Chiang Mai Series: A Day With the Elephants and Why It Broke My Heart

by - 3:00 PM

When I think of Thailand, I imagine: shimmering and impressive temples, sumptuous Thai street food, orange-clad monks, the fine white sand and turquoise beach, and of course, the ELEPHANTS. People say your Thailand trip wouldn't be complete without the elephants in your itinerary and that it's a must do for first-time visitors in the Land of Smiles.

I had purposely budgeted a bigger amount for the elephant experience because I wanted to do it right but for some reason, we settled for the THB 800 instead without even checking the name of the elephant camp and how things were going on there. 

Let me tell you a story of how I fell in love with the elephants and how I got my heart broken. 

First Stop: 
The Butterfly and Orchid Farm
The tour operator picked us up a little past 8 am on a white van full of other tourists from other countries. There were four Chinese, four Dutch, and of course, us, four Filipinos. All of us were set to go on the same tour route though some of us differed with the activities we planned to do for the day.

It was hot and we felt like we were in a sauna at the back of the van. We were the second group picked up and we wanted to sit together so we opted to stay at the back (yes, we were clingy like that, haha!). You could imagine how relieved we were for the fresh air after almost an hour of travel to the outskirts of the city. Ahhh, finally!
Chiang Mai, Butterfly, Orchid, Elephant Farm
First stop was the Butterfly and Orchid Farm. Coming from a tropical country, I was already used to seeing orchids and butterflies. There wasn't much to do here except to look at the flowers and to walk around a small enclosure with only a handful of butterflies. I was quite surprised though that orchids can be preserved and be made into a brooch or a pendant which was pretty cool but I think the prices were just too high for such small pieces. 

We stayed at the farm for probably just about 15-30 minutes before we hopped on the van again to our next destination a few minutes away.

Second Stop: 
Elephant Poopoopaper Park
Next stop was the Elephant Poopoopaper Park and yes, folks, they made papers out of elephant dung. Now, I'm pretty sure you've seen these "special papers" or some may even have used them in school before because I did.  I particularly enjoyed this part of the trip because we really had a hands on experience of making paper out of elephant poo.
poo paper, elephant poo, dung, elephant, chiang mai, Thailand
Step 1 - Poo Collection
First step was of course collecting poo from the animals. Most papers in the market were made from the trees' wood fiber pulps but these fibers can also be found in animals with high fiber diet but with inefficient digestive systems such as elephants, cows, horses, and buffaloes. Chiang Mai has an abundant supply of these and farm owners were more than happy to dispose off the dung at the Poopoopaper Park.
poo paper, elephant poo, dung, elephant, chiang mai, Thailand
Step 2 - Cleaning and Boiling
Next stop was the cleaning and boiling part to get rid of all the other dirt (except the fiber) and unwanted bacteria from the paper. The boiling process lasts for hours at a very high temperature. They then scooped the slurry mixture of fiber up and then used the excess water to nourish the plants in the area. 
poo paper, elephant poo, dung, elephant, chiang mai, Thailand
Step 3 - Mixing and Blending
The wet, slurry mixture from step 2 was then mixed with other non-wood fiber pulp available for the season such as hay, pineapple husks, corn stalks , and banana trunks. This step made the poo paper stronger and more durable.
poo paper, elephant poo, dung, elephant, chiang mai, Thailand
Step 4 - Coloring and Screening
Now, the fun part! Non-toxic food coloring was then added to the off-white mixture and then the pulp was removed and formed into tiny balls of similar weight. These colorful balls were then brought to the screening area where the colorful mixture was placed on a framed screen which was partially submerged in water. Once the pulpy mixture was evenly distributed by hand, the frame was then lifted to drain it. We enjoyed this part because we got our hands wet and dirty.
poo paper, elephant poo, dung, elephant, chiang mai, Thailand
Step 5 - Drying
We then brought the screen with the mixture under the sun to dry it up. The drying process varied depending on the weather and the thickness of the paper. In the farm, there were rows and rows of colorful screens drying under the sun. They could probably make tons of elephant papers in a week.
poo paper, elephant poo, dung, elephant, chiang mai, Thailand
Step 6 - Create your own masterpiece (Bonus Step)
This step was for those who had extra dough to shell out for any poopooper product they wanted to make and bring home with them. You can make journals, frames, and  the cheapest one was the bookmark to bring home with you as a souvenir. Obviously, us four Filipinos, didn't do this step. Hah! Kuripot (stingy), I know. Lol.
I did actually enjoy this part of the day not only because it was a hands-on experience but also for its very powerful message of recycling and sustainability. Another factor to the fun experience was our guide who was very energetic and who surprised us with the Filipino words she knew. Apparently, she used to have Filipina workmates who became her good friends. It made me mighty proud being a Filipino and made me realized we can be world-class no matter what job, no matter how lowly to some, it may be. 

Third Stop: 
The Elephant Camp
After all the fun in making paper out of animal poo, we headed towards our most awaited experience of the day --- seeing the elephants. It took us about 20-30 minutes going up Chiang Mai's picturesque mountains towards the Elephant Farm.

We probably got there at around 11 am and the place was already full of tourists. From the parking lot alone I could tell that there were probably more than 100 tourists that same day we visited and about 80% of the tourists were Chinese.

elephant, elephant ride, elephant camp, Chiang Mai
The first thing that came to my mind was: "Am I in an elephant factory?" 
Our guide, a small lady in stature but with a boombox voice, ushered our "herd" across the hanging steel bridge, suspended high above a river, towards where the elephants were. 

From across the hanging steel bridge we saw scores of elephants with makeshift metal seats strapped around their body, their mahouts (elephant trainer) steering the elephant towards the hut where tourists were lining up to ride the poor animals. 

elephant, elephant ride, elephant camp, Chiang Mai

The next thing I knew, we were already the ones being hurried to ride the elephants by pair and it felt like we were being shoved to hurry up or else another batch of tourists will overtake us if we slow down for a second.

