Elephants and a Small Slice of Pai
From Chiang Mai, we were whisked away in a van headed for the mountains to the north. The first leg of our journey into the mountains would take us to the Elephant Nature Park, where we would be spending the next two days caring for and observing Asian elephants that had been rescued from lives of trekking, logging, or entertainment and were being rehabilitated. Afterwards, we would return to Chiang Mai for the night before continuing on to the backpacker’s haven of Pai, Thailand. We were told that Pai was a place to relax and enjoy nature. It had a reputation as a haven for the long-term traveler and people were known to book a stay for three days here and end up staying a month. We were excited to check it out.
What We Did
Day 206 (2/13/17): We were picked up at 8:00 a.m. and headed to the elephant sanctuary. Once we arrived, we met our “guide” who would be with us during our stay, and waited for the rest of the group. Once everyone arrived, we began the day with a feeding from the main pavilion. We were given three large laundry baskets full of melon, watermelon, and bananas. We were lucky, and attracted the attention of the large family of elephants that included the newest addition to the park, 10-month old Dok Rak. We took turns putting the fruits in the elephant’s trunk, pretty much as fast as we could, because these guys and gals were hungry. After they had devoured every bit of fruit in the baskets, we washed our hands and went out for a walk through the grounds of the reserve. Along the way we got to meet many of the other elephants, taking pictures, learning about them, and even touching and playing with the ones who liked human interaction. After a little while, we returned to the main viewing pavilion to get lunch. Lunch was all vegetarian Thai food and if you wanted to try everything you had to get in line quick, because just like the elephants, the visitors were ravenous as well. After lunch, we checked into our rooms and changed into water gear in preparation for giving the elephants a bath. We headed out to the river where a couple of elephants stood waiting for us. They devoured more watermelon as we took buckets of water and threw it on them, washing away the days dirt and mud. The guide told us they wash them off every day to try and ensure they do not pick up ticks. One of our elephants was quick to leave after her watermelon was gone and promptly ran up the hill towards the dirt pile to undue all the work we had just done. The other one named Kham Moon (who was my favorite), hung around with us for a long while, posing for pictures and letting us pet her as her eyes closed lazily. We finally left the elephants for the day and went up to the viewing deck with a couple of beers to watch the elephants roam about the grounds before dinner. We met several other visitors and volunteers up there and had a good time swapping stories with other travelers. As the sun set it was finally time for dinner. We stuffed ourselves on more healthy vegetarian Thai cuisine, and then headed back to our rooms for showers and sleep.
Day 207 (2/14/17): This morning we woke up and had breakfast in the main pavilion. After breakfast, we once agaion headed out on a walk around the grounds. We met several more groups of elephants, talked to their mahouts, and had fun petting and feeding the ones who were okay with it. We watched the big family with the youngest baby play in the river, and we also spent a decent chunk of time watching the second youngest elephant, Navan, causing mischief with some tires as his nannies watched him carefully. We walked towards the enclosure where the young males (bulls) are kept and watched two of them throwing rocks and dirt at each other through their enclosure walls. The guide explained that they were preparing to release two of them into the wild in the spring. We also had a quick look at the dog kennel, which is home to over 400 pups before grabbing lunch. After lunch we got to give the elephants another bath as well as watch them feed and socialize some more from the large viewing platform. Some of them are very wily, trying to sneak into the pavilion. Our final activity was helping the workers make rice balls for the more geriatric elephants who had trouble chewing the melons. We squished together rice, pumpkin, oats, and fruit, rolling it into dense balls we them took out and fed to one of the elephants who was old and blind. Then, it was at last time to say goodbye to our new animal friends as we boarded a bus back to Chiang Mai. Once we arrived back at the hostel, we returned one final time to the Ploen Ruedee Night Market for dinner before wandering back and hitting the hay.
