Elephants, tigers, cooking and food poisoning in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most popular tourist havens. The bustling markets, stunning trekking terrain and organised elephant tours see backpackers, like myself, flocking to the small fort town. So with Mr Hooper, our friend Max and Ollie (my youngest brother) I jumped aboard a night train from Bangkok to check out what all the fuss was about.

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After hearing some pretty shady stories about the tiger and elephant parks, where the big cats are doped and the elephants are mistreated, we decided to avoid those with bad reputations and head to more ethical centres.

The Tiger Kingdom is a recorded breeding program that keeps the tigers at the center until they reach maturity when they are then transferred to a nearby sanctuary. Desperate to play with the tiny tiger cubs, we paid to see the smallest and the biggest tigers at Tiger Kingdom. The babies were in a sheltered enclosure, protected against the sun and rain with furniture for them to play and climb on. We were told to remove our shoes and wash our hands thoroughly to stop us bringing infections in to the enclosure.

As soon as we were in, the little cubs came wondering over, curious about their new visitors. We crouched down, and it wasn’t long before they were bounding around playing with each other and showing off to their audience. For some the excitement was too much for them and they lay down sleepily and had a nap- well why not eh? After all, they do sleep 16 hours in the wild!

The bigger tigers weren’t quite as cute- it’s very difficult to smile and look relaxed for a photo when you have 150 kg worth of tiger laid next to you! Luckily, they weren’t as excitable as the young cubs and spent most of the time napping. The occasional grizzle as they dreamed was enough to keep us on our feet. I did have time to have a quick snap with a tiger-tash though!

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That evening, with an outbreak of food poisoning taking down Mr Hooper and a severe migraine, which I Google diagnosed as Dengue fever crippling Max, I headed off with Ollie to try out one of the towns popular cookery courses. Not having the best track record in the kitchen, I was sceptical when I saw the bowls of spices and ingredients laid out ready for us to use- I envisioned a Bridget Jones blue soup moment rather than a yummy Pad Thai. Our chef talked us through the different ingredients, continually telling us “You use more chilli, it more spicy, more sexy!!!” Apparently I’m not very sexy as I can’t handle much more than a regular korma, so I opted for just the one chilli and my southern England palette even struggled with that!

After three hours of chopping, frying, mashing, stirring, sweating and some strong language when I rubbed chilli in my eye my five fabulous dishes ready for tasting.

I took some back for Mr H to taste, but unfortunately he wasn’t up to it so I had it for breakfast the next morning. It was just like eating left over curry after a night out, only it tasted better!

With Mr H in better spirits, but Max still playing man down, we bid him goodbye and set off on a two day elephant extravaganza. Our destination was Baan Chang Elephant Sanctuary, located in the forested hills two hours from Chiang Mai.

The Sanctuary, which is run by a dedicated local team, rescues and buys elephants from traumatic backgrounds such as logging, poaching and tourist attractions. Elephants in the wild are quickly snatched up either by poachers for their valuable ivory or by locals who can make a tidy profit using them to beg on the streets. Others are used for logging, suffering long hours and terrible conditions. The lucky ones end up as tourist attractions, dancing or often painting for the amusement of the tourists, but even these are poorly treated, especially during the training period where they use “The Box” to restrict new elephants and repeatedly beat them into submission. I felt sick to my stomach to admit that I had paid to ride a tourist elephant in Thailand before I was aware of the atrocities that go on. Never again.
Baan Chang offers tourist the opportunity to interact and ride the elephants, but in a safe and cruel free environment. Our adventure started with some rather snazzy outfits that looked like blue pyjamas, which were the traditional “Mahout” outfits. The Mahouts are a team of dedicated elephant carers who spend their time looking after, riding, feeding and washing their elephant. With one mahout assigned to an elephant, the bond between the great giants and these small Thai men, who are often members of the local tribes, is an amazing thing to see. One mahout at Baan Chang had such a close relationship with his elephant that he could ask it to lie down and he could happily climb all over it. He even let me have a go too!

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Our guide sat us down and explained to us about the “mahout stick”- the hook shaped stick that you often see elephant trainers carrying.

