#5: Chiang Mai: in cahoots with mahouts

Updated: May 5, 2020

I was saddened to read an article in the Sunday Times last month concerning the fate of Thailand’s Elephant sanctuaries. Although I’m sure it was a distressing piece to most readers, it resonated strongly with our household because earlier this year myself and my wife were fortunate enough to visit one. The Maeklang Elephant sanctuary, an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, stands for conservation and is completely against any form of elephant exploitation. That’s why we plumped for that particular one over all the others out there during our whistle-stop tour of Thailand - sitting on the back of the resident nellies is banned, emphatically.

The future of these safe havens looks bleak; as the article stated, tourism drives the funding of the colossal amount of food needed to support every individual mammal - up to one third of a tonne, every day. Not only that, but every sanctuary requires modest sums to support tour guides (ours was the brilliant Pow), maintenance and costs of the elephant guardians - who are delightfully named mahouts. I desperately hope these charitable enterprises find a lifeline from somewhere soon and can push on into another chapter once the travel restrictions are lifted; they offer an eco-friendly, well-organised glimpse into a world and a form of conservation which is alien to most westerners. When you are fortunate enough to visit one as part of your honeymoon, the stakes are heightened…

The day starts with a 9am pick up; mini-buses from Chiang Mai make the helter-skelter pilgrimage to Mae Wang National Park and stop number one - base camp. On arrival, following a brief health and safety talk, tourists of all ages and nationalities mingle freely with a dozen or so elephants, early exchanges come in the form of feeding (as any good first date should) and once the animals are sufficiently nourished, date number two consists of bathing in a mud wallow. This is the high-point of the morning; sloshing buckets of mud pies around, the glistening pallid skin of topless Yorkshiremen and Scotsmen side by side with a herd of sunbathing giants is a sight to behold. If you catch yourself sobering to the thought of what you’ve suddenly thrust yourself into at any point, it’s enough to knock you off your feet and into the slop - best then to carry on patting them down to satisfy their need for sun protection.

On into the evening, and a further ascent into the hills of Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, before reaching Sky Camp, our home for the night. The day-trekkers filter away and back to the city, but for those of us who are lucky enough to be having the most surreal sleepover imaginable, we drop our overnight bags into intimate wooden huts built over a clear water stream and are introduced to elephant family number two. The rest of the afternoon and into the evening is a flawless experience of learning, prepping, feeding and more bathing. The newest arrival to the Sky Camp clan, William, proved a worthy adversary for anybody wishing to wrestle and jostle with a 250 lbs toddler. His experienced Mother stood close by, looking on with half an eye whilst chomping endlessly on fresh corn bundles the length of snooker cues.

It was fascinating to study the aforementioned mahouts; new arrivals to the camp, be it from the womb or rescued from the logging trade, are immediately fostered by an experienced keeper and the relationship can last a lifetime. The calf, William, was already in tune with his mahout and their bond was strengthened and reaffirmed by playful pulls and tugs on the excess skin which pooled around his already Minotaur-like head and knee joints; it was reminiscent of harmless tittle-tattle between siblings. Once this pact is fully-formed, the attachment is unbreakable, well as much as it can be with an animal who's instinct to bolt and take cover could not be reversed by any human hand.

The day ended with a traditional Thai BBQ under the stars, long after William and co. had tiptoed off to bed. But the heroic staff here saved the best for last; our early morning wake up call was an expectant trunk, as long as an anaconda, through our hatched hut window. Bananas had been left stealthily at our door and so our day began in the sun feeding our new friends. We were chauffeured back to the city after some light chores, safe in the knowledge that nothing else on our travels would come close to topping the short time we spent with such beguiling creatures and their homosapien roommates. Having trekked around the rest of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, nothing did.

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