(written by Dave)
Rough night in the old guesthouse last night. Four or five girls sat up in the garden outside our window until at least 2AM. They were pretty quiet other than one of them having an alarm clock laugh. Every time you drift off to sleep, there goes a funny story, followed by “alarm clock” cackles. We were getting up early to see the elephants but were not riding so we didn’t make a scene. If it happens again tonight we’ll have different outcome.
Anyway, on to the elephants. We were told to make our way to the bus terminal and take a public bus the 37k to the Thai Elephant Conservation Park. No issues getting to the terminal but the next bus did not leave for 45 mins. Rather than mess up our great early start, we negotiated a private taxi into giving us a one-way ride. Other than the taxi having to stop to top up the radiator a few times it worked out great.
We made it to the elephants in time to watch their morning bath. By bath I mean all the elephants walk into a big pond at the same time with their mahouts (handlers) onboard. Then for fun they dive fully under the water so that the mahout gets a bath as well. This group of elephants was aged 2 to 13 and best we could tell, all female. They were smaller and playful – lots of spraying followed the dunking – they even tried to spray us in the audience. The park has a program for mahout training that the public can also attend. It is quite sought after and you generally have to book way in advance. The attendees participate in the bathing and elephant shows and there were four ‘trainees’ in the group we watched.
From the bath it was straight to the show arena. Here the elephants ring bells, demonstrate traditional lumber skills, bow, curtsy and even paint. Some of these activities were specifically referred to in our “why elephant parks are cruel” but at least what we saw, the elephants seemed to be well cared for and did not seem under stress or unhappy in participating in the activities.
The saddest part of the park was how most of the old males used for riding were treated. Many of them were hobbled with chains and they all seemed to have riding chairs mounted to be ready for people who would pay the ticket price for riding. The bad press we’ve read about these parks seemed to highlight exactly how these males were being treated – we chose not to ride the elephants. Apparently male elephants are more difficult to handle but it would be nice to see them left to wander and live naturally.
It was an interesting day all up. I’m sure that the elephants would all be happier being completely free but given habitat loss caused by humans, it only seems fair that excess elephants are taken care of by humans. Some elements of the park are what keep people coming back and thus ultimately make the whole thing possible. Rather than not seeing the park, I’ll give up my next teak deck chair – it seems that saving the trees is what the elephants really need.
As an added bonus, as we were walking out of the show what did we see other than us being stars of the live photo show. They have a guy here taking instant photos and then trying to sell them to you on the way out. The featured photo for our show was us – looking very regal if I do say so myself – or as I really should admit, it always pays to sit next to the pretty blonde girl when travelling in Asia.
For some reason in addition to the elephants, we decided to visit the elephant dung paper factory. Factory is a stretch but we did watch a woman hand separating some sort of fibrous material (think about job satisfaction there before winging about work next time Dave).
After a quick tour of the elephant hospital, we headed back out to the highway to flag down a return bus. With in minutes a local driving a pickup stopped and offered to take us to town for 500 baht. This was almost 2x what we paid to come out so we politely declined. For the next 45+ minutes we couldn’t get anyone, including a few buses to stop. And it was starting to rain. Great – Nancy was starting to remind me that sometimes it doesn’t pay to be cheap. Just about as we were going to give up (not sure what this means as giving up would not get us anywhere) another bus came barrelling down the hill and seemed to want to stop. At least they motioned that they would stop. And they did some 100 meters down the road past our stop – it took that long to stop the speeding bus. We ran down the hill after it and hopped on. Off we went in a packed local bus, complete with a monk and his dog, a broken down moped and every seat jam packed, no chickens. We speeded down the rest of the hill at great pace – including some dodgy S-curves just as the skies opened up. Being the only foreigners, we may have been the only ones nervous. No worries we made it back to Lampang without issues.
What to do after a hair raising bus ride? Well eat of course, what else? We grabbed a pick-up taxi – or at least we thought we did – the taxi would not depart until 10 other customers had agreed to join us. We were again crammed in like sardines, up against the back of the pick-up cab. The good news was that our stop was first, the bad news was that we had to climb over 10 people and their assorted bags to get out. We headed for the Riverside Cafe again, starving, a little shaky but happy to be back on firm ground and not having a monk sitting on our lap. Oh yeah, lunch was great again, Nancy’s being particularly colourful see below.
We spent what was left of the afternoon researching hotels and routes for the coming days. I snagged the hammock however – I’m happy to report that it is very comfy. And now we have to eat again so we’re off to the last restaurant listed in Lonely Planet that we have not tried in Lampang.
Tomorrow is a question mark day. We are not sure if we are riding to and stopping in Den Chai, or if we are riding all the way to Uttaradit – depends on what we find for hotels in Den Chai. We’ll leave early as the full ride is 140k if we have to go that far.