The past two days have probably been the most perfect I have ever experienced. Since I was a little girl I have loved elephants; we had a family friend who told me stories of elephants in South Africa where she grew up and from then I was hooked. I wanted to spend time with and learn more about these gentle giants but was always concerned about providing funding for unethical elephant farms and camps, tourist traps purely out to make money and not to care for the animals they are ultimately responsible for. Because of this I wanted to make sure I did my research before signing up to any tours or treks. Before I left the UK, while I was travelling and then when I knew a friend was planning to visit Thailand and was also interested in elephants I was doing research into available places and reviews of people who had visited them.
There is a city in the north of Thailand called Chiang Mai which is home to many companies offering elephant experiences, but the one which caught my eye was more than just a tour or camp, it was a sanctuary. This company buys elephants from people using them for logging, tours and city photo ops and offers them a home where they are protected and cared The name of the sanctuary is Baanchang, which translates to elephant home. It was started in 2004 by a lover of elephants. He had bought 3 to save them from being mistreated, (one of whom was almost totally blind from cataracts, but with his help she has regained the sight in one of her eyes) and was struggling to pay to keep and feed them. Together with his friend Tum they came up with a plan to start a sanctuary and offer people the chance to learn how to care for and command elephants themselves. Voila, Baanchang was born in 2004! They now have 21 rescued elephants and 1 born on site. I was lucky enough to meet the founder of the park during my stay, he told me he wants to rescue at least 40 elephants and would like there to be many more babies too! At the moment though he cannot buy anymore as they are in the middle of building a huge elephant house which should be finished before the rainy season so the elephants have somewhere to lie down and sleep. They can sleep standing up if the ground is not dry but Ittiphon does not like to see them like this so is putting capital into building on his land. After hearing similar stories at other places only to discover they were just that, stories it was nice to be somewhere you could see the work being done.
Anyway the day started early with a bus ride from Chiang Mai to Baanchang, we were collected by Tum who turned out to be our guide, photographer, story teller, driver and chef for the two days…Man of many talents! Upon arrival you are given mahout clothing, kind of like baby denim overalls, (which I thought were to stop your clothes getting dirty but it turns out the main reason is that the elephants have been taught to trust people wearing those clothes, they’re used to it, no surprises!) and told a little about how the park works. Tum didn’t gloss over any of the detail, he explained fully why the elephants are chained (a. They’re not all as tame as the next and will fight b. the park is surrounded by houses, imagine finding an elephant in your back yard…there were more reasons but I forget) and the horrid looking sticks the mahouts carry (I have to say the whole time we were there I never saw them use the point end) as well as nicer stories such as how much they eat and the waste they produce as a result! 21 elephants…can you imagine? From there we were allowed to meet the herd for the first time, feeding them bunches bananas and sugar cane. Wow.
Once the 5 buckets of food were empty it was time to ride. Baanchang doesn’t believe in making elephants wear chairs on their back so if you’re riding you’re up close and personal! First you say (I’m going to write it how you say it) nah long, which means lie down, then up you go! Wow it was high! But indescribably beyond incredible. My elephant was called Ban-Wha, a really spirited girl of 35 who used to do elephant treks in Pai. We got on really well 🙂
Once we had learned all our commands (bye (pai) means ‘go’, kway is left or right depending on the way you move) and how is stop) it was time for lunch. Mahouting is hungry work! It was really nice to sit around in our group with Tum, hearing stories about the camp and getting to know the other people visiting the park. Tum insisted we eat LOTS as we were going on a trek that afternoon and would need energy, but seriously my appetite has just shrunk since I got here and I couldn’t manage much more than a plate.
For the trek we were split into pairs and introduced to our elephant, I was on Ban-Wha again 🙂 Being the most confident pair, Robbie and I were at the head of the line too. Honestly I’m not sure Ban-Wah was listening to me all that much, rather than just following the route she’s probably taken a thousand times but I enjoyed the walk. After about half an hour or so we stopped for a rest and some water, then swapped positions. I actually far preferred being on the back of the elephant to the head as I could hook my legs up making me feel more secure. Robbie preferred the front (I think coz it was narrower?) so that worked out quite well!
