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Family travel | Chiang Mai, Thailand (ARGH! ELEPHANTS!)

30 June, 2015

The baby elephant swung its thick grey trunk over to Ramona, moving his snout across her body while she ripped the sheath from a corn cob. Before she could hand the sweet corn over, another trunk, this one about 8 times the size, reached over her shoulder and pinched it. Grandad elephant, with his big gnarly tusks, doesn’t get the snacks after the whipper snapper, thanks very much.

It was magical, getting up close and personal with these jungle beasts. There was a crowd of them right next door to where we were staying, a motel at the foot of the mountains outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

We’d wake up to the sound of them trumpeting to each other as their mahouts got ready for the day ahead. We followed them on a little trek, Juno shouting POO! POO! most of the way because, turns out, the jungle is where they do most of their biz. We were even there for the precious moment when the baby elephant did a sneeze and farted at the same time – such a classic. We were all completely delighted!

As we spent more time there, we watched them carry tourists around the jungle, splash in the river on command and pose for a photo.

And we were left pretty saddened by it.

It wasn’t really at all what the website portrayed it to be with it’s “Keeping Elephants Alive” slogan…. Keeping them alive, sure, but shackled and controlled.

It is incredible standing next to one of these magnificent creatures, but you also feel like you’re not really meant to. They are meant to be crashing around a dense jungle, stampeding together, getting furiously protective of their babies, not chained too many metres away to even stroke them with their snout.

We still enjoyed our time in the foothills of the Chiang Mai mountains- we visited a waterfall and ate our weight in tropical fruits. But it was with relief that we got in to the city, where we didn’t feel accused by the neighbouring elephant’s eyeballs.Family travel in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai turned out to be incredible! Totally wasn’t expecting to fall so in love with it. We were surprised (and gladdened to our CORE) to find tasty flat whites amongst the street food stalls. We stuffed our faces with every kind of noodle and curry. We sat in little shacks filled wall to wall with enormous cuddly toys. (Yeah, it was weird, in a way only a city full of hipster designers can be!)

And then we came across Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai’s only true elephant sanctuary. We were finally able to visit a herd of elephants with good consciense! (We had good conscience, I can’t tell you about the elephants – cheeky, a few of them were, I suspect.) The Thai woman who began this elephant sanctuary actually has royal protection as she has received so many death threats for being so determined to rescue Thailand’s elephants from illegal logging, and an often undignified and cruel tourism trade. Here is a video I made all about this part of our trip:

There are over 40 elephants spread around 300 acres, and they aim to try and rehabilitate some into the jungle where possible. There is no riding, no shows, humans are the ones that have to step back when an elephant goes where it wants to go – it was perfect and totally soul-lifting. family travel thailand - elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai

We only had 8 days in Thailand so tried to tick off a few Must Dos – i.e a massage. Mine was done by a blind man, a member of the Association for Blind Massage, a Chiang Mai social enterprise. It was completely brutal. Sheesh. I almost cried – except that I didn’t want the big Thai lady getting a massage next to me, who did huge, smelly burps every time her masseuse rubbed her back, to think I was a wuss. But I did feel about an inch taller afterwards. Family Travel Chiang Mai Thailand - elephants and pad thai

Less of a typical “Thailand Must Do”, but a major “Our Family Must Do” was a visit to the local Chiang Mai flea markets. Unexpectedly enormous and filled with old delights, the Prince Royal College secondhand markets were full of proper Asian antiques, and – the stuff I love- a load of manky household crap. BRILLIANT. I bought, get this, a big Pestle and Mortar. Hahahahaha. It weighs 8 kilos. Exactly what we need in our suitcase at the start of a 3 months travelling adventure. I was like; BAG IT MY FRIEND!

We spent our first few days feeling sad about chained up elephants and also being extremely jetlagged and basically all really mad with each other. But by the end of our time there we were just floating on a massive Pad Thai buzz. Happy that we had spent our baht on some good, ethical stuff.Family Travel Chiang Mai Thailand

What is the trick to finding good ethical tourism? I don’t have lots of great answers. This week showed us just how entangled the industry is with untruth and propaganda. Research as much as possible online (we didn’t touch the local tiger place as I’d read about some awfully cruel practices there), talk to lots of people on the ground, make one or two choices to support local social enterprise. But mostly, realise that travelling is less about ticking off all the “Things To Do” and more about being in a place, eating the food and talking with people. That is where the real experience is to be had. I reckon.

Like, if we’d filled up our days with all the suggestions of visiting exotic, caged creatures, how would we have found ourselves perched at the foot of a two storey marble cat with a moustache and a handbag, drinking the yummiest mango smoothies ever?

