Up at 6:00 am to have time for breakfast before heading off into our big adventures. The cab picked us up at 7:30 and headed east to one of many elephant farms/tourist traps. They have the gouging aspect down to a fine science, in spite of the stated no-tipping rule. The cabby took us to the ticket kiosk where we paid for the package: 1500 baht each for an ox-cart ride up to the elephant station, an elephant ride followed by a half hour of “kill time” in the local shops, an elephant show, lunch and finally, a ride down the river on a bamboo raft. All of it was absolutely delightful.
The drivers had good senses of humour and spoke a modicum of English, enough to offer Geoff the reins of the oxcart, much to the great amusement of all on-lookers, and later, to get him out of the seat and on to the elephant’s neck. The elephant ride was a good 45 minutes, across land and river and was thoroughly enjoyable. A baby elephant walked along aside its mother and provided so many moments of joy—ridiculously cute and lovable! As we approached the disembarking station (not all of us can command an elephant to set up his trunk and leg as a ladder), the driver said in a voice just loud enough to be heard but without turning to look at us, “Pay me 200 baht.” Which we did. So far, 100 baht to the oxcart driver, 20 baht for a bunch of sugar cane for the elephant, 200 baht for the driver, 200 baht for our photo on an elephant in an elephant dung paper frame. (Remember now, no tipping).
In the shops, we found canvas bags painted by elephants; bought the cheapest one for 1000 bahts. Come on, a bag painted by an elephant? Had to have it, plus all proceeds go to protect the elephant, etc, etc. After an espresso and buying a T-shirt for me, it was time for the elephant show.
What we learned was that baby and young elephants are really easy to train but after 4 or 5 years, not so much, so those who came to this rescue camp young are part of the show, and those who are not, are put to mild labour. If you didn’t like elephants before, the show is guaranteed to change your mind. They bow and squeal, ham it up for the audience by showing their teeth and eating entire bunches of bananas in one fell swoop (no bran buds needed for these guys); they play soccer and demonstrate log moving; and did I mention they paint? It was amazing to see two elephants hold brushed in their trunks and carefully draw the bare bones of a tree, then blot in leaves in two tones and finally sign their initials. One of them drew an elephant and baby as well as the tree. Pretty impressive! They paused carefully before each brush stroke as if considering the overall effect on the canvas. (Ed. note: Here is a youtube video someone posted. Suda is one of the two elephants who painted today.) No additional charge but you can buy the canvas! The announcer reminded the crowd that, as each piece sold, there were more to be had in the gift shop. We were intrigued but declined. So far, total: 4420 baht. Still have to pay the cab driver 1000 baht. (Ed. note: I will be adding a video over the next day or so of the show if you care.)
On to lunch—it was free! Or included in your ticket, whatever. After lunch, immediately after lunch, we hopped aboard a bamboo raft a la Huck Finn and were poled for about an hour down the river. We passed concrete bungalows which were built high up on the river’s edge and on stilts – but are no longer habitable because the rainy season caused the river to flood even them. We passed grass huts where the “Karen” or long-necks live. Only the women put the permanent brass rings around their necks, gradually lengthening them over time and rendering them incapable of holding their heads up on their own. Didn’t spot a one, and had already determined that this was a tour worth missing as they no longer live traditionally. Still, the river trip was terrific. Our guides were also entertaining and joked about crocodiles and taking us all the way to Bangkok. Apparently, the Taeng Mae (I think) is a tributary of the Chao Praya but would take us several months to reach Bangkok via bamboo raft. A very fun and relaxing end to the tour. If you’ve ever gone rafting, you know that you put in one place and get out at another. Of course the no tipping rule was heavily enforced at this end but we were without small bills. Cost: another 1000 baht. Now before you start shaking your heads, consider that 20,000 baht is worth about $700, so it really wasn’t too bad but the last tip was certainly over the top. (Geoff hangs his head in shame here.)
The only bad part of the day were the long cab rides there and back. 45 minutes on a less than comfy cab seat was not what was really needed, especially with a driver who was quite happy to leave the A/C on very low.