truck with a covered bed (also like us) and 17 children poured out of the doors. Four remained with the driver, going further into the village. These children are the only people in the village who know how to speak Thai–everyone else speaks the Akha language to one another. Our guide took us on a quick loop of the village, pointing out older homes on stilts, grapefruit plants, and the four religious buildings (Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, and Animism–that’s quite a lot for just 40 families).

And then we piled back in the truck and started our hour and a half trip back home. We were all exhausted, but happy to have gone and satisfied with meeting the elephants.

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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