Doi Inthanon Elephant Park
 

An overnight bus dropped me off at the north eastern corner of the city of Chiang Mai. The cool morning air was a stark contrast to the sweltering conditions of Bangkok. One of Chiang Mai's red taxis picked us up and went about dropping us off at our various hostels. Thailand Wow was quiet when I arrived but my friends soon woke up and were discussing tomorrow's activities namely a trip to go see elephants which Rika was specifically excited for. I remembered her talking about how elephants were her favorite animal back in Bangkok. 

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Now I'm not a huge animal person, they are smelly and have their own internal lives and motivations that we can never access, but even I was excited to be face to face with an elephant.  The journey into the mountains took us a couple hours. First a taxi picked us up at our hostel around 8 am. As we left the town behind and the scenery became more rural we began to see signs for all kinds of elephant sanctuaries. We saw people riding elephants who were apart of a different tour company and I was thankful that we had found an ethical sanctuary that did not allow elephant riding. Our second vehicle, a flat bed truck, was used to descend deeper into the mountains after the taxi could take us no further.  The truck dropped us off at a nondescript patch of land that was missing elephants. They told us we had to make the rest of the way on foot and thus began a perilous climb down a steep set of natural stairs cut into the dirt with a piece of bamboo that could barely hold itself up to steady our downward climb. Now I wore flip flops because I knew we'd get muddy and I didn't want to ruin my nice shoes but those shoes were about to cause my downfall because they had no traction to grip the earth. After I made my way down the stairs the only thing between the elephants and I was this makeshift bridge to cross a small but quick moving stream. I prayed to whoever was listening that my camera and I would not get washed away. 

 

 Rika with an elephant.

Rika with an elephant.

To prepare us for the elephants we were told to change into bright red traditional clothes so the elephants would recognize us and we were each handed a bag full of sugar cane. You should have seen my face when they told us we had to climb some more before we were to reach the first elephants of the day. If I had known we were going on a nature hike then I would have planned differently. My flip flops barely clung to the slightly wet rocks that lined the route to the elephants. But all of that faded away, when I heard the elephant trumpet echo through the woods. Up above were two elephants. A huge fully grown mama with her adolescent child.

You know mentally that elephants are huge creatures but until one dwarfs you its hard to fully grasp. Even the child looked like it could crush me if it got to excited. Despite their size they were so gentle, delicately plucking the sugar cane out of our hands with their trunks. We had to call out a Thai phrase three times to get their attention. The mother stood still making everyone come to her, but the child happily stomped around trying to get as much of the sugar cane as possible. While they were distracted eating I took the time to touch their skin.  I never thought about how hairy elephants were, but up close you could feel all the tiny hairs that cover their body. The skin was leathery and warm. 

As people started to run out of sugar cane the adolescent started grabbing at our bags. It was time to go but before we headed back down we got elephant kisses. Their trunk was heavier then anticipated as it briefly latched itself onto our faces. 

Afterwards, we made our way back down and met another pair of elephants. This one had an even smaller baby elephant that couldn't have been more then a couple months old. I wanted to pick it up and cuddle it but the animal still weighed a couple hundred pounds. It ran playfully around us even knocking a few people over as it drank water. 

We took a break for lunch and escaped the suns rays under a hut with a thatched roof. I washed my hands vigorously before eating the meal prepared for us. It was simple, some noodles, chicken and veggies and yet there was so much flavor.  Afterwards, I lied on a mat and listened to the sounds of nature. Trees swaying in the wind, the stream bubbling by, elephants trumpeting in the distance. 

We finished the day by giving the elephants a mud bath though I refused because I was pretty sure the elephants pooped in the mud pool. Sure enough not even 5 minutes into the mud bath I spotted the elephants pooping and peeing. Everyone then made their way to the stream to rinse off the elephants and you realize that elephants are extremely ashy animals, their skin taking on a rich grey color when wet.  

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