Walking with Elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Asian Elephants are some of the most amazing, graceful and gigantic creatures on Planet Earth.

On a misty morning and up in the high mountains of northern Thailand, I found a herd of formerly-abused Asian Elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. The ensuing shenanigans made for possibly the most fun day of my two week-long northern Thailand/Laos trip.

For all my blog entries in Thailand, check out the blog: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Chiang Mai, Thailand: Click Here

Elephants
After a hard trip up the mountain… the view

The ride up to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was miserable. About 2 hours in the cold and rain in the back of a truck bed with benches on both sides. A small tarp didn’t break the wind or rain nearly as much as it should have and the 8 of us crammed in there was just tough. We ended up laughing about the whole thing which brings you closer as a group but you know, I’m cool with distance if I’m not freezing. Anywho… the ride up the mountain about 60 km north of Chiang Mai was pretty steep but the views are impressive.

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Mud + constant drizzle = plastic rain coat fashion accessories
Elephants
Nom nom

Those who know me are aware of the obligation I feel towards responsible tourism, especially when it comes to impoverished or indigenous tribes and native wildlife. Too often in undeveloped parts of the world you can find tiger “temples” and basically “photobooths” with locals – both of which are usually accessible for only a few dollars and terribly abusive for the animals and people involved. So with that being said, during my brilliant but short stay in northern Thailand’s largest city of Chiang Mai, I decided to check out the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary where both of my concerns were alleviated instantly.

Elephants

Elephants

The sanctuary was started as an experiment in eco-tourism through ethical and sustainable business practices in 2014. The joint-initiative combines international travelers with the Karen Hill-Tribes which dot this part of Asia. As I’m currently living in Myanmar I’ve become very familiar with the Karen as they live in the jungles between Shan State, Myanmar, and the northern provinces of Thailand, it’s great to see this effort in action. The no-riding experience began with a quick overview of what’s up in the valley and the plan for the day. We had about 20 participants in our group and as it was roughly 7:45am and most of us had been enjoying ourselves the night before, not many were paying close attention. I just wanted a coffee.

Elephants

Elephants

We meandered down in to the valley were the elephants were hanging out and munching on some bamboo. The thing about these elephants is that you can tell they’d been abused, could easily see the scars and holes in their ears, yet they didn’t seem to care. The quality of their lives is readily apparent as their days consist of eating bamboo, getting fed treats by travelers, playing the mud, hanging out on the hillsides and washing off in a pristine natural stream.

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It was her idea…
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The world’s largest land animal and an elephant
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Wearing a traditional Karen shirt over my wind jacket

The elephants are very friendly (you are feeding them, after all) and aren’t shy in the slightest – which is both good and bad. You have to constantly keep your head on a swivel as they move about without much regard to who’s around them. The last thing you’d want is to have your foot be stepped on by on of these gigantic creatures. I grew up around Belgium draft horses and there is really no comparison as to how incredibly tall and wide – these animals are easily as wide as a U-Haul truck.

Elephants

Elephants

Elephants

Elephants

After a short time of feeding the elephants, off they went to the mountainside for a bit of graze. The steep muddy slopes make for tricky terrain but their flat feet somehow hold. We were slipping and sliding all over the place. Next was off to the stream at the end of the valley to play in the water with the elephants. Elephants really do engage in an incredible amount of social activity with each other and watching them play about from only feet away was such a uniquely-awesome experience.

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Paradise in the dense Thai jungle

Elephants

Elephants

Elephants
Baby always climbing on mama

Elephants

Elephants

Elephants

We spent about 6 hours with the elephants in total and it was worth every minute. The whole tour plus travel costs runs about 1,500 baht (give or take $40 USD) but for the experience, interaction with the animals and for the cause, it really is worth the expense. I’d do it again in a heartbeat and have recommended the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary to many friends and fellow travelers. I mean, the weather was atrocious and it was my favorite day in Thailand.

Elephants
Elephant paradise

For all my blog entries in Thailand, check out the blog: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Chiang Mai, Thailand: Click Here

A Crazy Trip to Kuang Si Waterfall in Laos

Kuang Si Falls, Luang Prabang, Laos

The Kuang Si Waterfall is a jungle paradise and a crazy trip

On the way to the Kuang Si Waterfall, we passed two massive water buffalo dead on the street and another monster which squared us down.

For High-Resolution Photos of my journey to Luang Prabang: Click Here

For High-Resolution Photos of my journey to Vang Vieng: Click Here

To check out my trip in Luang Prabang, click here. For the crazy part life of Vang Vieng, click here. For my photo essay on the Luang Prabang-Vang Vieng trip, click here.

Kuang Si Waterfall
Stairway to Heaven

A day trip on a motorbike some 30-plus kilometers away through a winding and mountainous jungle road just to see  a waterfall? Sounds like a legit backpacker’s Wednesday to me – and thus began our journey to what should be a world-famous tourist attraction… but isn’t. The landlocked country of Laos is often overlooked by travelers heading to Asia, and Southeast Asia especially. Its neighbors Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and China are known for excellent tourist infrastructure, fancy hotels and incredible landscapes combined with unspoiled beaches and five-star restaurants. You won’t find any of that in Laos, well, save landscapes that completely boggle the mind.

