Ethical Elephants 

Education and appreciation in Chiang Mai, Thailand

click to flip through (3) PHOTO BY BRADEN DUPUIS
  • Photo By Braden Dupuis

The tour was to begin sometime between 8 and 8:30 a.m., we were told.

Tourism in Thailand is a different animal than the one we offer in Whistler. You book yourself on tours through your hostel's front desk, and then you're picked up and shuttled around with other tourists in vehicles of varying capacity, led by guides with English comprehension ranging from serviceable to non-existent.

You never really know what you're going to get on any given day, and that's part of the fun — with no grasp of the local language, you're just kind of obliviously shunted around from point to point by someone who knows the lay of the land and the goods the tourists desire.

I wondered if Chinese tourists in Whistler experience a similar feeling of joyful disassociation.

Luckily, the touring company we picked for today (called The Chiang Mai T.U.M. Travel) at the suggestion of our hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand came at full value (1,500 baht — about $57 CDN).

Shortly after 8:30 a.m. we were met by Mr. Nattpat Nganiam (who we would later know by his nickname "Sexy Kenny") — a young and slender Thai man — who led us out the alley and into the street, where his songthaew waited already mostly full of other tourists (a songthaew is a pickup truck with an open-air cover on the back, and two rows of seating lining each side. The word comes from the Thai words "song" and "thaeo," and literally translates to "two rows." Songthaews are near ubiquitous in tourist-heavy areas of Thailand, zipping this way and that with loads of visitors headed on endless, untold adventures).

When we were all loaded up, Nattpat explained some of what was in store for us. He told us about the five elephants they had at camp, about an hour's drive into the densely forested jungle from where we were, and one baby elephant in particular named "Pum Pui" who was "a very naughty girl." He had an easy charm about him, and his brief explainer had us excited for the full day ahead.

When we arrived at our camp along a murky river we saw three large pachyderms already waiting for us behind a wooden guardrail. We were warned not to get too close just yet, as we had some quick lessons to take in before we could earn their trust.

We unloaded bananas and sugarcane sticks from the top of our songthaew, and then were introduced to Mrs. Duangrat Prasongsub ("Angry Guide") — a short, sharp woman with a quick wit and encyclopedic knowledge of the elephants at hand.

Her tutorial was both informative and entertaining, and I found myself enthralled by her style of delivery.

She told us how to feed the elephants (arm outstretched with our offerings horizontal), and told us not to be scared "like lady boy." She also warned of the dangers of being too quick on the draw with the elephant selfie — or "elfie." Apparently many a tourist has lost a phone to a hungry elephant mistaking it for food. But "you get it back after 40 minute," Angry Guide comforted us.

Once you've earned the elephant's trust by feeding it, it will remember you by your associated scent for up to four years. An elephant never forgets, and all that.

Fail to earn its trust and you risk a pair of broken legs by way of swinging trunk.

Before our trip into the jungle I had no idea how articulate and elegant an elephant's trunk really is. The bottom lip acts almost as a thumb, allowing the animals to curl and break and pick up objects with impressive precision.

"You don't have to worry about feeding too much, because elephant never get full," Sexy Kenny told us. "And you don't have to worry about them getting fat, because they are already fat."

Along with the four-year-old Pum Pui, the camp is home to four elephants: Females Samorn, Boon Tung and Chan dee, and an impressive, white-tusked male named Mongkol, who would cross his legs and bow to you when you said the words "thank you."

Some had been rescued from a less-ethical camp further to the north, where tourists ride the elephants, or watch them paint pictures or play soccer.

There was no riding at this particular camp — only education and appreciation for the legendary beasts.

We made them medicine balls of sticky rice and salt and then bathed them in the river below.

For soap, we pounded jungle roots into mush before soaking them in bowls of water. I was amazed to see and smell the effect of this process, which I later learned was due to a natural moisturizer in the wood.

Nobody did much actual cleaning during the "bath," which quickly devolved into a huge elephant water fight.

When it was time for us to eat our own lunch, the elephants wandered up behind us (without warning from our guides) and reached their trunks into our hut, begging for pineapples. I gleefully obliged, sharing my fruit with my new enormous friends.

If we delayed, the elephants would blow hot air on us from their trunks. It was about as unpleasant as you might imagine, but at the same time deeply endearing.

The elephants persisted until every last chunk of pineapple and even pineapple skin was gone.

Soon it was time to leave our elephant friends behind and begin the second half of our adventure tour — a lazy, inner-tube float down the murky river followed by a two-hour hike into the jungle over precarious rocks and makeshift log bridges to a powerful waterfall.

This was just one day of a two-week trip that included cliff diving, motorbikes, cave spelunking, night market shopping and the consumption of more cheap beer than I care to divulge.

If you're at all inclined, I suggest you go and see Thailand for yourself — my word count could never do the country or its wonderful people justice.


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