Our primary reason for traveling to Thailand was to play with elephants. J saw a video of a woman playing with a baby elephant in Thailand and that was it for him. He had to go.
As I started doing my research I was shocked at how much mistreatment there is of this sacred animal. There are reports of elephants being drugged in order to stay up at night for tourist rides, they are saddled with heavy metal seats and then humans on top all day, they are chained and then made to walk around cities (I saw this firsthand in Ayutthaya and almost started to cry.), or they beaten into submission to perform for humans. We knew whatever we did to play with elephants had to be done at a place that promoted a healthy and happy life for elephants.
I found Chai Lai Orchid house and was so excited to see that it sits right on an elephant preservation. (We later found out they were the company in the video J originally saw!) The Mahouts (elephant caretakers, riders and trainers) at this preservation are very careful about how the elephants are treated, cared for and interacted with. They will not allow the elephants to have the metal seats on their back for their guests. They rent the elephants from Thai’s who own them in order to show the owners there are other ways to make money with elephants besides the cruel tourist practices. To buy an elephant is about 60,000.00 so most sanctuaries can not afford to buy the elephants, they also worry that it would cause a negative message for the elephant owners. The Mahouts do not drug or mistreat the elephants at the sanctuary, working hard to give them the best life and experience in a natural setting that they can.
We took a driver from Ayutthaya to Bangkok and then flew Thai Airways (which I love!) to Chiang Mai. At the Chiang Mai airport it is an hour ride (with a driver) up into the hills to Chai Lai Orchid house.
When we arrived I was so surprised by the elephants right there on the side of the road! We were completely overjoyed to see them eating and hanging out right next to the path to our hotel. The mahouts came and quickly helped us with our luggage, across a steel suspended bridge that crosses the river in front of Chai Lai. I wasn’t expecting a suspended bridge, but hey I am learning to go with things now and not skip a beat.
As we approached the elephants for the first time I was taken aback by their incredibly gentle nature. They are quiet, and relaxed animals. They moved around us with curiousity, and caution while we stood in awe. I was surprised at how small their eyes were and how they seemed to be as interested in seeing me as I was them. We were able to pet them and play with them which felt odd at first. I mean there is this large elephant who is so powerful standing next to you it is intimidating to reach out and pet them or play with their trunks. By the next day though, we had been trained, and had let our guard down and fallen in love.
We spent the next three days playing with the elephants, feeding them, bathing them and watching them. It was really amazing. At first we were shocked to see them chained up at the ankle but learned that it is necessary to keep them off of the road, or from wandering off into the locals farmers gardens where they would not be received well. There are many elephant sanctuaries and retreats in the area and they seem to all follow the same practice.
The elephants spent most of their time eating, corn stalks, bananas, and sugar cane. They also love to swat themselves with the corn stalks, and throw dirt on their backs as a way to get relief from itchy mosquito bites. I was so surprised that a mosquito could penetrate the incredibly thick skin of an elephant. The elephants walk about the area, they bathe in the river and sleep in the hills. They are given baths, brushed with brooms to help the itches, and played with by the Mahouts who clearly love and respect them.
I watched tears fall from my husbands eyes as he interacted with the little baby, and while she made a game of charging him during her bath. They came to trust us, and we them over the course of our stay. We enjoyed their kisses (which feel like a vacuum suction hose), and their playful personalities as they sprayed us in the river. We jumped the first time we heard them roar like a dinosaur, and laughed as they squawked at each other. We jumped a few times realizing these massive animals had just snuck up on us (they literally make no noise as they move through the jungle). I laughed a lot as I watched their trunks swing constantly picking up food, breaking large corn stalks or chomping watermelons or coconuts whole.
There is nothing more humbling than standing in front of this incredible creature, putting your hands on their trunk and petting them as they stare into your eyes. I will never be the same.
We booked Chai Lai through Airbnb. We found a driver at the airport although most of our trip we used 12GoAsia.com to book drivers. We flew Bangkok Airways from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and I can’t say enough about what an awesome airline they are!