Day 208 (2/15/17): We woke up early and boarded a minibus bound for Pai. The journey itself took 3.5 hours and was so full of twists and turns that by the time we arrived, we were all feeling a bit queasy. We got off in the center of town and hiked a little outside of the main street to our hostel. Once settled in our room, we decided that we did not feel much like doing anything productive our first day and instead opted to visit the Fluid Swimming Pool. Despite the slightly gross-sounding name, the pool was actually quite enjoyable. It was large, clean, and served delicious food and drinks poolside. It was packed with backpackers laying in the sun, cooling off in the water, or just generally fending off a hangover. After several hours of relaxation, we wandered into town to get some booze. Adam and I grabbed a quick drink at the Banana Bar before heading back to the hostel. We sat and played cards by the many small ponds on the grounds of our hostel, ordering dinner from reception when we got hungry. After the sun went down, they lit a bonfire and opened the hostel bar. We joined several other guests around the fire for drinks, trading advice on things to do and see and learning about each other’s travels. This socializing continued for the rest of the evening, the fire was nothing but embers and too many beers had been drank.
Day 209 (2/16/17): Having a lie in, we eventually got going around late morning. We decided to head into town to get food and rent scooters for the day. We ate at an amazing café in town (we ended up going back the next day), and stuffing ourselves on chicken sandwiches, eggs benedict, and bagels. Afterwards, we hopped on our scooters and headed for the Sai Ngam Hot Springs. On the way, we had some difficulty with our scooters in that they were underpowered and the hills in the park were very steep. At one point Katie and Justin almost wrecked theirs because it wouldn’t stop rolling backwards and both Katie and I had to hop off and walk up one of the hills because the scooters wouldn’t make it to the top with both passengers. Finally, though, we made it to the hot springs and enjoyed lounging around in the warm water. The drive out of the park, we had learned our lesson, got a lot of speed built up before any hill and them leaned as far forward as we could and prayed. We managed to make it up all the hills without incident (although just barely). We made our way to the Mor Paeng waterfall, which was said to be one you could slide down and was recommended by a couple of blogs online. We were quite disappointed when we arrived. There was barely any water, as it had quickly dried up after monsoon season. Making the best of it, we climbed to the top, found a large, smooth rock to sit on, and played a couple games of euchre. We then left the falls and headed back to town. That night we opted to go into town to see their night market. We walked along the road checking out what the vendors were selling and sampling chicken wings, avocado salad, and grilled meats along the way. After a couple hours, we headed back to the hostel and fell asleep early.
Day 205 (2/17/17): With our scooters rented for another day, we headed back into town to get brunch at the same café we visited the morning before. Afterwards, we headed out to Pai Canyon (Kong Lan), which was said to be teeny tiny version of the Grand Canyon. I don’t know how much they actually compared, but I still enjoyed myself. Pai Canyon is a mountain ridgeline, that snakes along for a couple of kilometers, splitting into various routes and offering stunning views of the Pai Valley. We spent about an hour or so climbing up and down the ridge, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. You do have to be careful, as the path gets very narrow at points and be prepared to leave covered in dust. Afterwards, we decided to try out another waterfall, the Pam Bok waterfall on our way back to town. It was slightly more impressive than the one from the day before, and we took a bit of time to wade into the water and get some good shots of it. We then headed back into town to turn in our scooters. We spotted a sign on the walk back to the hostel that changed everything: 70 baht glasses of wine. Having not had ANY wine since reaching Asia because the prices were astronomical, Katie and I were ecstatic about $2 wine and promptly found a table. The boys joined us for a bit, and we spent a while downing glasses of wine and playing cards. The guys then left to get food and relax back at the hostel, while Katie and I remained firmly posted up at that restaurant savoring the tart grapey goodness and having girl-talk. Seven glasses later we walked back and joined the boys at the hostel where we packed our things and prepared for our journey back to Bangkok.
