Thailand: Elephants, Long Necks, and Tigers

This is a post I wrote when I was on my first backpacking trip. I was young, naive, and didn’t understand the terrible consequences of participating in tours like these.
I struggled with wether to remove this or not, but to erase this post and pretend I never went would do no good. I had to learn from this mistake, but as I look back I am embarrassed and full of shame for being so blind to the treatment of these poor animals.

I in no way support animal tourism, and now do my best to be a “woke” traveller wherever I go in the world. I urge you to do the same.

We wake up at 8am for our elephant excursion, excited, and hoping for it to meet our expectations…unlike the elephant ride we had done in India. We don’t have time for breakfast, and are rushed into a little van that drives around Chiang Mai for a very very long time looking for a small boutique hotel. We finally find it and pick up two more passengers who are from Morocco. They speak French, but this early in the morning I am not as eager to practice my French speaking, so I don’t.

The first stop we make is at an elephant camp. We get to watch an elephant show, where they do cool tricks like kick soccer balls and even paint! I don’t know how, but they have been trained to paint “self portraits”, which are simple outlines of an elephant but they’re totally incredible considering that they use nothing but their trunk and a bit of guidance from the trainers!

After the show, we play with the elephants a little bit and get to feed them bananas and sugarcane. Then we take a ride on an ox cart up to where we get to actually ride the elephants, who take us back to camp through a long trail in the jungle and through a river. I manage to drop my purse from way up on it’s back. Thinking I’m doomed and never getting it back, I watch as the elephant stretches out its trunk, and picks up my bag, and hands it back to me. Such a gentleman. The sun is shining and it’s a gorgeous day, perfect to be sitting atop an elephant walking through a lush jungle. I am so happy to be doing something this cool!

When we arrive back at the camp it’s lunch time and we are served buffet style Thai cuisine. I walked in with low expectations because usually when meals are “included” they suck, but it’s actually really, really good. We eat chicken… and I can’t help but notice that there are wild chickens wandering around the camp and playing with the children…but I don’t ask.

After lunch we are lead back down to the river that the elephants had walked us through, and are taken on a bamboo raft ride down the length of the river. We wait in line for a pretty long time because it’s a busy tourist day, and I’m so impatient but we do finally make it down. They seat 6 people per raft, and Ilona and I are fortunate enough to be at the start of the line when they get out the next round of rafts, so we get to sit right at the front. The last couple to get on the raft decide that they don’t want to sit at the back, and ask the raft steerers if they can sit on the front (there are movable rectangle boxes that we get to sit on to keep from getting wet). Still a little impatient from the wait, and aggravated by their entitlement, I turn around and say “well no, because we wanted to sit at the front, and that’s why we did.” They proceed to pick up their own box and plop it down in front of us on the raft anyway. I am NOT impressed – people can be so damn rude – but I don’t say anything else to them. I notice however that they are speaking completely fluent English to each other, so they DEFINITELY heard and understood me when I asked them to let us stay in the front. She has a silly romper and high heels on (in the jungle) so I assume they’re just those kinda people. Oh well.
I am still on a bamboo raft on a river surrounded by a lush green jungle, so I deal. It gets even better when we are given adorable bamboo hats to wear that protect our faces from the sun, and I even get to steer the raft for a little while! We go quite far down the river to where our tour van is waiting to take us to the Long Neck Village. Our time is up with the elephants, but the day isn’t done yet.

When we reach the Long Neck Village I am annoyed to see so many other tour buses, because it makes me feel like this is not so much a legitimate tribe as it is just a show they put on as a tourist attraction. We pay to get in, and follow the pathway leading into the village that is lined with shops selling scarves and trinkets. There’s even a drink stall that sells coca-cola… So my first impression is not a good one – however, as our guide begins to explain more to me about the tribe, I start to understand the need for the tourists. The Long Neck Tribe escaped from Myanmar (Burma), which is where the wearing of the brass necklaces began. They are unable to take them off at any time except for when they add a new coil, and they are EXTREMELY heavy, they had an example of one for me to pick up. Even if the women wanted to take them off, and they wouldn’t because more coils=more beauty, their necks would be unable to support their heads due to lack of muscle usage. One woman we spoke to could barely speak her neck was so tall.

These women don’t leave the camp because everywhere they go they are seen as a photo op for not just tourists but locals of Chiang Mai as well. They make scarves and sell trinkets to tourists as a way to create income for their village, and the men (who do not wear the necklaces) have a farm which they work on as a means to feed the people in the village. It was all very, very interesting. I buy a handmade scarf and a small Long Neck statue from one of the women.

When we get back to our tour bus, they drive us not very far down the road to a tiger sanctuary where tourists can come and play with the adult, teenage or baby tigers. We choose to play with the babies, who are only 3 months old. They are so soft to pet and very playful, it makes me want to take one home.

Last on our trip is a butterfly and orchid farm, where they grow the most beautiful, colorful orchids which attract a number of different butterflies. They fine people 2,000 baht ($65) if you pick one of the flowers! It must happen a lot. We get back in the van and drive back to Old Chiang Mai city where we basically pass out and die from having such a full day of activities.
One of the most wonderful things we have done on our trip to date!

We go downstairs for dinner after a quick nap, where we get invited to go to a night market with some other travelers. We walk over instead of taking a tuk tuk, which is cool because we get to see a lot of the city on our way there. I love Chiang Mai, it’s gorgeous. I suggest that anyone who visits Thailand make the trip up north to see it.

Just don’t take an overnight train. Seriously.

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