Evidently there are over 50 elephant attractions/sanctuaries/camps in northern Thailand. Sorting out which one to visit is a task in itself. Guidebooks have their favorites; hotels have their marketing agreements. A travel agent the Adventurers met just after checking into their hotel in Chiang Mai had her opinions.
The Adventurers chose to ignore all that advice thanks to reading reviews of the Karen Tribe Native Elephants on TripAdvisor. They appeal of encountering elephants with a very small group and getting to interact with them in as natural a way as possible appealed to them.
They were picked up at the hotel at 7:40 am by the leader of the tour, Sun, a well-spoken young man who has high aspirations for his people. He spoke passionately about the need for education and the benefits of higher education. He attended college, speaks four languages, and could get a job in Chiang Mai or Bangkok but chooses to live in a small village in the hopes that others will follow his lead to university.
Their traveling companions were a young French couple, Jennifer and Rudy. The journey to Sun’s village was a two-hour wild road of very windy roads handled ably by Sun (although the French couple were more taken back by the speed than the Adventurers, who just figured Sun knew every twist and turn).
A word about the Karen according to Wikipedia: “The term ‘Karen’ is an umbrella term that refers to a heterogeneous lot of ethnic groups that do not share a common language, culture, religion or material characteristics. A pan-Karen ethnic identity is a relatively modern creation, established in the 19th century with the conversion of some Karens to Christianity and shaped by various British colonial policies and practices and the introduction of Christianity.”
Indeed, upon entering the village there was a Christian church, and Sun explained that all 300 villagers were of that faith.
Getting out of the SUV, the first order of business was simply to hang with the assembled elephants who were not tethered or tied in any way. They just hung out fairly quietly, except for the incredibly adorable three month old baby who darted among the rest of the herd, which consistently tolerated his antics.
Others who joined them was a older French couple, a Czech couple, and a thirty-something couple from the Sacramento area. She was a long-time pot farmer – medically and now legally – and prone to swinging from sudden laughter to tears. The Adventurers think “edibles” were involved!
After the meet and greet, Sun talked to us about the day ahead, and we were eached assigned an elephant depending on whether you’d signed up for a solo experience or, as we did, as a couple. Our elephant was named Megapaw (phonetic spelling as who knows what it is in Thai), a kindly 40-year-old female.
The first order of business was to put on Karen people-style clothing and show her we were her friends by feeding her copious amounts of food followed by more food that D helped machete into shape.
After a thorough brushing to get all the dirt off from their sleeping side and head, we walked into the nearby river with Megapaw to give her a bath. There is a lot of scrubbing that goes into bathing an elephant and the patient trainers assisted by throwing water high enough to get her washed off.
The next order of business was to get on for a ride. Both D and L made it on and both opted to walk the three mile jungle trail rather than ride. The issue, so they claim, is that there was very little to hang on to, just a rope behind them. L, in particular thinks, that she might have gotten the hang of it and proceeded if there’d been time for some practice around the [non-existent] ring.
Ironically, the hike was just what the doctor had ordered, given that they’ve been pretty sedentary (for them). It was a good trail and they were rewarded at the end with a beautiful buffet lunch prepared by the Karen women. (Note: there did appear to be specific roles for men and women but hard to make judgement on people who are living relatively primitively and are entirely self-sufficient off the land.)
The day ended with a goodbye drink of water to each of their elephants, the handy out of a DVD record of their adventure (yes, more photos to come!) and the oh-so-long drive back to the city.
Thank goodness their roof top bar has good food because they couldn’t have done much more…