Our first taste of Songkran was actually up in Pai. We were walking down the street as per usual, when a grown man appeared out of no where and tossed a bucket of water at us as we passed his restaurant! ‘Officially,’ Songkran is celebrated April 13-15th for the Thai New Year, but many people start throwing water several days early and several days after the festival has ended.
The tradition of Songkran began by sprinkling water on family members as a symbol of cleansing and purification, in celebration of the new year. Today, it has evolved into a full-on, country-wide water fight with buckets, water guns, and lot and lots of drinking.
There are pretty much no exceptions regarding who you are allowed to throw water on. Kids are doing it, old people are doing it, everyone is doing it! Supposedly if you hold your hand out, people are supposed to respect your disinclination to be pelted, by just sprinkling a little bit of water on your hand, but we saw countless people attempt this maneuver and get drenched anyway. There were people that looked like they had just arrived in Chiang Mai and were carrying their giant backpacks around with them, pour souls.
The first official day of Songkran was the day we went to the elephant park. As we were returning to Chiang Mai after visiting the elephants, it took us nearly an hour just to get into the city and to our hotel. The traffic was insane and there were people absolutely everywhere. We were too exhausted from playing with elephants all day to partake in the excitement and decided we would participate the next day. We did get drenched just walking into our hotel, though! There is no escaping it!
The second day we went out to the main road near our hotel in mid afternoon when the festivities were in full force. We got soaked within 5 minutes of being outside our hotel. Sometimes we would get squirted with a gun and look around, only to find that a business man (in a suit!) was shooting at us from inside his office. Sometimes the servers at a restaurant would throw buckets at passerbys when they had a break between tables. Lots of people drive around in the back of pickup trucks with huge barrels of water (full of ice!!) and dump buckets on people as they drive by. It is absolute insanity.
Our street really enjoyed shooting people riding by in tuk tuks. Sometimes the tuk tuk driver would intentionally slow down or even stop so that the people could drench his passengers! Tourists and locals alike were ganging up on them and forming alliances to fight epic water battles from opposite sides of the streets. Ya know, even with oncoming traffic in both directions. (The death toll is pretty high during Songkran.)
The third day and last day of Songkran was the day we really decided to turn out and do it right. We had our water guns (and a bottle of booze) and headed out to the canals where things were really crazy. People use the canal water to fill up their buckets and water guns. Yes, it is disgusting; but we’ve also jumped in Mirror Lake at Ohio State…so it’s fine. We were surrounded by screaming people pelting each other with ice water, and stages thumping loud house music with soaking wet Thai people raging their faces off.
We were soaked the minute we stepped out of our hotel, but it was the people driving around with buckets of ice water that really got us! You never get used to it. To be fair though, April is the hottest month of the year in Thailand, and we weren’t feeling it, being soaked in ice water all day! It was a nice relief, though a bit shocking!
We moved on from the canal after a while and stumbled on a parade going through town. There were lots of different groups and some of them were dancing and playing traditional music while people threw water on them!
We ended up in a group fight with a bunch of other backpackers for a while. Some hotels/restaurants would have a big barrel out front for people to fill up their guns so there would always be a congregation of people surrounding them. It seemed like people were pretty generous about sharing water, but you had to ‘pay the toll’ of being pelted by all the people standing around it in order to get any!
After that, we ended up on the main road near our hotel again where things got just a little out of hand. Joe jumped on (and fell off) a moving tuk tuk in order to drench the passengers inside. Meanwhile, I had teamed up with a 4 year old Thai boy and we were sneaking up on people and shooting them from two sides at once. At one point the owner of the restaurant we were in front of started telling people they couldn’t use any more of his water because they were not ‘friends.’ But for some reason he continued letting us use it! I think he appreciated us keeping his child entertained for several hours!
By about 7pm we were absolutely exhausted (and quite drunk) and ended up calling it a very early night! We woke up the next day sore and scraped, but it was most definitely worth it! It was a pretty unique New Year’s celebration and one of the wildest parties in the world! We were glad we were in town for the celebration and grateful for the opportunity to participate.
After several days relaxing in Pai, it was time to make the treacherous journey back down to Chiang Mai. The ride was just as nauseating as the first time, but soon enough we were being dropped off at our hotel. We booked a room in advance because we were going to arrive the day before Songkran, the biggest water fight in the world, being a three day celebration of the Thai New Year.
It also happened to be a Sunday, which meant we got to check out the Sunday Market in the center of town. It was full of the usual clothing and handicraft vendors along with street artists and exotic treats. It was also incredibly packed because so many people were in town for Songkran. Chiang Mai is a major destination to celebrate Songkran so the city gets packed with both Thai and foreign tourists. It was a little chaotic!
The next day we had made reservations for one of the activities we had been looking forward to for months: playing with elephants!
We were picked up at 8:30am by a van that would take us the one hour ride to Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation center, known for its ethical treatment of elephants and ambition to spread awareness of the plight of the Asian elephant. During the ride, we got to view a National Geographic documentary on the treatment of elephants in most Thai elephant camps. It showed video documentation of the horrific breaking process called “Phajaan,” where a baby elephant is ripped away from its mother and put in a tiny “cage” that it barely fits into, completely restricting all movement. Then, it is stabbed and beaten with nails, chains, and bullhooks to “teach the elephant who is boss.” This is an ancient process used often in Thailand, and is considered to be the only way to domesticate an elephant for riding and working purposes.
