Riding an elephant is one of those iconic activities for most visitors to Southeast Asia, and while I really wanted to do it, it was important to me to make sure my money did not end up in abusive hands. In the past, most elephants were used for transportation of people and goods as well as for logging. With the government ban on rainforest logging in 1990, thousands of elephants in Thailand were left unemployed.
Needing new ways to feed their elephants, many owners saw the continuous increase in Western tourism as a perfect opportunity to make some money. Unfortunately, this has led to many elephants being overworked and exploited. I do not need to see an elephant paint me a picture or dance in a stupid costume, chained at the ankles and addicted to drugs. There are companies out there that fight against this however, taking great pains to ensure the well-being of the endangered species while still providing tourists the opportunity to spend time with the majestic beasts.
After doing some research, I found a place I was comfortable with and figured what better way to celebrate the birthday of the King of Thailand than to ride his elephants and white water raft his rivers? He’s in the hospital so I’m sure he appreciated the thought, yanno, since he obviously couldn’t do it. Now, as exciting as riding an elephant may sound, I have to admit, the novelty wore off about 10 minutes into the ride, at which point I sort of just thought, “Wow, this thing moves reeeaaally slowly.” Seriously, who gets bored riding an elephant?
I thought maybe I was just too comfortable sitting on the chair up on my elephant’s back, so with the encouragement of the mahout (elephant master) I decided to crawl off my chair and climb down to ride bareback. As the chair was taking up all the space on its back, I essentially had to ride on its neck, holding onto its ears for stability. With every step he took I thought I might slide down onto his trunk (at which point I’d suddenly be wearing a leotard and someone would cue the circus music…or at least that’s how it played out in my head). Maybe not the most comfortable way to ride an elephant, it certainly kicked up the excitement level. We first mounted the elephants from a platform, so it wasn’t until I actually stood on the ground and looked up into those giant marble eyes that I really appreciated the beauty of these gentle giants.
After the elephants took us to the water, we began the rafting adventure. I was doing the trip with the Australian boys I had zip lined with as well as a few girls I had met along the way. For one reason or another the chubby Thai guide in our raft took a disliking to babyfaced Jason (perhaps because he kept “forgetting” to paddle), and mocked him relentlessly throughout the trip, calling him a “ladyboy” and constantly trying to get him to fall out of the boat. When we finished rafting, our guide must have mentioned something to his coworkers because they all swarmed our raft, pointing at Jason saying “which one ladyboy?? you ladyboy? ahahaha ladyboy ladyboy!!” Poor Jason is probably scarred for life.
Because it was the King’s birthday, the markets that night were even busier than usual, swarming with vendors selling everything from mystery foods to tortoise shell guitars.
In celebration, people were lighting giant paper lanterns which created trails of golden orbs as they floated off into the sky. The lanterns are meant to bring good luck to whoever releases them, or at least that’s what they tell the tourists.
After another day browsing the markets of Chiang Mai, I headed towards the border to Laos, passing through Chiang Rai to visit Wat at Rong Khun, or White Temple as it’s more commonly referred to. This stunning Buddhist temple is the work of a man named Chalermchai Kositpipat, who funded the temple himself so that he could take creative liberties where he pleased. I was a bit surprised to be standing inside a Buddhist temple and find that in the eyes of the giant devil painted on the main wall were none other than Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush. <<cue Team America puppets>> “America..f*ck yeah…”
Aside from visiting temples and riding elephants, I ate as many (authentic!) Thai curries as I could stomach before I hopped on a longboat in Chiang Khong, waved goodbye to Thailand, and headed for Laos.
Where I arrived two minutes later…