Elephant Interactions and Tribal Connections

Welcome to day 6 and 7 of our adventures in Chiang Mai.  I am doing my best to live blog this almost immediately following each experience which is why the story may seem to switch frequently from past to present.  So, we checked out of our hotel room and waited for our pick up to take us to the elephant sanctuary up in the mountains.  A tuk-tuk arrived (this time it was basically a pickup truck with an open air cover and two long benches running the length).  We climbed in and were surprised that we were the only ones in this tuk-tuk for the next hour and 15 minute drive up into the mountains.  When we arrived, we jumped out with all of our bags and headed across the suspension bridge to check in.  This giant suspension bridge spanned across a wide river and bounced around with every step.  Below we could see elephants playing in the water.  It was magical.  Once we checked in, we were greeted by our mahout (elephant handler).  As we walked over to the deck to feed some of the elephants some treats, one of the handlers was coming up from the water with an elephant.  I’m pretty sure he could see my unease because as I tried to step away out of the elephant’s path, he kept nudging him toward me.  Round and round in circles we went…me trying to escape the big elephant, and the handler giggling and nudging the elephant to get close to me.  I finally found escape in the middle of a group of people.

Suspension bridge across river to the elephant sanctuary

At this point, my sole experience with elephants has been on our self guided safari in Africa where we were repeatedly warned about the elephants and their aggressiveness (never-mind the several tourists I had heard about being killed by an elephant simply by accidentally being in the wrong place at the wrong time).  Needless to say, those memories haunted me, and I was quite uneasy around these giant creatures.  After feeding the elephants some treats from a platformed structure, our mahout gathered us up and we headed out for a trek.  We were quickly joined by a family of elephants (mom, dad, and an 8 month old baby) on our trek into the jungle.  First we stopped in an open field where we were handed large bunches of bananas.  The mahout told us to feed them the bananas one at a time.  Before I knew it, I was surrounded by the male and female who were both assertively seeking the bananas.  This definitely had me freaked out, as I was standing between these two magnificent beasts, and they were nudging me and wrapping their trunks around me in search of the bananas.  The next thing I knew, the male had manhandled the whole bunch out of my hands.  What the hell????  I felt bad that he got the best of me.  The mahout brought me more bananas, and I started to get more creative at hiding the bananas behind my back and out of his sight.  This did not keep him from using his trunk to try and get this golden treasure from me.  It was quite funny (and also somewhat scary).   They gobbled up bunch after bunch, leaving us slightly slimy and somewhat sticky.

Robyn surrounded by gentle banana thiefs
Their snouts are impressively adept at picking up bananas….just a little slimy….
Why is bitter beer face the only look I have when completely freaked out??

After an amazing number of bananas we consumed, we headed out for our trek.  At this point, the baby had shed some of his shyness and was ready to play.  He was absolutely adorable and behaved so much like a human toddler!  He played hide and seek with the mahout and bounded around with such energy.  At one point, he came eagerly running full speed up to Dan and just about landed him on his butt.  Imagine an 800 pound toddler coming to snuggle and play with you.  He loved to have his hindquarters scratched and would plunk down at your feet.  After many games and playing, he decided it was nap time and laid down at his mom’s feet in the middle of our trek.  We didn’t have much farther to go, so the handler got him up and we headed to the river.  In the river, they rolled around in the water playing.  We tossed water on them, and they tossed water on us.  It truly was a magical experience. 

Hey there cute baby elephant!
The baby repeatedly trotted over to head butt and say hello. You had to be careful or else he would mow you right over!
Jungle trek with the family
Mahout (elephant handler) playing hide and seek with the baby. So cute
Baby was our favorite!!
Baby wants a nap…in the middle of our jungle trek….mama got him going again.
Bath time! They loved the river…
We were given wicker baskets to splash the gentle giants with.

After a quick Thai lunch, it was time for our bamboo raft trip down the river.  We took a quick ride up the road and hiked down to our raft.  It was a 45 minute ride down the river with our guide directing our raft through the boulders and rapids.  The water was quite crisp, and the scenery was right out of Jurassic Park…..very lush….very giant sized tropical. 

