Close encounters of the elephant kind in Chiang Mai, and why I’ve decided romping with the elephants is way better than riding them.
His kiss was wet, warm, but sloppy. He had aimed for my mouth, but there was no way I was letting him do that, so in an awkward dance, I had given him my forearm instead. There was a loud slurping noise as he pulled away, the suction action causing my arm to pucker. I squealed from the sensation, then from the sight of the sticky saliva spread thickly on my arm.
I shuddered, drew my arm back as though it had been touched by an open flame… then laughed.
It’s totally not what you think, by the way.
No, I wasn’t auditioning for some bad after school movie, and no, the offender wasn’t a pimply-faced teen trying to get lucky.
Instead, I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and my suitor was an elephant named Pituk.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
Thailand is one of my favourite countries, and living in Hong Kong for nearly 5 years afforded me the opportunity to travel there fairly often. On previous visits I had explored the big city (Bangkok) and the beach (Koh Samet); I had eaten my weight in pad thai and overdosed on Thai-style massage (sidebar: you haven’t lived until you’ve have one). But this time, during my first visit to Chiang Mai, I wanted to do something… different.
That something different involved making a number of new, pachydermal friends.
The locale was the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, an ethical and sustainable conservation center dedicated to their rescue and rehabilitation. About an hour’s drive outside of Chiang Mai, the sanctuary is home to around 20 rescued elephants who were formerly mistreated.
The mistreatment of elephants is a problem that exists on a large scale in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. Life is grim for the gentle giants: despite a ban on the international trade of ivory, they are still poached for their tusks, and are frequently overworked and physically abused by their owners.
Moreover, unsuspecting tourists also contribute to the issue by riding the large creatures– many don’t realize that elephants’ spines are not made to support the weight of humans.
And since elephants found in the wild won’t even let humans sit on top of them (it simply isn’t in their nature), trainers torture them as babies in a bid to “break their spirit”– and increase profits.
Elephants and Ethical Eco-tourism
I love animals, but am learning that animal abuse is often rampant in what is known as the “captive animal industry”, which is oriented almost exclusively to human entertainment. There is big money to be made but it is often at the expense of the health and safety of the creatures involved; worse still is that many tourists aren’t well-versed enough to know that the “fun” activites they’re engaging are highly detrimental to animals and in fact perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
Thankfully, places like the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary give animal-lovers like me the opportunity to to interact with them in a more responsible and ethical fashion!
My travel companions and I paid 1,700 baht each (about $50 USD) for the half-day visit: this included pick up and drop off from our hotel, a tasty lunch (mmmm Thai food!), and a long session where we got to feed the elephants, observe them, play with them, and get into the water and help bathe them(!). Throughout the visit our guides gave us more education about this highly sensitive and intelligent species.
To be honest, this extended time getting to know and interact with then elephants was waaaay cooler than if we had ridden them for 10 minutes at a circus somewhere. Ethical travel doesn’t have to be any less fulfilling than its sinister counterpart.
Committing ourselves to travelling responsibly
One of the tenets of responsible travel is to try to make only a positive impact on the environment, society and economy of the places we visit. This means that we should endeavour to not harm or perturb the natural and physical environments we find ourselves in.
Thus, in my eyes, ethical and responsible travel are active choices, but not always easy ones when we have limited resources or competing interests (I mean, getting an awesome photo atop an elephant for the ‘Gram is high on many a traveller’s bucket list, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain a few years back for a blogging campaign).
Still, they are choices that we should at least consider when we travel. One of the easier ways to do this is to partner with companies who have a proven commitment to sustainable tourism; Exodus Travels is one such company. A longstanding advocate of ethical travel since its founding in 1974, they offer a wide range of tour packages that take the guesswork not only out of itinerary planning, but out of figuring out whether that “must-do” activity is really on the up and up. For those who don’t have the luxury of making weekend jaunts to Thailand like I did (Hong Kong is only a cheap, 2.5 hour flight away), Exodus offers a 14 day tour of country that’ll take you through its most salient sights. I’ve not gone on a tour with them yet, but have recently partnered with them and am hoping to do one soon!
Two things: 1) Responsible travel is where it’s at and 2) You need to get yourself to Thailand, stat (check the poetry! “at” and “stat”… well, never mind). But seriously, you should make travel to Thailand a priority. Because if the food, beaches, and culture don’t lure you, the elephants surely will. Just look at their faces!
Do you consciously try to travel responsibly? Is Thailand on your travel radar?
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