Arriving in Chiang Mai
Once in Chiang Mai, we decided to take a day off and to use it for planning our trip further. We ended up changing our schedule a little bit and booked an excursion to an elephant sanctuary the next morning with an overnight stay, simply because we didn't want to spend too much time on the road and getting to the sanctuary would take us about 2 hrs roughly- one way.
Main mode of transportation in Thailand is usually by buses called songthaew or bhat buses, or sometimes referred to as rot si daeng- different terminologies usually describing exactly the same kind of vehicle. The songthaew takes its name from the two bench seats fixed along either side of the back of the pick up truck. Additionally, a roof is fitted over the rear of the vehicle, where more passengers sit or luggage is stored. No wonder that Thailand has almost 10 times higher death rate through car crashes than Germany. The buses are too full, no seat belts are available, streets are too bad and drivers are too crazy - definitely a busy time for your guardian angel.
Two days and one night among the grey giants
After a bumpy two hour ride in the back of a truck (of course no seat belt required) we eventually made it to the elephant sanctuary and spend a day being taught about differences between the African and Indian elephants, their habits, we got to feed them, bath them both in water and in mud, but not to ride them as this harms their back.
It is a truly amazing sight to swim side by side with those giants under a waterfall and the initial fear that one of them was drowning vanished quickly after seeing the tip of its trunk peaking out.
Why to avoid riding camps?
This is a rather easy one to answer. Although elephants are big, their body is not made for carrying 150kg for 8 hours, 7 days a week. Elephants have been used for agriculture back in the days when no other option was available. However, they eat easily 200kg of food per day, so buying an elephant is not cheap (20.000-200.000 dollars) and 'running costs' are neither. Also, when seeing elephant in the wild, one notices, that they are wild creatures indeed and no way on earth would you walk up to them to give them a kiss on the trunk. Hell no! So, consequently, in order to make them 'suitable' for riding camps, they need to be "trained" ...a lot. And training includes a ridiculously amount of punishment, making them obedient by using force, whips and sticks, until their spirit is broken. Nowadays, 80% of the elephants in Thailand are used for the circus, for riding camps or logging meaning that they are not so well off.
Are elephant sanctuaries an alternative?
Yes and No!
Tourists (except Chinese ones apparently) have realized that riding elephants is cruel so more and more companies are popping up offering an alternative tour without the riding option. Instead, one can feed and pet them and give them mud baths. The way sanctuary camps work is by buying or renting off elephants from riding camps and private owners. By renting them rather than buying, it is guaranteed that the former owner doesn't run off to get new elephants in order to sell them to more sanctuaries and to make a business out of it. Instead, they are given a regular income by monthly payments for the elephant rent and they don't have to worry about feeding them. Sanctuaries take tortured elephants from former riding camps which offers them a better life, obviously, than they had before. But nevertheless, in most cases, they are chained up at night for a few hours. Elephants need hardly any sleep (4 hrs a day), so the trainers need to stay alert all the time. This is the reason given to us when asked why they are chained at night. 'The trainers need some rest and in order to prevent them from running through the crops and eating everything that was supposed to be provided to the locals'. So while this is better than their previous life, no chains would be the best there is no doubt about that.
Is there another option?
Fact is: The elephants you can find in Thailand nowadays are pretty much domesticated and have been tortured at a certain point in their life. Even if one wanted to send them back to the jungle, they would most likely not survive or fight each other because of scarcity of food. Even if they were survival heroes, there still wouldn't be enough jungle for the elephants especially with humans involved using it for agriculture purposes. So setting them free would be challenging. Likewise, having a gated elephant park similar to zoo facilities would be a problem in the end as elephants don't like borders and thus migrate to new areas, which they cannot do if it is fenced. So, as bad as it sounds, there seems not to be a much better option for now or at least nothing that we can think of, at least not for the current generation of elephants. Sanctuaries seem to be an alright option, even if not ideal and a little bit less interaction would be better, but then again I am not an elephant, so I don't know.
Elephants are majestic creatures and interesting to watch. every experience is different and unique as every elephant acts differently each day- we got to be at 3 different camps and we liked the camp we started at the most. Visiting a camp is not cheap, but that is also understandable once you realize where they get the elephants from and how much it costs to maintain the area. Whereas this was definitely a magical experience, it doesn't even come close to our snorkel trip with wild sea lions in Galapagos.
On another note, Johannes managed to see some shooting stars (again)- his score now is 20:2- while he is running out of wishes, I am really struggling to see any and my 2 shooting stars were only from the corner of an eye, barely counting as such 🙁
Karen people in Thailand
While on this trip we found out that many (especially Christian ) people come to Thailand as refugees due to the Myanmar Government's persecution of some minority groups. As a consequence, many Karen people crossed the border and are now illegaly in Thailand. Because they are not registered, they cannot go to school, get an education or do a qualified job. This will also be their children's destiny as they as will not be registered here, meaning that their options are limited and many of them focus on selling souvenirs or weaving. One of the most famous Karen groups- the famous longneck- gain money by letting tourists enter their homes. However, a lot of this money remains with the tour operators and hardly gets passed on to the Karen villages, unlike their souvenirs and weaving. It has been reported that while some Karen people enjoy staying in their village, others are pushed not to go to the big city in order to guarantee the flow of tourists coming to the Karen villages (if you would see longneck in the city you wouldn't pay money for a tour to a village, would you!?). We decided not to visit the longneck village and to go a little bit off the beaten track by attempting to find our way to Mae Salong- the most famous tea region in Thailand- by using local transport.
Same procedure as every day- getting up at 4am
On our last day, we decided to get up early and to try to hail a bhat bus, which like in every country seems to be one big mafia. We planned on going to a temple on top of a mountain about 45 min away from the city and speculated on a beautiful sunrise and the prayers of the monks in the early morning, followed by a trip to the tunnels of the Wat Umong temple. After having had two mafia bus driver trying to rip us off, we finally found a bus that would take us for a reasonably amount of money- little did we know that he would throw us out at the outskirts of the city, next to a bus stop, but buses started departing only 2 hours later. Of course, he was speculating on us changing our mind and hiring him, but we refused to continue with him any further. Eventually we found another driver who drove us up the mountain and while the sunrise was covered in smog, it was nice anyways. On our way back, we managed to hail up an UBER cab which just recently started operating in Chiang Mai- so if you want to avoid the rip off of the taxi mafia, take UBER, it works in many countries and is just as safe. In general, it seems as the bus/taxi mafia rip off is worse in Asia than in South America.