Elephant Nature Park

There are a lot of choices when it comes to visiting the elephants of Thailand. There are options that include riding and not riding. Swimming and not swimming. Half day and full day treks.

Based on reviews and my own belief that riding elephants isn’t kosher I chose Elephant Nature Park. I wish I would have asked around a bit more. For 2,500฿ ($70) the tour company picks you up at your hotel at 8:30am, drives you to the site in a comfortable, air conditioned van, feeds you lunch and drives you back to your hotel after a day of elephant fun. This is by far the most expensive thing I have done in Thailand, but I think the money is going to a good cause and it’s a bit far to travel alone.

While I believe the park is extremely conscientious of the creatures they contain, they are still contained creatures. I’m not sure what I expected, but what I experienced, I wouldn’t do it again.

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Here’s why I don’t recommend Elephant Nature Park:

  • When the passengers are done being picked up, a 40-minute shock video is played to scare the shit out of everyone. It’s basically propaganda against any other elephant tour, showing abuse, injury and a few interviews of why ENP is so great. It’s really difficult at 8am, not to mention just very aggressive.
  • There are about 60 female elephants, 5 males and 1 baby, all separated respectively.
    • I get that the males can become aggressive and we heard them (we never saw the males as they are behind massive fences), but isn’t caging still not very natural?
    • The baby, which is more or less seen as a cuteness factor and often pictures are showed of people “snuggling” them, is kept behind barricades as well with it’s mother and nanny. Again, another safety precaution, understandable, but still a bit misleading.
  • The elephants are led by their Mahout (elephant trainer, like a buddy system). To be friendly and led around, they are plied with food and phrases and occasionally a push. I didn’t see anything unethical, like abuse, but still these are wild animals and there is nothing wild about here’s a watermelon, be good.
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Elephant with her Mahout, empty basket, leaving the river
  • Swimming with elephants to help clean them… let’s get this straight right now. You don’t swim with anything. You don’t need a bathing suit and when we were on our way to the river, the guide said you can wear your bathing suit if you “want to be sexy.” WTF? No one wanted to be sexy, but we were led to believe we’d be bathing the elephants and swimming in a river. That river was knee deep at best and you’re given a child’s beach bucket and you literally stand on the edge and throw water at the elephant.
    • It was so strange and uncomfortable, the people in my group basically left.
    • The elephant is kept standing there with a laundry basket of watermelon. When that’s gone, the elephant is gone.
  • Besides your assigned table, there’s absolutely no shade. For humans or other animals. A few umbrella huts dot the property and you can see the animals fight for cover when the sun blasts down.
  • There’s so much downtime that it’s often confusing about what you’re supposed to be doing.
    • Shop – they literally give you over an hour to shop in the gift shop
    • Lunch – The food wasn’t good, it ran out quickly and flies were all over all of it. It was very open and while feeding a herd of people is no easy feat, I know I barely ate because I was afraid of getting sick.
    • Rest – Rest for an hour after… who knows? Walking around a walled field? It’s so strange.

A few good things that made it sorta worthwhile:

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  • I believe in good intentions and I think this park is trying to make it natural, it’s just missing the mark
  • You next to a lot of elephants really puts size into perspective
  • It is educational when it comes to the treatment of elephants around the world
  • Water buffalo also roam the property and these are pretty rad, if not terrifying
  • Cat and Dog sanctuary – over 400 cats and dogs are fed and kept at the property. They do adoptions all over the world
  • The park is a beautiful, picturesque postcard-like setting

Bottom line: I heard other tourists spent less and had more fun and a better overall experience participating with elephants (also at no-ride parks). Elephant Sanctuary was one that came highly recommended and people seemed to love.

It was an interesting day and I enjoyed learning about the elephants. I also learned that I do no want to touch, ride, play or really engage with wild animals. I’m an absolute baby, but maybe that’s better. Wild animals aren’t meant to be touched and hugged and hand fed. They are meant to roam free, make babies, have aggressive man fights and live in a safe environment.

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I’m not touching her, I’m literally pretending, terrified 

Is it better for an elephant to live at Elephant Nature Park over a torture park where they are chained up? Yes. Is it better for an elephant to live at Elephant Nature Park over being hunted for ivory? Yes. But free will always be better than living in captivity.

After over a week of Chiang Mai, I needed to move on and see what else Northern Thailand had in store, so I headed to Pai to meet back up with Harriet and Emily. But that’s for another post.

Doi Inthanon National Park: The Roof of Thailand

The highest point in Thailand, a gift fit for the King and Queen and waterfalls!

Those colorful, glossy brochures that fill hotel lobbies and street corners are enticing. They’re full of exciting excursions led by knowledgable tour guides. Great right? Yes, if your wallet is stacked and you don’t mind spending a little extra (a lot extra) for convenience.

