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.

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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
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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

Wat Phra Kaew – Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Wat Phra Kaew stands out among all the hustle and bustle of Bangkok

Thailand’s crown jewel temple, the Wat Phra Kaew, features three massive pagodas in the Sri Lankan, Thai and Khmer styles.

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For all the high-resolution photos from Wat Phra Kaew: Click Here

Wat Phra Kaew

Simply put, the Wat Phra Kaew Pagoda is a mix of three things: the spiritual center of Thai Buddhism, the former residence of the Thai Monarch – the Grand Palace, and a fairy tale. I’ll go more into detail, but that is the gist of what we’re talking about. That, and an incredible collaboration between religion, history and modern politics.

Wat Phra Kaew

Our trip starts out with the Temple Guards, who stand mightily by protecting tourists from taking photos without something clever in them. They did their duty with flying colors while I learned that Ethiopians are more afraid of horses than the Chinese or Koreans. There is a Genghis Khan joke in there somewhere, I just can’t find it. So after that discovery, we entered the packed compound and here it is ever more apparent that tourists have discovered Thailand whereas in Myanmar, locals still dare to tread. In a way it’s almost like looking into the future for Myanmar’s incredible sights as many tourists kind of cheapen the experience of the Far East… but then again, we’re here so… here are the crammed gates:

Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew

After paying a small entrance fee and changing into long pants (insider tip: always wear long pants into religious sites in Thailand), we finally got a chance to take in the incredible and fantasy-minded Wat Phra Kaew, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The most sacred Buddha Temple in Thailand doesn’t disappoint in the least as three large pagodas surrounded by a more than mile long wall make for a once-in-a-lifetime skyline.  There are two main parts of the compound, the first of which contains three pagodas and the second contains the Grand Palace.

Wat Phra Kaew

The three pagodas of Wat Phra Kaew represent the changing centers of Buddhist influence. Phra Si Ratana Chedi is a 19th-century Sri Lankan-style stupa housing ashes of the Buddha. Phra Mondop, in the middle, is a library built in Thai style by Rama I, known for its excellently crafted Ayutthaya-style mother-of-pearl doors, bookcases containing the Tripitaka (sacred Buddhist manuscripts), human- and dragon-headed nagas (snakes) and statues of Chakri kings. The Royal Pantheon, to the east, was built in Khmer style during the 19th century. It’s open to the public for one day in October to commemorate the founding of the Chakri dynasty. All were closed while we visited as security was on high alert for the Queen of Thailand’s upcoming birthday (as a note, we left Bangkok the day before the bombing in downtown). Also to the north is a model of Angkor Wat, perhaps the most sacred of all Cambodian shrines. It was constructed by King Mongkut as a reminder that the neighboring state was under the dominion of the Thai. Thanks Wiki!

Wat Phra Kaew

Besides tourists, the first part of the Wat Phra Kaew compound is chock full of incredibly-detailed statues, figures and more. There is so much to see in the compound that you’d need a few days to take it all in. We tried, but again Thailand’s mini heatwave was baking this boy. So I’ll give a quick history lesson on this part and head to the Grand Palace after these pictures: According to popular belief, the Emerald Buddha is ancient and came from Sri Lanka. Art historians, however, generally believe that it was crafted in 14th-century Thailand. The much-revered Buddha image has traveled extensively over the centuries. The story goes that the Emerald Buddha was once kept covered in plaster in a monument in Chiang Rai, but a damaging lightning storm in 1434 uncovered the treasure.  The king of Chiang Mai tried very hard to procure the statute, but three times the elephant transporting the statute stopped at a crossroads in Lampang. Taking it as a sign from the Buddha, the statue was placed in a specially-built monumental temple in Lampang, where it stayed for 32 years. The next king of Chiang Mai was more determined, succeeding in bringing the Emerald Buddha to his city. It was housed in a temple there until 1552, when Laotian invaders took it. The statue stayed in Laos for 214 years, until General Chakri (later King Rama I) brought it back to the Thai capital at Thonburi after his successful campaign in Laos. In 1784, when he moved the capital across the river to Bangkok, King Rama I installed the precious figure in its present shrine, where it has remained as a tangible symbol of the Thai nation. It is feared that removal of the image from Bangkok will signify the end of the Chakri dynasty.

Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew Wat Phra Kaew

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Wat Phra Kaew Wat Phra Kaew  Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew

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Oh and of course the Emerald Buddha.

“It is not known when the statue of the Emerald Buddha was made, but it is generally believed that it was crafted in 14th-century Thailand. However, there are also claims that the statue originated in India or Sri Lanka. None of these theories can be firmly established as none of the historians could get a close look at the statue. The Emerald Buddha was found in Chiang Rai, Lanna in 1434, after a lightning storm struck a temple. The Buddha statue fell down and later became chipped, and the monks, after removing the plaster around the statue, discovered that the image was a perfectly made Buddha image from a solid piece of green jade. The image was moved a few time to various temples, first to Lampang, then to Chiang Mai, from where it was removed by prince Chao Chaiyasetthathirat to Luang Prabang, when his father died and he ascended the throne of both Lanna and Lan Xang, in 1551. The statue remained the it to his new capital of Lan Xang in Vientiane in the 1560s. The statue remained there for twelve years. King Chaiyasetthathirat then shifted it to his new capital of Lan Xang in Vientiane in the 1560s. He took the Emerald Buddha with him and the image remained in Vientiane for 214 years until 1778. In the reign of King Taksin, Chao Phya Chakri (who later became Rama I) defeated Vientiane and moved the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane to Thonburi where it was installed in a shrine close to Wat Arun. Chao Phra Chakri then took over the throne and founded the Chakri Dynasty of the Rattanakosin Kingdom, and shifted his capital across the river to its present location in Bangkok. The Emerald Buddha was also moved across the river with pomp and pageantry and installed in the temple of Wat Phra Keaw.” – Wiki

Wat Phra Kaew

The Grand Palace… coming soon.

For more on the Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Wat Phra Kaew: Click Here