What We Learned
The trip to Pai is rough. You will read this on blogs and think, it can’t be that bad. That’s what I thought. But it can be. The road to Pai is super mountainous and includes 762 turns (NOT AN EXAGGERATION!). And while this is bad enough for a normal driver, the drivers in Asia in general are kind of freaking nuts. They take the turns sharp and at high speeds, with little regard for other people on the road. Most people on the bus were forced to sit back and close their eyes for the bulk of the trip, because looking out the windows only makes it worse. Katie joined a growing group of travelers who take Dramamine before undertaking the trip, and she still had a rough go of it. There is no other real way to get here though (I heard of a small airport that does a couple of prop plane flights per week but it was closed during our time here), so suck it up. Consider yourself warned if you are considering a jaunt out to this quaint, backpacker-centric town.
The avocados in Pai are insane. Seriously insane. The north is the only place with cool enough wesather to grow avocados successfully and boy do they ever grow. I saw avocados there the size of my head. And these are organically grown avos, not those ones you can get all year round back home on steroids. I was floored. So, naturally, the people of Pai put avocado on a lot of stuff. And it is amazing. You would have thought Justin had died and gone to heaven. This is also true of strawberries here. So if you are an avocado or strawberry lover, this is the town for you.
Get to the hot springs early. When we arrived, it was probably a little before eleven and there were not many people there at all. We had plenty of space to spread out and relax, and we could even sit under some of the cascades of warm water for an added massage. When we were leaving, however, several large tour groups were arriving and filling the pools and taking selfies everywhere. I thought that the hot springs were worth going to, despite what some of the reviews may say. However, bear in mind that they will charge you 20 baht per person to enter the park, and then another 20 baht per person to enter the hot springs (it is less than $2 per person total but the fact I had to get money out and pay twice really annoyed me for some reason). Also, while the hot water comes from an actual natural hot spring, the area you get in (the pools) are built up within the stream, so there is a man-made element to it, although it retains a relatively natural appearance. Some people don’t care for that I suppose, but it didn’t bother me in the least. And I could not believe how clear the water was. Definitely worth a visit.
In the hot or cool (dry) season, which is anytime between November and June, do not bother visiting either of the waterfalls, especially not Mor Paeng. Both waterfalls dry up rather quickly after the rainy season and you are left with barely a trickle if anything. The Mor Paeng waterfalls while dry are also kind of an eyesore, with stagnant pools of water filled with mosquito larva and trash and debris piled up along the sides. I have seen pictures of it during or right after the rainy season and it looks neat, but don’t bother any time after that. The Pam Bok waterfalls are slightly better. There was still some actual water flowing down when we arrived. However, the water level is very low and the water itself is actually freezing cold, so unless it is like 90+ degrees outside, I would not want to try and swim in it (and neither did any of the other people we saw there). In conclusion, if you are short on time, you can easily skip these two sights.
Going to the elephant park was truly a magical experience. This was a bucket list item of mine and I am so glad I did it at the Elephant Nature Park outside Chinag Mai. The elephants there are saved from hard, horrible lives and given a fresh start and a second chance to just be elephants again. And I really like that the reserve tries to rehabilitate and rerelease the elephants they can into the wild. They do not want to keep them on display to earn money from tourists or the general public. They want them free to roam the jungles as they were meant to. There are, of course, some elephants there who are not suited for rerelease, and those elephants are given a comfortable life full of snacks and are allowed to choose their own social groups to interact and live with. I could not believe that I was actually getting to feed and touch and interact with these amazing creatures. And the mahouts really knew their elephants and which ones were okay with human interaction and which ones preferred to be left alone. We got to see babies who were born free of their parents’ hard lives. We got to help care for them. We got to learn more about them and their personalities. My favorite elephant, as I said, was a middle aged one named Kham Moon, while Katie found her spirit elephant in an elderly female who was missing her right ear. They had one younger elephant who used to be part of the circus who was people-shy but used her talents to climb on two legs and reach the leaves on the highest branches. It was a totally unique and awesome experience. I was so happy we all got to do it together, and I will never forget my time there.