Basically, the video explained that a major reason this process is still being used, is because there is a huge tourist demand for riding elephants. People can make money off of domesticating elephants to be ridden, so this process is being perpetuated by the thousands of tourists that come to Thailand to ride elephants each year. There are some camps that claim to offer ‘ethical’ elephant rides by only making the elephants work for a few hours a day, and limiting the weight on each elephant, but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to cash in on the elephant riding business, and thus continue using the Phajaan process.
But, doesn’t the idea of sitting on top of an elephant and trekking through the jungle sound awesome?? We thought it did, but we were glad that we did the research beforehand on the ugly side of this popular activity. Elephant Nature Park is unusual because it does not offer any elephant rides. Most of the elephants in the park have been rescued from such places and are now allowed to roam the park, have immediate access to veterinary care, and interact with guests in a much more ethical/humane way. After doing a lot of research beforehand on the treatment of elephants, this is why we chose to go to Elephant Nature Park instead of any of the other elephant camps.
Once we arrived at the park, we were briefed by our guide on what we would be doing and how to safely interact with the elephants. We were told that some of the elephants in the park still suffer from mental issues because of the abuse they experienced in the past, so we should only approach elephants that our guide indicated were friendly. It’s also important to approach them from the front if you want to pet them, because they can’t see you if you’re standing behind, and they will kick!
The first thing we got to do was feed the elephants. This part we had to do from behind a fence on a large platform to protect us from their trunks. They bob their heads up and down a lot when they’re being fed and the force could knock you over! They knew what we were coming over to do and started reaching their trunks out to us before we even had anything to give them.
Our guide brought us a big laundry basket full of corn and watermelons to give to the elephants. We held it out to them in our hand and they would use the ‘finger’ on the end of their trunks to grab it and place it in their mouths. Sometimes they would get a piece they didn’t like for some reason and would just drop it on the ground after grabbing it, then reach out for a new piece!
After feeding them for a while, we walked down the steps to walk around the park. We followed our guide to a group of three elephants that we were allowed to approach and pet. The oldest of the three was 75 years old! They were all very sweet and gentle.
After hanging out with those three for a while, our guide beckoned us to follow her again to meet another elephant. This one was hanging out alone near the Medicine Room. Our guide told us that she is very paranoid of other elephants and will run away if they get too close to her. She also had a hole in her ear, a scar from her abusive past in the illegal logging industry. Now she wears a flower earring in it!
Our guide called for us to move on again and we walked across the park to a group of three ladies snacking on more corn and watermelon. One of them, whose name is Medo, was one of the most touching and heart wrenching elephants to meet. Medo was also employed in the logging industry, until she was injured by a log that broke her ankle. Because of her injury, she was no longer able to work in the logging industry, so she was was forced to breed instead. She was chained and savagely attacked by a huge bull in musth (an aggressive period caused by hormones) that left her with a dislocated backbone.
Luckily she was rescued and though her injuries will never properly heal, she now lives a life free of abuse and has even made some close friends despite being isolated for much of her life.
After that it was time for lunch, which was a surprisingly delicious buffet of all kinds of curries, meats, veggies, and noodles. Definitely better than what we had expected, especially since it was a buffet. Our guide told us that after lunch we would get to meet some baby elephants!
Our guide led us across the park again where we found a group four adult females and a 1.5 year old baby named Yindee. He was closely followed by his mother Mintra, and his nannies, Mae Jampaa, Malai Tong and Jarunee.
We watched them interact for a while and then followed them down to the river where they proceeded to take a bath, rolling around and splashing in the water. Yindee was being particularly playful and even trying to climb on top of the adults. Sometimes he would go underwater for minutes at a time and all we could see was his little trunk sticking out above the surface.
It was hard to discern what exactly had happened but at some point they all started trumpeting at each other and we were hastily told to back away as the elephants came out of the water. Some of them started making really loud growling noises that sort of sounded like tigers or lions, and it got a little bit intense. We asked our guide what was happening and she said it was because of the baby (there was a little bit of a language barrier.) It looked like they were being protective and once they were out of the water, the adults surrounded the baby so he could hardly be seen.
Somehow, whatever they were concerned about passed and they started throwing dirt on their backs which was really adorable. Our guide said they use it as ‘sunscreen.’
Next, we walked to a different part of the river and got to give an elephant a bath! We were given buckets to throw water on her back. It was blazing hot and she looked like she was in heaven.
After playing in the river, we walked back to the platform to meet “the big family.” The family consists of a 2.5 year old elephant named Nevann and his nannies, one of whom is named Kham Pan, an elephant rescued from a trekking camp. Apparently she was given to the park after she collapsed under the weight of tourists going for a ride, and was too old to continue. After receiving higher quality treatment at the park, she regained a lot of her energy and became a little unruly. For some reason, when Navann was born, she developed an infatuation with the baby elephant and hasn’t left his side since. They call her “Super Nanny.”
It was really intimidating being surrounded by this huge family. One of them almost accidentally crushed us against a wall, when she was rubbing up against a post to relieve an itch! It was fun to watch Nevann running around causing mischief.
The last baby we met was Khun Dej, a rescued orphan boy whose foot was damaged in a poacher’s trap. He was enjoying himself, snacking with his nannies.
After that, it was time to say goodbye and head back to Chiang Mai. We fell asleep on the van almost immediately after a long day visiting with the elephants. We capped the night with a bottle of wine and the new episode of Game of Thrones.
Our visit to Elephant Nature Park was absolutely incredible and most definitely a highlight of our journeys. Being able to interact with the elephants so intimately (and ethically) was a really amazing opportunity for which we are very grateful. Very glad that such a wonderful operation exists and that we were able to help support their cause.
Breakfast: 95b ($2.93)
Elephant Nature Park Single Day Visit (x2): 5,000b ($154.19)