Elephant riding and Tiger stroking with Blue Elephant Tours and Cooking on the Farm – it’s Chiang Mai

We left Sukhothai at a good time on a bus that is only remarkable for its lack of anything that could remotely resemble interesting. 7 hours later we were in Chiang Mai where we thought we would ride elephants, stroke tigers and lean to cook like Thai folk as we would soon be on our way to Laos.

Having arrived mid-afternoon the only thing that was on our minds was a few beers and getting out and trying the local; Northern Thailand, dishes. After slumbering and gathering our energy we walked around the city until we found somewhere suitable for dinner. Basically two seats and local thai food. This was actually easier said than done as most places seemed to specialise in pizza. We stumbled on a place and enjoyed Khao Soy which is a noodle soup with fried noodles on top and is out of this world. It is also the dish that I fell in love with when we visited the Thai islands about five years ago. Result! We also tried out the papaya salad which is fiery and sweet and very refreshing.

The next day was to be a full on, new experience a second thrill ride. Well, until lunch. We were up early for a 6am pick up and ventured forth to the jungle up in the mountains where we met our Mister Bobby and our elephants! Mister Bobby was about as hard to understand as the elephants but he was a damn sight smaller and less dangerous looking. We had a brief introduction and then learnt our elephant commands and a few actions: kick the left ear to turn right (Qua), kick both ears to go forward (Pai or Huey), pat him on the head to stop (How) and wiggle your bum to go back (Toy). To tell the elephant to stop doing something is Ya – all of these we hoped would put us safely in control of our two ton monsters.

Mister Bobby teaches us the language

First up was feeding them with bananas. Their inquisitive trunks found us before we found them and only with Mister Bobby giving a few commands were we able to actually able to feed them properly into their mouths. There is something very strange about an elephant’s trunk exploring your body and sniffing you and I have to say it was a little disconcerting as I hadn’t had a shower. Then again the elephants hadn’t either so I think we understood each other.

Watch out Jen!

After a short hop on a water buffalo we were ready to ride.

Start small

Jen kindly volunteered me to go first so grabbing the poor elephant’s right ear in my hand I braced my foot on his leg and jumped up. It actually was pretty smooth and I earned a little clap from Mister Bobby. It was the last I was to receive. Once aboard I looked at the ground and it seemed a long way down. Once settled in it was time to test those commands. Qua, Qua, Qua I shouted and the elephant spun me around in a tight circle that would rival the Cruyff turn for its ability to throw you off balance. Hanging on for dear life we then Toyed backwards and Hueyed forwards before Howing to a stop. Phew, time to get off so Jen could have a go.

Jen as a former horsey person looked very calm and composed up there and soon the elephant was dancing the Macarena and the Foxtrot without a care in the world. A second elephant was called and I mounted up before we set off for the jungle and a good feed for the elephants and a thrill ride for us. All the time Jen was trying to give me advice but no amount of “just relax” “let your hips relax” could make it any easier to stay on. Jen looked very comfortable and I noticed the young mahout thought he would follow her whilst I was with the older grumpier one.

Eh, Macarena!

We attempted to control our giants as best we could but really when an elephant is hungry (which is all the time) it is best just to stay out the way. So that’s what we did. Well, we stayed out of the way as much as you can when you are sitting on its neck. For about an hour and a half we wandered through the jungle, up steep slopes and terrifyingly back down them before eventually returning to the river where we could bathe our beasts.

Insatiably hungry beasts (and elephants)

Jen wisely dismounted her ride before entering the river whilst I was given no such option as my elephant strode out into the water before swaying side to side and depositing me in the free-flowing river. We spent a good 20 minutes bathing and scrubbing my elephant as Jen’s didn’t fancy coming in to the water. She had forgotten her swimming cap.

A refreshing dip in the river

We had an amazing time working with these huge animals that are a much smaller cousin to their African counterparts but are still absolutely massive. They don’t smell too great, their trunks are covered in saliva mixed with dirt and flies abound but they are staggeringly beautiful close up and truly magnificent on the steep dusty slopes. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to spend so much time with them and it is easy to see why they are so revered in South East Asia.

You do hear some horror stories about the conditions that some elephants are kept in but we had made sure to do some research and the very small camp that we went to treat their elephants very well.

