Going into this trip, we were most looking forward to our time in Chiang Mai and spending a day at the Thai Elephant Home. It turned out to be everything we'd hoped it would be and more.
Elephants are a highly-revered animal in Thailand. They are all over the temples, even ones built as far back as the 11th century. Nevertheless, the species continues to decrease in large numbers today. Over the last 10 years, Thailand's elephant population has gone from over 20,000 to less than 7,000.
To protect and care for elephants takes a large investment though. Did I mention they eat 10% of their body weight daily? Not many well-meaning organizations are able to pull it off without putting them to work in some form, so it's a tough issue all the way around.
Through a lot of research, we found the Thai Elephant Home strikes an excellent balance with these issues. It costs more, but their 15 elephants are well cared for. They carry no more than one person 95% of the time, you ride bareback (no heavy chairs) and they don't work every day. Yet money from these tours employees 40+ people, keeps the elephants safe and happy, and gives the organization the ability to purchase more land and plant trees.
Our day included walking a scenic trail that was probably about 3 miles each way. It's a magnifient feeling riding an elephant. You are powerless, just have to give yourself over such an incredible, gentle animal. Their skin is incredibly thick, unlike anything I've ever felt. It's impossible not to feel a bond with your elephant by the end of the day; I know we both did, and loved every minute.
At the end of the trail is an area that has special gray mud, which they say is only found in two places around Thailand. We spent the next 90 minutes or so bathing the elephants in the mud, which is very good for their skin and helps them avoid bugs. They love it ... they just lay there and let you rub mud all over them. As you can see, we rubbed a little on ourselves too. The mud was as advertised, completely changed the texture of our skin and the elephants.
On the way back down the trail, we got to rinse the elephants off in a nearby stream. They love the water. And they are so smart and playful. I never felt scared, they are very sweet and gentle at all times. They are also smart about using their trunks to spray you. :-) I'll let the photos do a bit of the talking.
Three days later, I'm still incredibly sore from the experience, but wouldn't trade it for the world. Riding an elephant for 6 hours is something I'll never forget. Anastasia and I highly recommend doing it if you ever have the opportunity.