Even when I have the cash, I never really like excursions. I don’t enjoy being told where to go, when to leave and how long to spend there. So when I read a few travelers’ blog posts about how to do Doi Inthanon National Park on a budget and on your own, I was sold. All I needed was a few willing friends.

After becoming chummy with the boys I asked if they’d be interested. Doi Inthanon is a 2 hour drive from our hostel and there are hikes to take, waterfalls to play in and temples to see. I explained to them that it would cost about 1500฿ a person to do this on a tour and it would probably be a get on, get off bus type thing. This wasn’t that type of group.

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They agreed and we decided to flag down a “taxi” driver and ask for a day trip fare to split between us, as the blogs had recommended. We ended up lucking out and met Danielle and Sara the morning we were planning on leaving. This is really how easy it is to make friends. Danielle was sitting there and I was talking to Joel and literally looked at her and said, “Hey, do you want to come to Doi Inthanon with us today?”  And BOOM! we had a little 7 person tour group.

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In front of the grounds at the Queen’s Chedis

Our taxi driver quoted us 2300฿ for 3 waterfalls (that were meticulously picked because we could swim in them), Phra Maha Dhatu Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri Pagoda (the King and Queen’s Chedis) and a hike to the tallest spot in Thailand. Not a bad way to spend 330฿ each. Remember that’s like a 1200฿ savings. We also learned there is a 300฿ fee for the park that we’d have to pay on top of the tour price, so a big win! Plus, we thought we’d grab some Changs and bask in the sun all day, really making this a laid back trip.

Phra Maha Dhatu Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri Pagoda

The King and Queen’s Chedis and surrounding gardens were insanely beautiful. Meticulous tiling that detail stories that I am sure I don’t understand. These gifts were dedicated to the King and Queen for their 60th birthday anniversaries in 1987. Between the Buddha’s on the inside to the flowers and shrubs and statues, and the rolling clouds that you were literally standing in, it was really breathtaking.

The Tallest Point in Thailand 

Located 2,565 meters above sea level, this point is not a hike. It’s not even really a walk. It’s a sign and a trick. We felt silly as we climbed the few stairs to the sign and then followed a wooden pathway through the jungle and then a few meters later popped out at the gift shop and bathrooms. They do a good job of making this feel like a stopping point, and saying you made it to the top of Thailand is cool, but seriously…

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Waterfalls and (not) Swimming 

You know what they say about best laid plans? Well, that’s true in Thailand too when you can’t speak the language and have no actual idea what your “guide” has in store. After discussing and showing the driver the waterfalls we wanted to see AND telling him we wanted to swim, he had other ideas. The first waterfall, Wachirathan Waterfall, was very, very cool but there was a balcony to take pictures and no swimming allowed. It was not on our list but it was cool and huge, and it had started to rain.

 

The second waterfall I believe was the Sirithan Waterfall. There were definitely pools to swim in and multiple falls. It was drizzling at this point and the grounds were slick. We still managed to climb around the rocks and feel the water. The taxi driver was now at our sides, he had very different ideas for getting this show moving than we had in mind. “No swim” was spoken often. He did not want us chillin, at all. He even told us the ones we wanted were dry. Dry? So water/rain chooses which falls to visit? Interesting.

The final stop, and last waterfall on our tour was the Mae Klang Waterfall. It was now pouring. We didn’t need to swim, water pooled around us. Drenched, and glad to be wearing bathing suits we ran around but didn’t stay at the last stop very long. Took a few pics, saw how grand it was and got back into the taxi.

To complete the journey we asked the driver to stop at 7-11 for Changs for the wet 2-hour ride home. He did. At one with gas, where they don’t sell booze. We’d lost control of our little personalized tour, but still happily rode home after a day of discovery and adventure. But no swimming.

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After a long, wet day of sightseeing 

Next stop, Elephant Nature Park. But that’s for another post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halfway Around the World: Part 1

Week 1 – Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Man, it’s been a weird week. It’s almost too hard to start this blog post so I’ve been putting it off- which is stupid. There are so many wonderful things to share. Which is why I separated this post into 2 parts. It’s a lot. So, let’s get right into it.

May 24 – May 26

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My trip started at 1pm on Tuesday. I landed in JFK and had a wonderful layover dinner with my friends. It was a very special meet-up in a random sports bar in Queens, especially because a buddy I haven’t seen in ages showed up and my brother Patrick was able to meet my friends. I was also able to give him a birthday present in person–something I haven’t been able to do in about 10 years. At 2am Wednesday morning my China Eastern plane shot into the air for a 15-hour flight to Shanghai.