After we had refuelled on sticky rice and mango we were off to the Tiger Kingdom. Before arriving we had been struggling with whether or not to go and visit the tigers. Having only seen these beautiful, magnificent creatures in zoos we really wanted to see them up close. On the other hand the cages they are kept in seem very small, there is a good chance that they are kept drugged and it is a real shame for such wonderful wild animals to be treated like domesticated cats. We ended up by deciding if it wasn’t for the Tiger Kingdom the animals would have to be put down or just sold to other zoos so we went…

You decide what size you want: smallest, small, medium, large, super size me etc and whether you want a free drink or fries with that. We went for the big one as it was the cheapest and also, well, it’s the big one! We took our ticket and joined the queue before eventually being let into the cage. At Tiger Kingdom they have a whole host of cages and not all the tigers are there to be petted all the time. I guess this gives them some time off to recover from all the photos.

Decent knashers there

We walked in and sat and posed and stroked the tigers feeling their deep (medicated?) heart beat as they lay quietly down. Once in a while the tigers would stand up and walk about and even in captivity they walk with a certain presence that makes you very aware that their paws are the size of your head and their leg muscles the size of your trunk. They were still seriously powerful animals. After petting the tigers we ate some lunch and watched a tiger keeper toying with one and the tiger leaping and jumping about. It was pretty impressive but also rather sad.

I will read your soul
Nattering away about catnip or something

We took one final wander round looking at the little tigers and then saw some white tigers and even a full grown male lion in a cage that I wouldn’t lock a normal house cat in. It was a pretty crappy way to treat the king of the jungle.

In the afternoon we were off to visit another temple Doi Suthep which is on the top of a hill just outside Chiang Mai. We had also been promised a trip to an orchid farm. This was a little bit of an over sell as actually it was an orchid garden outside of a huge Jade shop. Thanks but no thanks. The temple was a typical temple, covered in gold, loads of tourists – the usual. There was supposed to be a great view over the city but unfortunately pollution (the Thais claim it is from China) has created a thick smog that limits visibility.

Monks in training

We arrived back at our hotel at about 4pm which seemed like a good time for a nap to recover from our very early start. The tour was great and the company that run it Blue Elephant Tours definitely know what they are doing. You pay a bit extra but you enjoy a private tour with an English speaking guide and you get to enjoy the elephants at a very small elephant farm. Normally you would be with about 20 or 30 other people but there were only 4 elephants at the place we went to and we were the only guests.

We had a couple more days in Chiang Mai and spent a lot of time walking around as well as enjoying the various night markets. There isn’t an enormous amount to do when in the city itself but there are all sorts of adventures you can do just outside the city. One of these was a day on a farm learning to cook Thai style.

We were picked up about 9am and taken out to a market where we learnt about all the various ingredients we would be using. Good quality fish sauce should be clear and light coloured. Gluten intolerance is a Western thing as no Asians suffer from it. There were other bits and pieces but we may have forgotten them.

We bought our ingredients and were all set to cook. Well, once we had walked around the farm to see things growing. Unfortunately, it isn’t exactly harvest season so there wasn’t much to pick or to look at.

Team Thai Farm Cook

Finally in the kitchen we started off by making our pastes which was basically bash a load of stuff in a pestle and mortar. We worked through a soup each, a curry each and then a stir fried dish each. Surprise, surprise Jen chose sweet and sour. A quick pudding and a noodle dish later we were done. Ha, and you expected something long and drawn out because it is food. More fool you!

All frustrations bashed away into a pestle and mortar
Green curry paste bashing

It was great day, we had a good fun group of all ages and nationalities and whilst we may not have learned all that much what it did shows was that anybody can cook food that tastes authentic – as long as you have the fresh raw ingredients. So if you want to cook proper Thai food, move to Thailand.

Chiang Mai was a great halfway house between Bangkok and Sukhothai and we loved sampling the street food and some of the night markets. It was also good fun staying in one place for four nights and actually settling in a bit. I even put some clothes in the wardrobe in our room! Next up is a long, long journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos that takes in a bus and a two day slow boat down the Mekong. Which is where I am right now as I write this (spoiler alert – it’s been awesome!).

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