The first of our two days was spent training to be a Mahout (elephant trainer). Yes this is expensive but anyone who visits Chiang Mai has to do this. It started out shakily, the initial training is tiresome. We fed them whole bunches of bananas and sticks of sugarcane, which was fun (if a little scary). To make matters worse, the smelly clothing we were given caused me great embarrasment .... my trousers split as I jumped on the elephants back. For the rest of the morning I shuffled around hiding my shame.
There were moments when I doubted the legitimacy of the centre, we were given an elephant trunk swing, were entertained by two playing a harmonica and a tambourine and were given trunk kisses. It all seemed a little circus, but the elephants looked happy and healthy,
they never showed signs of discomfort so I was happy enough.
Once all the commands were mastered and we had been for a test drive we had lunch, after that the fun really started. Firstly, we went for an hour ride and to my surprise the professional mahouts really didn't get involved that much. Not that it really mattered, my elephant (Christina) brought up the rear most of the time and just followed the gang.
This is more than I can say for Charlotte's elephant, she had her work cut out trying to manoeuvre it away from the bushes at every turn, I think it was hungry. The only hairy moment I experienced was when Christina got a bit peckish and mounted the hillside nearly chucking me off the back, I just clung on for dear life.
I was in a great mood. Being a bit of a tightarse I like to get my money's worth, and we were. Incredibly though it got so much better.
We led the elephants down to the river and they got in and had a bath. The group leader then tossed us a scrubbing brush each and ordered us to get in. We each scrubbed our own elephant and climbed all over them, they're very friendly and incredibly well trained. Once they were clean (ish) we had a water fight! I couldn't believe I was having a water fight with an elephant. You'd grab the trunk and aim it at your enemies and BOOM, they're soaked.
Finally, the elephants showed their great strength as they picked us up with their trunks for a photo op.
Maybe I sound over-excited but I can't recommend it enough. The elephants are healthy and well looked after. Where as in the past they were used in war and labour in Thailand, many are now orphaned and mistreated so supporting a centre like this is worthwhile. The company is called Chiang Mai TIC Travel, if anyone is interested.
Our second day was spent trekking through nearby Mae Wang. We visited the Karen Hilltribe village and I went for a swim in a secluded waterfall pool.
We were driven to another area where we rode another elephant, only this time we were chauffeured around as we sat on a sort of saddle at the back. Finally we went bamboo rafting down the river. This was great, the rafts barely stayed afloat and you ended up soaked, not least of all because the locals, relaxing by the banks on the weekend took it upon themselves to kick water at us constantly. I didn't mind, this is what i've enjoyed about the activities at Chiang Mai, the interaction.
I just tossed water back at them and they didn't seem to care. We did this tour with the same company as the Mahout day, highly recommended.
Our final night ( a sunday) was spent wandering around the weekend market which has brilliant food and craft stalls. This is how I expected Chiang Mai to be, charming and interesting. I guess nowhere in Thailand can escape the inevitable effects of mass tourism.
Up in Chiang Mai you pay for a good time. I wouldn't recommend anyone come here and soak up the culture on the street, there isn't any. All cultural experience has to be paid for otherwise you're just sat in a cafe watching the local gogo scene. Billed as the opposite of Bangkok, I expected the town centre to be tranquil and reserved but in truth, it's filled with perverts and drunks (I didn't expect to see numerous pubs called Rory's and John's Place). But, that's the way it is so like I said, we got the wallet out.