Getting up close and personal with nature in Chiang Mai, Thailand

British politeness meant that I started my one-day adventure in The Great Outdoors by rubbing spicy green mulch into my very heavily bleeding finger.

I had a spare few days before my flight home from Bangkok so I thought I’d venture into northern Thailand after hearing a few good things about Chiang Mai. After all, the stress I had in Colombia when it came to leaving the country without a passport meant that I’d feel a lot safer spending my final few days in the country of departure.

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So off I went from Hoi An to Chiang Mai, in a journey that started off with me feeling so hungover I thought I might be sick before the flight even took off. Two hours and an attempt at a nap somehow made all the difference and I found my way to “Thailandwow”, my fourth and final hostel of the trip.

If you’re not familiar with Chiang Mai, try and picture almost the complete opposite of Bangkok. You’ll still find the token cheap fruit smoothies and Pad Thai on every corner but replace ping pong shows with elephant excursions and you’ve got a closer idea of what to expect. It seemed only fitting that I’d squeeze an elephant-based adventure into my travels while in the country’s hotspot for doing so, so I booked onto a full day tour at an elephant sanctuary an hour outside of Chiang Mai.

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Most elephants weigh between 3-4 tonnes and they eat around 200kg of food a day. So the first part of the morning was spent chopping sugar cane sticks for the elephants to munch on. Great if you’re a dab hand with a knife, not so great if you end up dabbing your own hand after slicing your forefinger instead of the sugarcane. While the guides seemed fairly unbothered about the blood pouring onto the floor, my brand new Dutch friends on the trip whipped out plasters, antiseptic and bandages. Isn’t it funny how something can change so much in 10 minutes? The day itself was still amazing, but slightly hindered by the fact that I had one normal hand and one thoroughly bandaged one.

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But despite the white covering on my left hand, it was hard not to be amazed by the surroundings of the elephant sanctuary. An hour-long drive was followed by a 15 minute walk over precarious wooden bridges, through thigh-high grass and past many a suspicious looking creature. Remote doesn’t really cover it. I couldn’t help but wonder, in the most mum-like way ever, what would happen if I’d actually properly sliced through my finger because I can’t imagine there was any form of hospital nearby.

After we’d cut the sugar cane (by which I mean, after I’d watched the others successfully cut the sugar cane and wipe my blood off of the rusty knife) it was time to meet the first elephant. I was cautious when I booked onto the trip that I was taking part in an ethical day with the animals. The sanctuary I booked with, called Doi Inthanon Elephant Sanctuary and arranged by the hostel, made it reassuringly clear that they only had the elephants’ best interests at heart.

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What was funny was the nonchalant way in which the elephants appeared. I’d only ever seen them at the zoo before, so it was hilarious to watch them wander over to us and stand around, waiting for attention (and food). We met various elephants over the course of the day and got the chance to stroke them, feed them and even wash them. This was another part that I wasn’t too good at with only one hand – I didn’t want to take the risk of infecting my finger in the muddy water. But, dressed in a bikini and one of those cliche Thailand elephant tops, I gave it my best shot with one hand behind my back and the other scooping up water with a fluorescent green bucket to throw over the elephants. The positive of this was that my hand stayed mostly dry. The negative was that 90% of the photos that the photographer took that day feature me with a bandaged hand behind my back. It was impossible not to get a bit muddy at the same time, but when it’s 30+ degrees outside and blazing sunshine, a bit of mud didn’t bother me at all.

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It was obvious from the way that the mahouts interacted with the elephants that they adored them. They were all so comfortable and knew each animal’s individual characteristics and personality. When it came to the baby elephant, they knew exactly what she’d do to play tricks on us: namely that she’d go out of her way to pretty much run towards us and push us over. Lovingly, of course.

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When we weren’t stroking the elephants, we were eating food, white water rafting and gazing at a beautiful waterfall. I had the option to book onto a full day or a half day trip so decided to go for the full day which included the waterfall. So after we’d eaten a lunch of potato curry, stir fried chicken and veg and a sort of omelette, off we went to get up close and personal with nature.

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The people that I was on the trip with had been told the walk to the waterfall was an hour. I hadn’t been told anything about it other than the fact that I would be seeing it. The mahout who took us there said it would take about 10 minutes. The fact that this was at best an unexaggeration and at worst a full blown lie was both a blessing and a curse. Thinking it was only a case of nipping round the corner, I kept my Birkinstocks on instead of trainers. A blessing, because they somehow have more grip than my trainers. A curse, because my feet were disgusting after we’d trekked through muddy puddles, more sky high fields of grass and past a snake. And let’s not get started on the precarious, wobbly bridges handmade with some questionable looking branches that paved the way over the rapids. On the same walk, we saw cows, some horrible red creatures that looked a little like giant crickets and the largest spiders I’ve ever seen in my life. I’d actually spent much of the entire Asia trip up until then on the lookout for spiders in my room/in the communal areas of the hostel/the bathrooms/literally anywhere else. In maybe a huge stroke of luck, it wasn’t until I went to the jungle when I saw them. And even then, they weren’t quite the huge furry beasts of my nightmares but far more leggy and ever so slightly less terrifying. Until, that is, the mahout threw a piece of leaf at the spider and it moved faster than I’d ever wanted to witness to eat the leaf.

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The waterfall was worth the wait and was incredibly serene. Completely natural and formed by some kind of natural gases (can you tell I do words and not science?) it was a beautiful contrast to the craziness of other parts of Thailand and I was so pleased to have seen it. It was definitely worthwhile doing the full day trip just for those few moments of serenity. But they weren’t to last, because the final part of the day was a trip down the river on a bamboo float. When I say bamboo float, I mean it in the most literal and basic sense. These floats weren’t quite like the kayaks of Ha Long Bay (more on those soon!) but rather nine sticks of bamboo stuck together at either end. And that was it. Fortunately the river didn’t run too fast but it was another example of my spending much of the journey on the lookout for spider webs in the trees that we got slightly too close to.

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It would be a lie to say I didn’t enjoy the rafting, but I think it was an experience that I can appreciate more so now that it’s done. I love the idea of being a spontaneous traveller, jumping into every opportunity without a care in the world, but in reality I like knowing what will happen, what to expect and I’m far too much of a worrier to not be pierced with fear by the thought of being attacked by some random bug in the jungle. But, as always, it’s a good travel story and I’m glad I did it.

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