Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Thailand: Touristy Tigers and Happy Elephants

Written by Cindy Chang

Travelling to Southeast Asia was my first big overseas holiday. I went to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand with my boyfriend at the time, who I will call Mario for the purposes of this blog.  Having grown up watching movies like "The Lion King" at every possible chance I got (every day of the school holidays, until I could recite the whole movie line for line...), I loved animals.  I wanted to be Jasmine from Aladdin, and have a pet tiger.

18kg snake at the floating market
So my trip to Thailand, to me, was an opportunity to find me a tiger.  And an elephant.  In Thailand, there are two main places that you can go pat a tiger. In Bangkok there is the Tiger Temple, which is supposedly a 'temple' where Buddhist monks rescue tigers. It was an absolutely awful experience.  Overall, we spent about eight hours crammed in a tiny minivan and were herded through a number of other mediocre tourist attractions before finally stopping at the Tiger Temple.


After wandering through some dirty brown landscape with a herd of smelly buffalo, we reached the main attraction.  The big tigers.  We all had to line up before a big open area, where about six or seven of the big cats were arranged a few metres apart, collared and chained to the ground.  One by one we were escorted by a disinterested Thai dressed in a hideous orange polo.  they would hold your hand, lead you to one of the tigers, indicate for you to sit, take your photo, take your hand again and lead you to the next tiger.  I may as well have been sitting next to a giant stuffed toy.  So that was experience one.  Not to be put off, I dragged poor old Mario to The Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai, hoping for a better experience.  Here you can actually select whether you see the small, medium or big tigers.  While I selected my tiger size (small and big), I half expected the girl at the counter to ask something along the lines of, 'Would you like fries with that?'



I enjoyed The Tiger Kingdom a lot more.  In the big tiger enclosure, only one or two of us was allowed in at a time.  The three big tigers were kept in a fenced enclosure, but this had grass and a shallow pool of water.  One Thai with a small stick was my escort, and he introduced me to the tigers (three brothers, the only name I can remember is Meatball) and then proceeded to wave his stick in front of Meatball's face, like you would with a house cat and piece of string.


The tigers were all beautiful amazing creatures, but it did break my heart a little to see them arranged and paraded around for tourists like that.  To cancel out my support for these tourist ventures, I donated an equal amount of money to a local dog rescue centre that we visit in Koh Samui (the backpackers we stayed at in Koh Samui sponsored them, and took in dogs from the shelter as well).



Since then I have made a conscious effort to not participate in anything for the 'tourist experience' ~ even though you could argue that one more tourist wouldn't make a difference, it all adds up and besides, just because everyone does it, doesn't necessarily make it the right thing to do.  I mean everyone was all  'Hail Hitler!'  and he turned out to be a total asshole.  And so began my quest to find my happy elephants...


Determined not to have a repeat experience of the touristy tigers, I searched high and low for a Thai elephant experience that didn't involve me plonked unceremoniously onto an elephant and led around a patch of dirt like fat kid on a pony ride.

I found my happy elephants at Patara Elephant Farm ~ where they take in mistreated elephants or old working elephants and you know, give them foot spas, feed them grapes and show them a rocking good old elephant time. The cost was a lot more than any typical sort of elephant ride experience, but you do get what you paid for, and it was worth every hard earned cent.  I would highly recommend them to everyone ~~ Mario even liked it so much afterwards, that on his next trip to Thailand with 'the boys' they visited Patara again!


Before starting our day, Pat, the owner for Patara, talked to us about what they do at the centre and taught us a bit about the elephants. I volunteered in the ' learn how to care for your elephant ' demonstration, which ended with me sniffing elephant poo.  In case you were wondering, elephant poo shouldn't smell bad, because it's all vegetable matter.  And they should drop six to seven large, round elephant poos in the morning.  If not, something is wrong with the elephant.

So from there, you met your elephant and the elephant's trainer.  My elephant's name was Lucky and my trainer's name was Chai.  Lucky was one of the youngest elephants, and the reason why she was named Lucky was that she was lucky enough to be born on the farm, without having to be rescued from anywhere awful first.


We then led our elephants to the river and washed and dried them ~ makes doing the dishes at home seem like a walk in the park. Once all the elephants were clean, we were taught how to climb onto our elephant, which is a lot freaking harder than it looks.  We then rode our elephants up through the mountain. The best part about this was we were on the elephant by ourselves. Before starting, we were taught some Thai commands to talk to our elephant and off we went, a train of majestic elephants, carrying a bunch of morons yammering away in a combination of Thai and English.

We ended up at a waterfall, where we ate lunch and then we were asked if we wanted to swim with the elephants. Uhh hell yes... Swimming with elephants in a waterfall sounds really romantic and lovely but in reality, its just you clinging unceremoniously to the back of your elephant while it rolls around in the water and you try not to get crushed beneath it.  But awesome all the same.  And then we rode back and said goodbye to our newly found elephantine friends.  I fell in love with Lucky ~ the only thing stopping me from bringing her home with me was the fact that she wouldn't fit in my pocket.


So there you have it.  Take the path less travelled, and try not to leave my footprints. 

Interested to read more of my experiences?  Visit my blog, Four Eyes and Thunder Thighs. See you there!

Author Bio: 

Cindy is a physiotherapist from Adelaide, Australia. She has no previous writing experience and has only just entered into the world of blogging, but is incredibly excited to be able to share her travel experiences with us.