Today presents a full schedule of activities. We start out at a Butterfly and Orchid Farm, then a quick stop at a local market before heading to a waterfall / water slide. They we have lunch and head to the river for some white water rafting and a bamboo raft ride. Finally, we visit an elephant adventure park. A big Day indeed.
First stop of the day is the Bai Orchid and Butterfly Farm. The butterfly enclosure was small and very scarcely populated. As Eugene said, “there were four butterflies and one of them was eaten while we were there.” So, yeah, not too impressive. Their orchid farm was alright, I suppose, but it didn’t hold a candle to the roadside orchid market I visited the other day. Really this was an attraction built entirely in support of their restaurant and shop selling jewelry and trinkets.
The car park was absolutely packed and mostly with tour vans. I think this is a ‘filler’ stop for tour operators taking people to other places. It make a day’s itinerary sound more robust to say “Butterfly Farm, Orchid Farm, AND Elephant Tour” rather than simply “Elephant Tour”. So, tourists, beware, it is not much to see. While I am writing this post, a butterfly came an landed on Jolandi and you can see better and more orchids at the roadside markets in town. That being said, I am with my friends and that’s good enough for me.
Our next stop was a local market to buy some provisions for the day. In short order we buy, chicken, pork, nuts, fruit, water, etc. and are back on the road.
We head into the mountains. The countryside is beautiful. We stop and climb on top of our truck to pick fresh starfruit off a tree and then continue upcountry. After a 10-15 minute hike we find our waterfall. It’s about five meters high with a small but deep pool at the bottom. The rock façade is smooth from eons of water flow and makes a perfect organic water slide. The climb is easy and accessible, obviously a place many people have visited for just this reason, a private waterpark.
We take turns going up and down, splashing into the brisk, refreshing mountain water. We go down sitting, posing like the Buddha, on our backs, stomachs, forward or backwards. Shaun took the top prize going down on one knee.
A quick dry and hike down the hill and we find a riverside deck to have lunch and a beer. Our driver/guide (“I may be small, but I’m sexy”) is fantastic. The lunch also great. It is a pleasant location and a nice break between activities.
Now we are off to raft the river. This is river rafting two ways: white water inflatable rafting and bamboo rafting. I’ve done some white water rafting before and I love it, especially Class 4 and above water. I’ve never been on a bamboo raft before and I am really looking forward to a long, lazy drift down the river, taking in the countryside. So expectations are high for me, and in retrospect, that colored my experience.
We were in two boats and our guides are fun and entertaining: “this is my first time and I don’t know how to swim, so if we flip over, save me first.” Eugene, Belinda, and Shaun are in my boat. Very quickly into the ride we all slide out of the boat and float down the river. And frankly, this ended up being the best part of the river experience. The rapids are short and weak even though the river is running higher and faster than usual due to the recent heavy rains. This is a Class 1 river. We still have fun though. Belinda keeps falling off the boat (ok, we push her in) and our personal water fights keep us entertained.
We make our guide stop the boat and get us some beers. And then its off to the bamboo rafting. In total we rode that damn raft about 85 meters downriver. We were all shaking our heads asking each other, “is it really over already?” Again, the best part was the water fight.
It’s a short ride to the Jumbo Elephant Park, our last stop of the day. Everyone seems excited about this next stop except for me. Elephant farms here have exceptionally bad reputations for their care of the animals. The biggest problem though is the process through which wild elephants, especially the babies, are acquired, tortured, and them smuggled into Thailand from Myanmar. Asian elephants are on the “highly endangered” list worldwide and to capture a baby, often 10 or more adults are killed by the smigglers. The business of ‘elephant farms’ is very big here and represents a large segment of the tourism industry in the Chiang Mai area. I will write more about this issue in a future post; I am not particularly happy about this stop on our excursion.
(note: if you are going to visit the elephants while in the Chiang Mai area, please spend your time and money at the Elephant Nature Park. They are a rescue and rehabilitation center and Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, the Farm’s founder and leader, is internationally recognized for her work to protect elephants and publicize their plight.)
The animals are magnificent, if not a bit sad. They are much smaller than the African elephants, a fact my South African comrades are quick to notice. They are used to seeing them often and in natural settings, so this is a very different experience for them. We interact with the elephants for ten minutes and then the group saddles up for a ride through the park. I decline the ride for my own reasons, but everyone else starts off quite excited about it. The enthusiasm fades quickly for most though.
Two of the animals are bleeding. One ‘handler’, heavy metal-hooked ‘training’ club in hand, hops off his elephant and smears a bleeding gash he has made in the elephant’s head with mud to staunch the bleeding. And he does it in a furtive way, trying to conceal his actions from the group and the riders on the elephant’s back. Patrick (the Managing Director of Entrust TEFL) claimed that “rumors of elephant abuse are hogwash” is……well….., it’s utter bullshit. But I’m not going to make a stink about it there and he is certainly not going to change his mind. All I want to do is help there poor beasts and try to connect with them.
The group goes on a twenty-five minute ride around the grounds. I wander out and take pictures for the others.
After the ride, the elephant is lead to a pool for a bath. Most of us get in the water to interact with the elephants. Buckets and brushes in hand, we clean and play with the elephant. She is beautiful and sadly, quite gentle. All natural instincts of ferocity and individuality have been beaten out of her. I am hopeful that our touch, soothing words, and attention provide some comfort. Maybe that’s just a pipe dream, but it’s my dream.
Several of my peers left the elephant farm feeling quite sad for the animals and not too pleased with the farm, but most had a good time.
By the time we had finished with the elephant adventure, we were all pretty beat. Butterflies, orchids, market, waterfall, lunch, river rafting, and beasts of burden. It was a long day as evidenced by some people (ok, me) falling asleep sitting upright in the back of the van en route to the hotel. During the drive, it started to pour like the heavens fully opened a faucet. The timing was great as the weather for our entire day was perfect.
To me, the waterfall/water slide was quite fun. Experiencing the elephants in such proximity was as well (even though I resented supporting this particular farm). But the rest of the activities were mediocre at best. I think if I were to have ‘paid’ for these excursions individually, I would have been pissed. (yeah, yeah, I know I ‘paid’ for it in my all-inclusive TEFL program.)
Most of us agreed that it wasn’t the individual events of the day that made it special, it was the fact that we were together (although disappointed that we were without Jolandi, Mathieu, Sean, and Dani on this day).
Beat from the day, we still had enough in us to organize for a group dinner and then held our own graduation ceremony later that evening. Read about our sky lantern event here.
As always, thanks again to my peers for making the day so special.