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22 Comments

  • Reply Natalie @ little jam pot life 4 July, 2015 at 7:37 am

    Absolutely loved this Lucy, as ever! What a dream experience for your family, and what incredible childhood memories for your girls. We wish we could do this some day.. Xx
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    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 4 July, 2015 at 9:05 am

      Thank you Natalie 😀 You’ll find a way, one day 😀

  • Reply Vicki 4 July, 2015 at 9:06 am

    When you mentioned Elephants and this was on your to do I wanted to mention that our experience was what you discovered, only 10 years or so ago. I did not want to burst your bubble. I think I mentioned to hubby at the time of your last post these majestic animals go from being changed to log the forests on to chained for the fun of tourists. My experience with Thailand with kids was amazing however and indeed Chang Mai is incredible. The street food was amazing and like you I wanted to cry during brutal thai massages. So much fun!

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 4 July, 2015 at 9:41 am

      Yeah, I’d read loads online, yet still felt I could trust this “social enterprise” (honestly what they called themselves) we were staying next to 🙁
      Really do think there is only one place to interact with them, and it is where they’ve been rescued at the Elephant Nature Park

  • Reply ThaliaKR 4 July, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    Great work, Lucy, and thanks for doing all the research for me! Let’s hang out with those elephants next time we’re both in Chiang Mai, eh?

    I’m pinning this to my Living in CM board 🙂
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  • Reply Emma 6 July, 2015 at 5:35 am

    This sounds amazing, and totally puts our camping in Northern Scotland to shame. It’s sad about the elephants. They are amazing animals – did you know that before the tsunami, all the Indian elephants headed en masse for high ground? No one knows how they knew. Ps I linked to you on my blog, hope you don’t mind.
    Emma recently posted…Free the poo!My Profile

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 6 July, 2015 at 8:17 am

      They did WHHHAAAAAAT that is amazing, immense. We were told that they sense things through nerves on there feet- which is why working the streets begging for their masters is particularly traumatic for them- perhaps that’s how they felt the tsunami. Incredible. Thank you for the link! X

  • Reply Becky 6 July, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    Oh Lucy. My heart breaks to see animals caged my kids age 8 and 11 have never been to a zoo or an animal show I just cannot support these industries…. they do as you say make you feel so sad and are I believe so often just intended for peoples pleasure not animal sanctuary as many say. Glad you found a good place though happy travels Lucy
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  • Reply Vicky@AMumInspired 6 July, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    What a great start to your trip! I love the sound of the markets and the photos you took of the elephants are just beautiful. They really are amazing animals. I tuned into your periscope broadcast too – looked lovely xx
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  • Reply Cass@frugalfamily 6 July, 2015 at 10:13 pm

    Your children are so lucky to be seeing the world in this way – you’re giving them such amazing opportunities. Such a shame that it wasn’t as you expected but great that you had such a good trip after all x x
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  • Reply Helen 6 July, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    I love this post Lucy – so descriptive and evocative. But you’re right – though we’ve never been to Thailand and seen elephants, I know that the tourism trade really isn’t good for them. So it’s good to see that some organisations are putting their needs first. Ethical tourism really interests me – I do wish more people were focused on seeing countries as they really are, rather than false experiences created for the delight of wealthy visitors.
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  • Reply Otilia 6 July, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    Oh you photos are amazing! My youngest would love to be there and meet the elephants! What a fabulous experience! You definitely know how to live your life Lucy! Your kids are so lucky to have you as a mum! Inspiring! I wish my eldest was younger so we could go travel like that!
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  • Reply Uniquity 7 July, 2015 at 12:51 am

    I’m really glad to hear you found a true elephant sanctuary. Although I totally appreciate the magical idea of standing next to or riding an elephant, it really isn’t meant to be. Some friends of mine visited Thailand recently and spent a great deal of time playing with tigers and elephants at a reserve. It was very sad to see, those animals were not living their own lives and though they weren’t “abused” it certainly wasn’t natural.

  • Reply Emma 7 July, 2015 at 7:41 am

    wow what an adventure and I’m so glad you found the places you needed too.
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  • Reply Nikki Thomas 7 July, 2015 at 8:34 am

    It isn’t somewhere I have ever visited but it sounds fascinating. The elephant photos are beautiful and it must be amazing to get so close to them but like you, I would find that environment so sad.
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  • Reply Carolin 7 July, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    What a magical and humbling experience. It must have made such a difference to seeing those chained elephants near your accommodation x
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  • Reply Cat (Yellow Days) 8 July, 2015 at 12:28 am

    What an amazing array of experiences for the whole family! Something your girls will always remember.
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  • Reply Donna@MummyCentral 9 July, 2015 at 12:40 am

    Seeing the elephants in Sri Lanka was a highlight of our honeymoon. Would love to take the kids back to enjoy the experience. Great post.
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  • Reply Emma 10 July, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    Gorgeous post Lucy, seeing the elephants much have been utterly amazing. xx
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  • Reply Moving to Chiang Mai #1: Forks, Elephants, Poodles and Sidecars - Sacraparental 12 January, 2016 at 12:55 am

    […] to Lucy’s research, we went to visit an elephant sanctuary where you can interact with elephants within strict […]

  • Reply Moving to Chiang Mai #1: Forks, Elephants, Poodles and Sidecars | Sacraparental 19 January, 2016 at 2:25 am

    […] to Lucy’s research, we went to visit an elephant sanctuary where you can interact with elephants within strict […]

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