It took me a few minutes to take it all in. As I looked around, I saw the other mahouts holding a stick with a sharp end on it, hitting the elephant when they don't move or go to the intended direction. Some even shouted at the animal and kicked them on the neck. About halfway through the course, we stopped by a hut to buy overpriced elephant treats (a few sticks of sugarcane and banana) to feed the poor elephants and they gobble them all up as if that was the only meal they had that day.

elephant, elephant ride, elephant camp, Chiang Mai

The entire ride took 30 minutes and I was unhappy, to say the least. Our only consolation was that our mahout was nice to us and to our elephant. He didn't hit him with a sharp stick nor kicked him on the neck. Of course, we didn't let him go unrewarded for his kindness. My other two friends weren't as lucky. They saw their mahout hitting the poor elephant and there were even scars and open wounds from all the pricks it had endured. 

Lunch was so-so. We had a full spread of Thai food, mostly vegetables, and some fruits too. I was too preoccupied talking on the phone with an agent from my local bank that when I went back to the buffet table, all the good ones were gone (the fried chicken and the pad thai). All's good though because my friends were kind enough to give me some from their plate. The only downside were the huge flies swarming the lunch area.

elephant, elephant ride, elephant camp, Chiang Mai
Still a bit full from our lunch, our guide ushered us to our next activity --- ox-cart riding. I have never seen an ox yet so I was pretty much surprised that they looked like my country's very own carabao (water buffalo).  

The ride was short but bittersweet. We drove around a covered court where we saw what looked like a home for the aged and sick elephants. There were quite a handful of them with very short chains tied to their feet and some of them even looked sad as they ate grass and drank water. Maybe this was what their life's gonna be if they were no longer able to meet the demands of the trade or if they "act up" in front of tourists.

The minute we got off our ox-cart, our guide was already there waiting for us to bring us  to the next activity we were set to do for the day: the Elephant Show. I was kinda hoping this was better than the elephant ride we had that morning because I couldn't stand seeing the elephants suffer again. Little did we know that it was another round of torture disguised as a circus show and it bothered me seeing the elephants being treated that way.
elephant, elephant ride, elephant camp, Chiang Mai
They were forced to make tricks like stand up on their hind legs, kneel down, lie down, bike around, kick and shoot the ball, and even paint! Though these tricks look amazing, we couldn't discount the fact that they went through numerous pricks of the bull hooks and yells from their mahouts. What was even more heartbreaking was how the mahouts use the animals to beg for money aka tip from people. At the end of the show, they rode the elephants and followed the other tourists around, forcing them to hand over some bills just so they leave them alone.  

I've seen a few snapshots and documentaries before of women having coils of brass rings around their necks and shins and it was definitely surreal to have seen them in real life. These women were part of the Karen/Kayan tribe and were originally from Burma (Myanmar). Due to political unrest, the Karen people were displaced and some of them relocated and formed little villages across the border separating Thailand and Myanmar.

long neck, Karen tribe, Myanmar, Chiang Mai, Thailand
A little past from where we had the elephant riding were a cluster of huts housing the Karen tribe. There were rows and rows of stalls selling handcrafted items such as scarves, clothes, and wooden ornaments. The moment they saw us coming, each one of them went to their assigned huts and set out to do their chores of weaving and smiling for the camera.

According to our guide, little girls as young as five years old were made to wear these brass coils and more are added as they grow older. The brass rings on their necks could get as heavy as 6 kilograms and would press down on their clavicle, giving an illusion of them having longer necks. The tribe believes that the rings will protect them from harm and would make them unattractive to the other tribes.
long neck, Karen tribe, Myanmar, Chiang Mai, Thailand
What was weird though was that the village was within the Elephant Camp itself and I can't help but think that these people may have been relocated from somewhere else to make the camp a one-stop shop for tourists. 

Our guide told us that the men from the tribe were working as mahouts, elephant caretakers, ox-cart and bamboo rafting drivers while the women earned their living through tips given by tourists and by selling their handcrafted items. Despite the hundreds of tourists every single day, each tribe member gets a meager amount for all the hard toil they give.

To cap the day off, we cruised the river by riding a bamboo raft. There were six tourists and two boat men on the trip and it felt really relaxing and soothing after an entire day of being out in the sun. Among all the activities we had that day, this was probably the least rushed and we felt that we were able to enjoy the moment of tranquility and oneness with nature.

The Lesson: 
Research before you go.
What I initially thought as a would-have-been fun day turned out to be heartbreaking. I intentionally allotted more funds for a day at an elephant farm where we get to bathe the elephants and take care of them but we were lured instead by cheap bucks and enticing promises. As a consequence, we were witnesses to abuses not only of the animals but also of a people already displaced and suffering.

The 800 THB was cheap, yes, but by all means it didn't justify the things they had to go through and the things they do for money gained from irresponsible mass tourism. The elephant camp we visited felt like it was constructed to be a tourist trap, a one-stop-shop, designed to amass money with every twist and turn. It felt so rushed that we didn't have  the time to take it all in and interact with the people around us. 

If you are seeking to spend time with the elephants, I strongly advise that you verify with your travel agent the name of the elephant farm you are visiting and to do your research first before committing to anything. I feel horrible for paying for something I am already aware of but had failed to implement while on the road. Here's a website you can use as reference to help you filter through the numerous elephant camps in Chiang Mai and to help you choose the best ones not only to the pocket but also to the conscience. 

They say: "Travel and let the world change you." For 17 days, four international flights, two overnight trains, and countless hours of bus rides, I let the universe do just that. And it changed me in more ways than one.

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