Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sawadee! Hello, from Chiang Mai, Thailand.

We visited Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. It is the second largest city in Thailand. At one time there were over 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Mainly they work in the timber business moving and piling logs. In 1989 the worst flooding in Thai history caused the death of thousands of people. The flood was a result of cutting down the trees. When they cut down the trees it left the ground bare and during the rainy season the soil washed away. To save forests that had not been cut down the Thai government outlawed timbering. This left thousands of domesticated working elephants and their mahouts with no means of supporting themselves. A mahout is the person who drives and takes care of the elephant. Today most of the elephants work in the tourist industry. Elephant camps provide a place where people pay to learn about the elephants, watch them perform and take a ride on one. There are many elephant camps in the Chiang Mai area.

We went to an elephant camp to learn more about elephants. An adult elephant weighs between three and five tons, this is much more than an average car, and stands almost eight feet tall. With their six-foot trunk they can move 1500 pounds and with the little tip on the end of their trunk they can pick up a dime. They live about 70 years. Each day they eat about 300 pounds of foliage and drink about 20 gallons of water.

The elephant training camp we went to was in the forest. First we had to walk across a bamboo bridge over the small river. It was very strong but wiggled a lot so it was a bit scary. We bought some bananas to feed the elephants. We were told, “Feed them a small bunch at a time. They get bored easily if you try to feed them one banana at a time.” The mahouts then took them into the river for their morning bath. The elephants and their mahouts showed us how they used to work in the woods. After the trees were cut down the elephants would drag the huge logs to a place where they would then pile them up. The mahout sits on the elephant’s neck with his feet behind the huge ears. He uses his feet to steer the elephant. He also has a stick and sometimes uses voice commands but basically all he needs to do is nudge the elephant with his feet. At the end of the demonstration one elephant painted a picture. It was very impressive. We were told that only two of their 30 elephants can paint but they all paint the same picture.

The best part was the last part of our visit – an elephant ride. We sat on a chair on the elephant’s back called a howdah. At first the ride was a bit scary because we bounced all around and we were afraid we would fall out even though the howdah had seat belts. But once we relaxed it was great fun. We went along a trail then up a small creek to a local village where they were selling handicrafts and then back down the trail, and finally up the river. The elephants are slow but very surefooted even when the trail was muddy. One followed the other but once in a while one would stop and grab some leaves with its trunk for a quick snack. We really enjoyed our visit to the elephant camp. They are amazing animals.