The day finished with bath time for elephants, each pair was given a scrubbing brush and bucket to clean our big friends off in the water before showering ourselves and saying goodbye to the majority of our group. Only 5 of us were spending the night at the park.
The evening at Baanchang was just amazing; after another delicious meal the 5 guests, Tum and the mahouts sat round a camp fire with a guitar singing songs while we waited for desert…sticky rice with coconut milk cooked in a bamboo shoot over the fire. Wow! While it was pretty hot for a campfire there’s still something magical about it. One of the mahouts had made a drum kit from some oil cans and water bottles to accompany the Thai and Burmese songs they were singing. There was even rice whiskey and flying lanterns to finish the night off. I can’t tell you how peaceful and perfect it was. The best end to the most amazing day.
Sarah (a photographer from the UK) and I had plans the next morning to get up super early and take photos of the elephants in the morning light. I set my alarm for 530 only to realise it was still dark, she set hers for 630 and decided the light wasn’t that great as it had rained so went back to bed. We’re useless! Haha! So instead at 9am I wondered down to meet the crew for breakfast and we said goodbye to Sarah who was off on a different tour…then there were 4!
Day 2 offers visitors a more in depth look at life at the park. You begin by cleaning out the elephants, yup, mucking out with a spade, sack and broom! Fun times!! Then it was elephant bath time again. This time
Robbie and I were paired with Sompoon, the largest male elephant in the group, while Jan and Julia had Kanika, Sompoons other half (who they think might be pregnant). A few nahlongs later and we were in the watering hole. Kanika lay straight down allowing J&J to slide off, but our elephant was having none of it!! He was straight to the stream for a drink leaving Robbie and I stranded on his back. This was ok for me as I was up front, but poor Mr Young was sat aside a rather wide backbone…not comfy!!! Tum informed us we’d be with these elephants for the rest of the day, including a 2 hour trip up the mountain. Eek!
At the top of the mountain we had the most delicious fried rice, wrapped in huge leaves with skewered chicken cooked on a fire while Sompoon and Kanika explored the jungle around us. The food was delicious, made all the more special by being in the middle of nowhere, where the only sounds were a crackling fire and the occasional crashing of trees as an elephant lent in for a scratch! Then it was time to get hydrated for the trip back down to camp
For the downhill part Tum asked the girls to drive and the guys to ride passenger as it requires more strength, but after the first steep bit I just wasn’t comfortable, and neither was Robbie. For me heading down a steep drop with only my hands on top of Sompoons head to stop me going trunk side was not enough, so we swapped and both felt much better for it! The trip back down the mountain was hard going on our bony ride really but still…chilling with an elephant right? Can’t complain (though maybe I can today as I feel like I’ve ridden the tour de france)! Even then it was over too soon, back to the river for a final bath and then it was all rush to catch the bus back to Chiang Mai with the day tour which was just finishing up.
I can honestly say I had the most wonderful time at Baanchang and am so grateful to all my new friends for making it so special. The mahouts and elephants really do seem to have a genuinely loving relationship (each elephant has one mahout which they choose themselves. When an elephant first arrives at Baanchang the mahouts are given a week to get to know the elephant and by the end of that time is it likely that a connection will have been made. This bond lasts for the entirety of an elephants stay at the park. If a mahout leaves they try to make the replacement gradual so no bereavement is felt) and guests are made to feel so welcome. This isn’t just a place to go ‘wow! An elephant!’ the people who visit have a genuine interest in learning more about them, how they live, how they came to be there and how the camp works. This mutual love of these amazing creatures creates a respectful relationship between the humans at camp which means you feel instantly welcome and at home.
I’d love to go back some day and really sincerely urge you to visit if you’re ever in the area. You won’t regret it 🙂