After a sleeping pill, several bathroom breaks, 2 microwaved plane meals and countless annoying neck pillow adjustments, I awoke to find it was Thursday. It’s weird to skip an entire day. I’m still catching up. I don’t have jet leg, but something worse, my body somehow refuses to believe it’s 12-hours ahead of my real life.

So anyways, Shanghai to Chiang Mai was seamless and before I knew it I was checking into 99 The Gallery Hotel. I felt great, it was some time in the afternoon, the sun was high and hot, and I’d made a friend on my flight. Scott. We taxi’d to our respective hotels together and exchanged phone numbers on Whatsapp.

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Old City, CM. Top green box – Great Chaingmai Hostel. More central green box, 99 Gallery Hotel

 

99hotelbedThe hotel was beautiful and located in an amazing location. I didn’t wander around right off the bat. Scott and I had plans to meet up for dinner and explore together so I showered, sat in my room and just digested everything. It was like walking around in a dream. I wanted to lie down but the bed was rock hard. For example, when you lay down on your yoga mat at the start of class… that hard.Apparently this is just the Thai way, and I’ll have to get used to it. I decided I needed a walk.

 

The moment I realized I was in Thailand was the first turn I took out of my hotel. There, in front of me, was a big, beautiful temple. Wat Pha Bong, constucted around 1345, stood there in the crowds of workers, amongst pharmacies and buses and students in uniforms. Gold and shimmering and absolutely stunning. I couldn’t read any signage around it and I suddenly became unbelievably aware that I had no idea how to navigate this journey.

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Sight-seeing, Friend-making

Scott is a 28-year-old on vacation from Los Angeles, California, in town for an Egress gaming convention (no I’ve never heard of it either. It’s like the Amazing Race I think). We walked around town and went to the big street food market for dinner on our first night and tried our hands at Chang and Pad Se Ew. It helped that we were both so confused and new. It made it easier to assimilate into the new culture.Scott

For the next few days Scott and I did pretty much everything together. We explored Old City, ate meals, tried to learn Thai pleasantries and with the help of Scott’s rented motorbike we scouted hostels. Motorbikes are scary AF. Driving in Old City is scary AF. Crossing the street safely is a Hail Mary. All my years in Manhattan traffic paid off. There are pretty much no rules when it comes to driving in CM. For a 2,000 Baht (฿) deposit (we’ll get to money later), any idiot can rent a motorbike and scoot around the world.

Anyways, in our travels we discovered a pristine park with the world’s most complicated bathrooms, a back-alley bar that I’m pretty sure is just someone’s garage and a rad blues club, Boy Blues Bar, on top of the Sunday Night Bazaar next door to Ladyboy central. It’s because of his friendship I assimilated so quickly and easily into traveling solo. But then he had to go play with his other friends…

Things To Do

After moving into my new home at Great ChiangMai Hostel  and sort of understanding the layout of the city better, I started a bit of a routine. Still unable to figure out what

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Bed and Locker. Pretty nice and has privacy curtain!

day or time it was, I’d get up at like 7am and just go do stuff. There are things no blogs tell you about Chiang Mai and hopefully Thailand in general; the iced coffee is a drink from the Gods and smoothies (made with just fruit and ice) are A-MAZ-ING. Like indescribable. For 60฿ and 30฿ respectively you can enjoy the freshest most flavorful drink combo in the world. The fruit here is outstanding. It’s rich and filling and I’d be skinny if it tasted like this in the states.

 

 

 

Next, I figure out where to take my beverages. One of my favorite things to do so far was a self-guided walking tour of the Wats around Old City. I followed this awesome, downloadable map from Big Boy Travel. I put in my earbuds, turned on some happy jams and let Google tell me where to turn, what to look for. Technology is amazing. Old City is small enough to walk around, so stopping into shops, or getting a bite to eat is super easy.

The wats are outstanding. (I’m putting together a photo gallery, but it’s WIP) They’re meticulously taken care of and the respect shown around them is admirable. I found myself alone, wandering the grounds at times, removing my shoes, covering my shoulders and going in to stare in awe at the statues and Buddha. Although the wats all have similar qualities, they are each different. I’d kneel on the floor and just wait. I’m not necessarily a religious person, but it’s easy to feel moved and spiritual in a place of worship that has sheltered centuries of believers.

It’s possible to make donations and pray to the Buddha. But I don’t know how to pray or what to say. I’d just sit and wait. Sometimes I guess it’s ok to feel small and insignificant. It’s honestly a great representation of my current position in life-small and insignificant but knowing there’s more, a bigger plan is in motion. Whoa, heavy stuff!

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Less heavy stuff in Part 2, coming soon.