Kuang Si Waterfall
Rolling mountains covered in almost impassible jungle and at the end of the rainy season, green of all shades
Kuang Si Waterfall
The Mekong River, sleepy in the morning

Located roughly 30km southwest of Luang Prabang, options for transportation through the rolling, thick, lush, hot, adjectives-galore route include tuk-tuk, open-air pickup truck, boat or motorbike. Our group of four chose the latter and to save money took two bikes and shared driving duties.  It was an epic adventure to say the least. On the way to the Kuang Si Waterfall, we drove by two huge, dead water buffalo which had just been ran into by a large Laotian big-rig truck. Ran into, that is, instead of run over… because you literally cannot run over these hulking monsters. Thinking that would be the gnarliest thing we saw, we then came across a herd crowding near the road and one single solitary bull of a male who clearly didn’t give two sh… cares about us wanting to pass through on our bikes. I could describe this in words but pictures seem to tell a more powerful story:

Kuang Si Waterfall
There were about a dozen total, but the thick jungle can hide a 500lbs animal a yard away no problem

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall
Come at me, bro

 

Kuang Si Waterfall
Angle #2 from the bike ahead of us. That’s less than 2 yards from a bull with his head lowered right at us
Kuang Si Waterfall
Too… close…

 

Kuang Si Waterfall
And… exhale… whew

As you can tell from the penultimate photo, the bull is bigger than the two of us and our bike, combined. After that incredible experience we stopped our bikes off to grab some water, talk about the harrowing experience (I cursed, as is my custom) and chat with the locals. The roads of Laos are paved but narrow and are lined with small little bamboo-stilted shops with rudimentary rusted tin roofs. We needed to chill for a moment before continuing our journey and the locals are lovely and welcoming.

Kuang Si Waterfall
Camera #1
Kuang Si Waterfall
Camera #2
Kuang Si Waterfall
Camera #3

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall
Building a bridge with a machete as a hammer

Kuang Si Waterfall Kuang Si Waterfall

Another sprint through the ‘jungly’ roads and up into the mountain and finally we arrived at the Kuang Si Waterfall. We arrived in late October which is at the tail-end of the rainy season which affects all of Southeast Asia. The monsoon rains bring out shades of green that you have to see to believe. Entrance to the Kuang Si Falls runs about 20,000 kip ($2.50 USD) and the visit rewards the lengthy, roughly 1-hour fifteen minutes ride.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall
A South African, American, Kiwi and Frenchman walk into a bar in Laos…

The first part of the hike up to the top of the waterfall is a famous bear sanctuary  where Asiatic Black Bears (aka Moon Bears, White-Chested Bears) have been rescued from poachers and abusive situations. They are listed as ‘vulnerable’ in some places and endangered in others, as their bile is considered a natural medicine by the Chinese. There are about 20-25 bears in the sanctuary at any given time.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

After taking in the bears, it was time to get down to serious waterfall-trekking business. There are several tiers to the Kuang Si Waterfall system with pools located all over the mountain. Some are sacred so swimming is prohibited, though others are free and good to go. There are several waterfalls in this system with the biggest measuring almost 200-feet tall (60 meters). The turquoise and blue hues of the water is really quite brilliant and after a hot 30-minutes or so hike to the very top, the pool at the top offers not only unbelievable views but a refreshing swim on the peak of the mountain.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall
Feels neverending

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall
Straight out of a fairytale

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall
#selfie #nofilterneeded

 

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall
One part of the slippery climb up

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall
Kuang Si Waterfall

Just a brilliant spot to hang out. Flooded pools and fast-moving water… I absolutely recommend the Kuang Si Falls during or after the rainy season. You get the full feeling of a flooded landscape and gain comprehension of just how much water flows through Southeast Asia thanks to these monsoon rains. After kicking it at the flooded campsite, we hopped back on the bikes for the trek back to Luang Prabang and I have to say, I was a bit nervous about the ride back. Our bikes needed some fuel so we stopped for petrol at a small market on the side of the road. Two women were busy chopping meat while the okes purchased the petrol and it didn’t take long to figure out what they were chopping… the water buffalo from the ride up that were hit by the truck. Roadkill = dinner in the Laotian jungle.

 

Kuang Si Waterfall
Roadkill steaks

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

We made it back to the hostel just before sundown and dollar street-food sandwiches and much-needed cold beer was required. When in Laos, make like a Laotian.

Next up is the trip from Luang Prabang down south to Vang Vieng and tubing on the Mekong River.

For High-Resolution Photos of my journey to Luang Prabang: Click Here

For High-Resolution Photos of my journey to Vang Vieng: Click Here

To check out my trip in Luang Prabang, click here. For the crazy part life of Vang Vieng, click here. For my photo essay on the Luang Prabang-Vang Vieng trip, click here.