Playing with Elephants in Chiang Mai


Elephants are almost my favorite animal, second only to giraffes or giraffalas as my lil sis Kate and I like to call them. So when a friend told me about the Maetamann Rafting and Elephant Camp in the mountains of Chiang Mai it became my one “must do” in Thailand.

When we arrived in Chiang Mai we lucked into a taxi driver, “O”, who spoke excellent English and very conveniently could be hired as a driver for the day. After reviewing dozens of recommendations, we booked him (at a rate of 1000 Baht, approximately $34 for the day) to take us out into the mountains the very next day to the Maetamann elephant camp.

We met O at our hotel at 9:00 a.m. and plotted our course for the day. We decided to start with a little shopping and aimed to arrive at Maetamann at 11:30 a.m.

Our first stop was the Thai Silk Factory where we were able to see the silk making process in action from larvae to scarf.

Silk Worms

We also spent quite a bit of time roaming through the shop and I picked up a bright red woven silk scarf to take home to my mom.

Next stop, the Sa Paper & Umbrella Handicraft Centre to see how paper parasols are made and stock up on necessities – fans.

The parasols were gorgeous and I was sorely tempted to bring one home – but really, what was I going to do with it and how would I get it in my luggage? I settled on a fan for myself, a handmade leather bracelet, and a little painting of an elephant on my camera case by one of the parasol/fan painters.

Gifts in hand it was time to see the elephants.

When we arrived at Maetamann there was a “show” in progress. After passing a momma and baby elephant who greeted us by sniffing us with his trunk, we walked down to the ring. The elephants were engaged in tricks that were much to Dumbo like for us – pyramid of pachyderms anyone? Jules headed off to wander amongst the non-performing elephants. I wandered to the end of the ring to attempt a chat with the mahouts; the elephant caretakers.

The friend who recommended Maetamann told me the elephants could paint pictures. This claim was confirmed by our driver and by the paintings offered for purchase at a little shop at Le Meridien in Phuket. The elephants at Maetamann could even paint pictures of elephants. Through some smiling, pointing and bumbling I learned that the elephants would paint at the end of the show. With my back firmly toward the ring, I petted, talked to and otherwise hung out with Hong, an eleven-year-old female elephant until she was led into the ring.

Hong can paint! My elephant can paint!

Hong in Action

I want that picture.

Hong’s picture wasn’t the best, but I didn’t care, she was my elephant and her painting would be mine. As her mahout headed out of the ring with Hong’s easel and painting, I squared my shoulders and cut through the ring in a direct path to intersect him. The French people filling the ring that fell in my path were cut around with an efficiency perfected during years navigating through summer packs of people at Disneyland. I hit the ring exit just as Hong’s painting did. With pointing, I indicated my intention to buy. The mahout looked at me like I might be mad and handed me off to an English speaking Thai woman. She confirmed that I wanted Hong’s painting, “That one? … That one?”  Really? Her expression seemed to say, while she glanced at the better painted pictures by other elephants. Yes. But she eventually took my money – 1000 Baht the same amount we were paying our driver, for the day.  I could pick it up in the shop later.

American Pushiness Prevails: The Painting is Mine!

Strolling back to Julie with the receipt for my prize in hand, I realized with amusement mingled with horror that I had become the stereotypical pushy American. But then again, the painting was mine. We hung out with Hong some more and then headed off to purchase our tickets for river rafting, elephant riding and the inevitable buffet lunch (1500 Baht, approximately $50).

Lunch was surprisingly decent but we made short work of it because we wanted to beat the pack to the elephant rides. O, who is buddies with everyone at Maetamann it seems, got us to the front of the line, where we greeted our elephant and “boarded.”

Riding an elephant is a bit unsettling. First, the sensation is very different and when you get to an incline there is a real fear of pitching out and over – thank goodness for lap bars. Second, there’s the concern, “Am I hurting the elephant?” “Is it wrong to ride an elephant?” I felt fairly confident that we weren’t hurting her and became o.k. with the riding aspect. These elephants are treated extremely well and we fed ours, pet her and let her snuffle around us with her trunk to convey how much we appreciated her toting us around.

I can’t say the same for the guy in the elephant behind us. No treats, no pets, nothing. Jules decided we should compensate for him and we divvied up our sugarcane and banana stash between our elephant and the elephant behind as we plodded along.

Bump. We felt a mild jolt as the elephant behind bumped ours and then a scruffy trunk flopped itself between us and began a search for treats. We burst out laughing and the last of the bananas went to the interloper. I’m not sure the mahouts were as amused as we were.

Elephant ride over, we were taken back to the start by ox cart and then it was time to raft down the river. O cut us to the front of the line once again, such a bonus of having a hooked up driver, and we sprawled out on the raft ready for a relaxing float down the river.

Our guide decided we were well equipped to man the boat while he went for a swim and entertained the French filled boat behind us by periodically snatching at them and yelling “crocodile!” So Jules and I took turns pretending to row the boat gondolier style with poles, although I’m pretty sure the gentlemen rowing in the rear was doing all the work and steering. When we grew tired of posing as gondoliers we deserted our post and relaxed on the raft, taking in the jungle scenery, the elephants bathing and the countryside passing us by. Paradise.