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As part of our Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang adventures we visited an elephant part in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is known for its elephant parks, drawing a lot of tourists. I love elephants, always have. It has been my dream for a long time to ride an elephant so I was very excited at this opportunity. We were cautious about visiting a park that treated the elephants well, so we chose one recommended to us by a vet. This seemed a pretty safe option.

We were picked up from our hotel in a minivan and driven out to the park. There were about eight of us in total. We started feeling awkward from the beginning when we saw the elephants chained by one ankle. We were given a talk on the history of the park, and an explanation as to their practices. Only bareback riding is permitted as the use of the box on the elephant’s back is damaging. They never separate a child from it’s mother. They have a policy of accepting and caring for orphaned elephants…

But they also showed us a stick with a hook on the end of it that they used liberally. Apparently previous participants had expressed anger at the use of these sticks, so we were given a long talk about why they are used. They are for our own safety, elephants are large animals that can cause a lot of damage. They are chained to stop them from fighting one another and trampling people. We all looked at each other uncomfortably, suddenly unsure as to whether or not we were doing the right thing.

We fed the elephants bananas and were given kisses by a baby elephant. We were then trained in getting on and off an elephant, how to direct (useless, as the mahouts did all of the directing anyway). After lunch we went on a short trek, two people to an elephant.

Each elephant has a mahout who has worked with his elephant for some time. My elephant’s name was Mae Moon, and her Burmese mahout had been with her for about seven years. He sang to her, chatted away to her, when we paused for a break she allowed him to have a nap on her back (pictured above). Their relationship seemed quite touching and he appeared to genuinely care for her. He hit her with the stick a few times, she was cheeky and kept stopping to eat along the trek. It didn’t look hard, and she seemed to barely notice.

After the trek we walked into a large pond and proceeded to give Mae Moon a good scrub, which she seemed to enjoy. Inevitably it also turned into a water fight with the mahouts which was quite fun.

I tried to keep an open mind. I don’t really understand the process of caring for an elephant day to day. A lot of the practices were to keep us safe. Which made me wonder if it were right for us to be there in the first place. But if we weren’t there paying for this experience, would they have the money to care for the elephants. Questions zoomed ’round and ’round my head. I still don’t know if we did the right thing or not.

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