“The stick is used to control the elephants, and yes sometimes even here at Baan Chang we have to use them. The problem we have it that if we use our voice or our hands to tell the elephant off, they often don’t hear or feel it. We don’t beat the elephant, or even hit them hard, but a small poke will allow them to realise that we want their attention,” our guide told us.

 “The issue is that many other centers use them to beat the elephants when it isn’t necessary and this has given the sticks a bad name. These mahouts love their elephants and wouldn’t ever want to beat them.”

Our first task of the day was to feed the elephants. We carried big baskets brimming with bananas, sugar cane and a colony of fruit flies over to the waiting elephants. Each one had a chain around its leg holding it to the floor, which struck me as quite cruel. The guide said to me “Imagine a group of school children, all desperate for sweets. Now imagine they weigh several tonnes.”

An image of large over sized children running riot and squashing all in their path popped into my head, and I realised it was for our own safety. The chains also allowed equal distribution of all the food, rather than the bigger bulshy elephants stealing all the snacks. Soon long trunks were grabbing bananas and canes from my hands and merrily stuffing them in their large mouths. A baby elephant at the bottom of the hill, which was new to the center and not used to the chain around its leg was pulling and hooting every time I came close. Ed discovered that if you held the sugar cane up to the small elephant then it would simply swing its trunk back and let you put the food straight into its mouth. What a life eh!

The next lesson was mastering the art of riding an elephant. I’ve ridden my horses countless times bareback, but this was a whole different matter. Not only was the elephant ten times bigger, but there was also nothing to hold onto or to steer with. Shouting the commands I had been taught to direct the elephants around the park, I soon realised that I had absolutely no control and the elephant didn’t give a monkeys if I wanted it to go left. It didn’t bode well for the two hour jungle trek we were about to embark on.

With Mr H on the back of the elephant, and me sat on the neck we began our trek in single file through the jungle. Our mahout followed along on the ground, occasionally tugging the elephant’s ear when it decided to ignore the frantic signals I was giving it with my legs. It soon became apparent that our elephant was the greedy one too as we kept shooting off the path to large piles of leaves and we spent most of our ride dragging half a tree around with us. I was much happier when Mr H and I swapped positions and I could relax on the back, with no responsibility and most importantly a rope to hold onto! Here I could take in the scenery and enjoy the jungle experience. I even got a special hat gifted to me by our mahout!

Last thing on the agenda was to wash the elephants after their exercise. We headed down to the small lake at the entrance to the sanctuary. “Don’t be surprised by the poo and wee in the water, it’s going to happen!” our guide chuckled. Embrace the experience, embrace the experience I repeated to myself in my head. That seemed to work until Ed lobbed a giant dung ball in my direction. Poo aside, bathing with the elephants was by far my favourite part of the day. Equipped with scrubbing brushes and buckets we lobbed water over the wallowing elephants and scrubbed as hard as we could. Every now and then a jet of water would come flying our way as a cheeky elephant would try and start a water fight.

We spent the night relaxing with a small group of tourists and the local guides, who generously shared their chilli pork and whisky with us before we called it a night.

The next day we rose early to set off on our trek through the forest to find one of the biggest waterfalls. With a walking pole in hand I tried desperately not to slip over or make a fool of myself as we trekked over the muddy paths. The waterfall was beautiful and after a long walk we were all keen to take a dip. The cool water massaged our shoulders, and every now and then a squawk would come from one of us who had been touched by something mysterious beneath the water.

We went from waterfalls to white water rafting where hard hats, life jackets and closed shoes were required. The safety demonstration was a joke: we stared in disbelief as the three men demonstrated what to do if they shouted “all right!” or “all left” for fifteen minutes. Eventually we were on our way on what turned out to be one of the tamest rafting experiences ever. In fact, as it was just entering rainy season the river water was so low that we simply became lodged on the rocks rather than whizzing over them. We spent most of our afternoon jumping up and down trying to shimmy the raft free. The highlight was a baby elephant crossing the river and slipping up the bank the other side and struggling to get to its feet.

To end the day we jumped aboard a bamboo raft- often used by the locals to move goods along the river. Again, we fell short on the experience and instead of leisurely drifting along we simply began to sink. Rafting failure all round!