Our two day tour of Northern Thailand begins as we drive North through Chiang Mai and into the suburbs. Our first stop of many is at the Orchid Nursery and Butterfly Farm. We take a look at the rows and rows of orchids being grown. These flowers are hung from railings with the roots dangling above the ground. The roots suck in moisture from the humid air – or when the weather is dry they will be sprayed daily with fresh water. Our guide Cha has some interest in growing orchids (as he has an interest in almost everything) and tells how he paid a small fortune to buy an orchid from a friend, but in seven years it has never produced seeds. Sounds like a bit of a dud to us. We also pass through a butterfly enclosure. I do spot a lone butterfly fluttering about in the breeze as we enter, but as a butterfly farm it’s not very impressive and we quickly move on.
Next stop is one of the many many elephant camps in Chiang Dao. I have some qualms about whether this will be a camp where the elephants are treated well, but we don’t see any particularly bad treatment of the animals while we’re there. We cross over the Ping river on a long wooden bridge that swings at the start, gaining momentum as we cross further until we’re bouncing from side to side trying to keep our footing by the end. The first item on the agenda is to spend an hour on a bamboo raft floating down the Ping river. We gingerly climb aboard one, keeping an eye on the water level rising up between the poles. Our silent native uses his pole to push us along and navigate the currents. It’s mostly a slow meandering river flowing through the middle of the jungle. The water is a rich muddy brown so there’s little to be seen below the surface, just ripples where larger rocks threaten to break the surface (or the raft should we go too close).
For most of the journey it’s a silent and peaceful trip though a beautiful area in the jungle. Civilisation seems very far away. There’s only the sound of insects, birds, and the water slowly flowing. This is punctuated periodically by the bang and scrape of the pole as we’re pushed in a new direction. It’s all very Apocalypse Now. There’s the odd jarring bounce off the side of a bank which keeps us from forgetting that we’re just about staying afloat on the water. Our surroundings are so serene that we find ourselves whispering, unwilling to shatter the silence with loud conversation. Once we get to a slow stretch with no dangerous rocks it’s indicated that Brodie is to take a go with a pole up the front while our native stands by at the back to literally stick his oar in any time he’s not satisfied with the direction we’re going. Obviously this is a man’s job as the offer is never extended to me and it’s not long before Brodie is directed to resume his seat. After about 40 minutes we arrive at a busier part of the river. We pass by another elephant camp and can just see trainers performing acrobatics with their animals before the river brings us on out of sight. Before we reach the end of our journey there’s just enough time for us to pass a number of children and men that wade out to the centre of the river. The calls of “Coca Cola” ring through the jungle before we even see the figures ahead of us. As you’d expect, each raft passes right beside the sellers and slows just enough for us to get an earful about the wares each one is selling. Apart from being uninterested in drinks or bracelets, we left our money on the bus anyhow so their efforts are completely wasted. We disembark from the raft to be met by our tour van and are brought all the way back up to where we started. I’m almost tempted to go again, but there are many other things to do at the camp.
The first elephant show we’re treated to is the spectacle of bathing the elephants. The elephants only work during the cooler hours of the day, these elephants are the last group that were out on a jungle trek. Their mahouts bring them down to the edge of the bank to cajole and threaten them into the cool water. The tour guides explain that in summer time you can’t get the elephants out of the water, but now that it’s coming towards winter they’re increasingly reluctant to enter of their own free will. Eventually all the elephants are herded into the water and persuaded to lie down for a good scrub behind the ears. Once they’re in the water they seem content to participate, lying still and enjoying their mahout’s efforts. The tip of their trunks poke up out of the water so they can breathe. By the time they’re deemed clean they’re ready to stand up and impress the audience by collecting water in their trunks and sending sprays up to their trainers who stand on their backs holding a basket to collect whatever they can catch.
From this we move on to the demonstration show which takes place in a large clearing. The opening act has a young elephant walk up to a mast and hoist a flag to applause from the audience. A piece of rope is used to show the measurements of the elephants and one is paraded around to display a good view of its open maw. Most of the performance involves showing the strength and dexterity of the elephants as they pull or push large logs around alone or as a combined effort – sometimes with ropes and chains, other times using just their trunk or feet. Frankly, it’s getting a little boring by the time the last log gets stacked up. The grand finale involves just two of the elephants. Their trainers dip paintbrushes in paint and place the handles within the grasp of their trunks. Painstakingly the elephants move the brushes along the canvas. Presumably the trainers that are obscured behind their elephants are giving helpful signals to the animals to indicate what direction to move in. After about 10 minutes the animals are done and the paintings are displayed in case we want to purchase them while the elephants strut about proudly. It’s quite an impressive act though I’m not sure how many people will fork over good money for a painting any 2 year old could have done with similar assistance.
With the shows over we queue up for an hour long elephant trek through the jungle. Each elephant has a mahout perched on its head, using their knees to tightly grip just behind the ears. Precariously balanced on the elephants back is an uncomfortable looking bench secured with various ropes. We clamber on from a raised perch and a seatbelt is strapped across us. Ours is the first in the group, a very reluctant leader. Our mahout has his work cut out convincing the stubborn animal to move again as it regularly comes to a stop and decides its snack time. Rather than shouting the mahouts grunt to indicate displeasure to their elephant. At times the jungle rings with the bizarre sound of many grunts behind us. Progress is slow as we climb down to walk along the beds of streams and up steep slopes through the trees. At every steep incline and decline we’re treated to a lot of disconcerting tipping of the bench. All the passengers laugh nervously while trying to figure out which part of the elephant might fall on them if it loses its balance. The elephants protest having to make more effort by enforcing extra toilet stops. A heavy thunk thunk heralds the horrific smell of what they’re depositing on the trails. The following elephants will then fastidiously side step to avoid putting their feet in anything unpleasant. For the last stretch we climb down into the Ping river and wade up through the centre as the elephants take advantage and partake of a free drink. You can see why elephant wouldn’t be most people’s favoured mode of transport except where the terrain was difficult and speed wasn’t of the utmost importance. It’s not a particularly comfortable means of getting from one place to another.
As we clamber off and stretch our limbs again there’s the option of purchasing bananas to feed whatever elephants are currently rotated into the feeding pen. Signs request that the tourists please feed at least one bunch of bananas at a time to avoid irritating the elephants. These creatures eat a phenomenal amount of food every day. This is the first time we’ve ever gotten up so close and personal with them. All the elephants in the camp are the smaller Indian elephant. In a lot of respects they’re quite ugly – big lumbering masses of dense muscle covered in tough, leathery hide with black bristles of hair poking up through the creases. Their small eyes are sunken and hooded so that at times you can only barely make them out. There’s something shifty about any animal when you find it hard to look it in the eye easily. The beauty of these animals is in the sheer power they command while also having the ability to manipulate the smallest of things with their trunk. They move surprisingly quietly considering the massive weight they carry. You see them in a very different light in their natural habitat rather than confined to a zoo somewhere. The experience of bamboo rafting and watching these gentle giants in action has been a very good start to our tour.