Peaceful and serene float down the river. Very little whitewater since it’s dry season.

At this point, we were done with the sanctuary, and it was time for our homestay in a tribal village.  We would be spending the night in a bamboo hut, up in the mountains, with the Karin hill tribe.  Our guide, a young 20 year old, took us to his village where we learned to weave fabric on a loom (holy cow was that hard!), learned how the ancient villagers cleaned their teeth (with a black charcoal type leaf….their teeth lasted forever without a dentist…but they were black), and how their huts were built back in the day. 

Robyn learning how to hand weave traditional Karen scarfs. It was tedious and a lot of work…

We then went down to our hut overlooking the valley.  It was a cement stilted hut with a mattress on the floor and mosquito netting surrounding it.  There was no electricity and no air conditioning.  There was a toilet in a room behind the hut, but no running water.  Thankfully it was a western style toilet (US style) and not the typical, porcelain hole in the floor.  It did not have a flushing system, so you needed to pour pots of water in to “flush” the toilet.  We were then treated to a Karin dinner cooked over an open fire out in the jungle.  After dinner, we sat by the fire and admired the millions of stars visible in the very dark sky.  Tomorrow we would be taking a jungle, waterfall trek (no details provided)…..this can only end well, right????

Home for the night!
Mosquito netting to keep the critters out during the night. We were provided a flashlight in addition to the lights on our iPhones. We were thankful!
Preparation of a traditional thai dinner, jungle style, over a wood fire.
Our Karen hosts put out an impressive display of food.
A Karen woman, and a new friend from the UK who was also spending the night. The vistas were so pretty from the bamboo huts.

We awoke the next morning (well, I didn’t really sleep….and here I was complaining about my “Flintstone” bed…haha…I was missing it) to a wonderful breakfast prepared by our new friends.  After packing up and fueling up, we headed out.  Each of us (we had a new UK friend who had joined Dan and I) were given a freshly cut bamboo walking stick.  Off we went.  I am once again going to give you the cliff notes version of our trek.  It was 4 1/2 hours and 6+ miles.  This was the hardest hike I have ever done.  We climbed and descended steep hills, crossed log bridges with rickety bamboo railings, slid down rock faces, climbed straight up root strewn cliffs, climbed over and ducked under giant trees, hopped rocks, and navigated bouncy bamboo bridges.  After seeing all the amazing waterfalls, we then had to head straight up hill in the hottest part of the day and in the blazing sun.  Our guide, a wonderful 16 year old boy named Boi (I’m sure I spelled it wrong but it’s pronounced boy!), treated us to this very sour fruit that his people use for coughs (he said they never go to the doctor).  We also tried a fresh bean (longer than a green bean) right off the vine, and tamarind that had been made by the local indigenous women.  This was very sour but quite tasty (and probably a sure fire way to get sick since it was mixed with a bunch of stuff in a very unsanitary environment).  By the time we made it to our rest stop to pick up the tuk-tuk, we could barely walk.  It was an amazing trek but seriously painful with some scary moments.  This was one of those excursions that was dotted with moments of, “Are you kidding me?  You want me to do what???” and sprinkled with a lot of pain and stress on the body, but in the end…..it was an exhilarating experience and a huge sense of accomplishment.

Rice paddies on the hill side. Since it’s the dry season, they are sitting fallow until the summer monsoons.
Boi teaching us how to get cough medicine from the jungle
One of many jungle scrambles that day!
Nothing like a rickety bamboo handrail to make you feel comfortable crossing a river by fallen log!
Waterfall lunch of leftover veggies and rice wrapped in banana leaves.
Lush even in dry season. Would love to see the wet season all greened up!
Pickled tamarind snack shared with the Karen field workers during their break. Slimy but very good! A mixture of sweet and sour with giant seeds that were inedible. You eat the seed pod.
Karen woman heading back to the field to tend their crops in the brutal 95 degree afternoon heat.

Our next adventure here in Thailand is another mountain adventure.  This one in particular we are doing on a motorcycle up in the mountains.  We have been told there are over 700 hairpin turns to the first stopping point of this 4 day loop.  We hope you will stick with us on our final days in Thailand!

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