Tell someone you visited Thailand and most of the time they will reply asking about elephants. Often people ask if I rode an elephant to which I would reply saying that is not actually very humane, but I did get to pet, feed and wash them.
While in Chiang Mai for a couple of nights we had a free day and opted to visit an elephant sanctuary. It's difficult to determine what is, and what is not, the best route to locate the most humanely managed parks, zoos, elephant encounters and etc in Thailand. With the language barrier and so many options to choose from you just have to trust your guides, your instinct and your research. People are desperate to make money out there and I am still a little skeptical if this was an actual legitimate "sanctuary" for elephants to roam free from abuse.
Often in Thailand elephants are working heavy labor or in the tourism industry; and now it's on many a bucket list to ride elephants. But, because of this Asian elephants must be tamed and this process could be very violent and abusive toward them. Also, they are large (not as big as African elephants) and they could potentially trample and kill you. PETA says "elephants must be emotionally and mentally broken before people can climb on their backs." And ultimately elephant rides are a bit archaic if you ask me. We were also told that it isn't good for the elephant's back because they install a chair-like device on their backs and it hurts them after years of torture. So what am I saying? If you want to visit the elephants try your best to see them in a place where they are loved, nurtured and taken care of. Do your research.
We were driven about an hour out of Chiang Mai to a mountain top and then guided on a brief hike down to what was called the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary. We could hear some other elephant activity nearby with people laughing, cheering, chatting with each other, although we couldn't see them as we hiked to another part of the mountainous area and down to a stream. We changed into matching red blouses, which is supposed to keep the elephants calm, and also kept the group unified in color and appearance. Our guide, Justin, brought sugar cane and called to the elephants to come and see us. Slowly they came out with their handlers and we fed them, pet them, took hundreds of pictures with them and they also kissed us with their trunks. It was a beautiful experience, although a part of me didn't want to make the elephants do anything they didn't want to do. It was very peaceful and serene, and for most the highlight of the trip. After a good snack we walked with them to the nearby stream and bathed them. Pouring water on their bodies and scrubbing them clean. Their skin is very rough in texture and although similar to leather it has a stronger more coarse feel to it. Once we were done washing them we walked back to the feeding area where they proceeded to grab the dirt dousing themselves in it to become dirty again. LOL That was funny.
It was truly an honor to be so close to these beautiful creatures. Being able to pet, kiss and hug an elephant is something I will never forget.
So one week before our departure for Thailand, I had an unfortunate misstep at the gym and sprained my ankle. Thankfully, the first few days of the adventure tour were spent cycling and with minimal walking. After those initial days we began our trek from the mountains of Chiang Mai to Pha Lho. My doctor gave me a bulky brace and some crutches prior to departure, but my hubby found a nice sleek, strong brace at Sports Authority (before they closed) and we bought some larger hiking boots with better ankle support for this portion of the trip. Honestly, having the brace and good quality hiking shoes worked beautifully.
Located in northern Thailand, our trek begins atop a mountain then through a lush forest where we eventually (2-3 hours later) arrived in Baan Pha Lho a Lahu hilltribe village. We stayed in a bamboo hut and slept on the floor on sleeping mats, showered in the icy cold mountain water bathroom/shower and used flashlights to guide our way at night during and after dinner. The guides brought us bottled water and beer for purchase while the host family cooked us dinner. Seriously every meal on this trip was absolutely amazing!
After the first day of trekking, which was just up and down and past the tea farms we were ready for a more challenging hike. This trek was much longer and twice as difficult. If you love a good hike this was the trip for you. Most of the terrain was very dense, tropical, lush, muddy and moist. Our guide was extremely educated in the natural plants, herbs and stories related to the villages and it's residents. He grew up in the next village we were headed to and was extremely kind, eager to share his knowledge and a true gem of a man. My ankle held up well, it responded positively to all the activity and actually felt like it was getting better along the route.
The second night of trekking we made it through the jungle and to the Lahu Village of Ban Mae Ma. It was a beautiful village where the residents live next to a babbling stream. They also set up an herbal sauna for us and provided Thai massages. What a treat! That felt so good after the long hike through the tropical forest. We all slept together that night in a house with futons, mosquito tents, blankets and pillows. These accommodations were nicer than the first day, but the first night was also a lot more authentic compared to this "home stay."
The next morning we woke ready to take on the last trek of the trip. This was not as long as the day before but was more steep and more challenging in terms of incline but a lot shorter, only an hour and half or so. Traversing the jungle mountains, waking in the waterfalls and tropical plants was a lot like home but of course different too. It was so beautiful and what a great way to see Thailand, most of the places we passed through appeared to have never been touched before, there were no trailheads or markers.