We spent last year running an AirBnB from our home in Brighton, letting our spare bedrooms to travellers from all over the world. As a result, we regularly received an AirBnB magazine that highlighted some of the most unusual and exotic AirBnB accommodation across the world. One in particular caught our eye: a set of rustic villas located in an elephant sanctuary in the jungle an hour west from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The article promised living among the elephants, and the chance to meet and interact with them close up. We duly checked the letting details – at about £30.00 a night it looked a great deal and a unique visit. As we don’t plan out itinerary much more than 2/3 weeks ahead at a time we couldn’t make an immediate booking, but we knew when we planned to go to Chiang Mai so we checked again once we were approaching Thailand and found there were rooms still available for a couple of nights. More messing around with elephants beckoned!
On arrival we discovered to get to the camp we had to drag our luggage across a long, rickety and bouncy bridge that swayed worryingly with each step and looked straight out of the set of “I’m a Celebrity….” but this was much more a case of “get me in there” as we viewed the idyllic river running alongside the villas with elephants dotted about.
After checking into our Villa – a wonderfully ramshackle timber building – we were pointed in the direction of baby elephant Suki and invited to introduce ourselves to her. What a beauty Suki is, 3 months old and just about mastering coordination of her strong ungainly limbs and inquisitive trunk.
We booked ourselves on to a day’s tour at the sanctuary: a jungle trek, followed by rafting down the river, the highlight of feeding Suki and her mother, and bathing another one of the herd in the flowing river.
When you book onto something called a jungle trek you kind of expect a fairly long but pleasant stroll through a rainforest for an hour or so, taking in a waterfall or two. If that option existed we didn’t get it!! Along with three fellow trekkers from France and Brazil we headed off in our songthaew (an open-air taxi with minimal suspension) for a drive deep into the jungle where we were deposited with our two guides, one of whom was clearly worried about my age and fitness as she kept checking “John, you okay?” She had good reason. The heat was draining, but what made it exhausting was the regular disappearance of anything resembling a horizontal path to follow, which meant that we had to spend a lot of the trek head down working out where to place each foot. The terrain was uneven to say the least and obstructed by jagged rocks, fallen trees and swamps. Steep vertical drops started appearing on one side of the route with the only thing preventing us slipping being up grasping overhanging branches and vines for support. I was going to jokingly ask our guides how many tourists they had lost over the years but thought better of it in case they gave me an honest answer. My long legs gave me some advantage but poor Sam had to clamber over all sorts. We eventually reached a waterfall in one piece and went for a dip in rather bracing water – a blessed if short-lived relief from the heat.
While we swam in the river our guides decided that in the interests of health and safety we should each have a stick to help us through the jungle. Ten minutes later five bamboo sticks roughly hewn from the jungle were issued to us. They were a great help although I nearly speared myself on mine, pole vault style. Crossing narrow bamboo bridges over rapids soon followed (along with a sense of deja vu after our Luang Prabang bridge nightmare), until wet slippery undergrowth mercifully gave way to flat wide paths, allowing our travel insurance policy to slip back into its hammock and rest easy again. (I’ve come to think of our Travel Insurance Policy as a real entity that looks down on us frowning as we embark on some of our adventures).
After trekking, sailing down the Wang River on a bamboo raft of dubious construction was relaxing and serene, the waters rushing past us as we veered between rocks and overhanging trees skilfully steered by our skipper with his bamboo rod. Another magical experience when your senses drink in the jungle floating by and you are immersed in the moment, not a care in the world. Priceless.
However, the best was yet to come. Having scrambled off our raft we met up with our elephant guide and went off to feed Suki and mum: “you go ahead, they will follow you – they can smell the bananas!” Being eagerly pursued by several tons of elephant who are very keen to relieve you of all the bananas stored in the basket on your shoulder is quite a feeling, like having a London bus relentlessly homing in on you. Suki, who hasn’t yet graduated to banana feeding, added to the chaos by careering between her mums’ legs and nearly knocking me and Sam flat on our faces. Terrific fun and all the time being up close to these remarkable creatures.
After feeding time was over, we headed back down to the river to bathe another elephant who is one of the most delightfully tactile creatures, wrapping its trunk around us playfully as we did our best to exfoliate her tough hide.
As we sat in the bar area in the evenings and mornings elephants would wander up looking for a treat, sniffing out any sign of a banana going spare. We agreed that this remarkable AirBnB had exceeded the expectations that had whetted our appetite in the glossy magazine we read months ago whilst still in the UK.
However, the constant presence of glorious elephants is only half the story at Chai Lai Orchard. It also runs a social enterprise called Daughter’s Rising that rescues women and young girls from the ever growing sex trafficking industry. Their remarkable work not only allows a route for these women to escape this dreadful industry, but provides training and education. All of the young women working at this sanctuary have escaped and are being given opportunities to learn English, train in hospitality and have a future free from fear and exploitation. A brilliant short film explains more at this link:
Chiang Mai – same same, but different..
Ten years ago we we stayed in Chiang Mai and we were looking forward to returning to the city. We chose to stay close to the vibrant Night Market, which seems to have grown even bigger as have the food courts that accompany it, selling cheap and delicious meals. We happily overdosed on fabulous fresh veggie Pad Thai, cooked in seconds for a couple of quid and a refreshing bottle of Leo to accompany it.
The old town with its historic walls hasn’t changed much, but the Wat’s and Temples seemed to be grander, with more gold leaf decoration than when we last visited.
In one temple a young monk sat meditating and praying with fellow Bhuddists, while further across the room about a dozen elderly monks sat quietly, cross legged and as still as stone, a picture of tranquility in deep meditation………..it took us five minutes to realise they weren’t real, but astonishingly life like wax replicas.
Rather than head off straight to Bangkok, and onward to the islands in the south, we thought we would meander down on the train and spend a few days stopping off at some interesting towns en route, starting with Lampang. While the town itself was unremarkable the surrounding countryside offered beautiful hilltop panorama’s to view the paddy fields, plains and mountains of the area.
After a two day stopover we took the train to Sukothai where the ancient town was a real find. Temples, Wats, and statues of Bhudda in a lovely historical park area that was beautifully conserved. We took a couple of bikes from the hotel and happily cycled around the ancient sites for several hours.
Remarkably there was hardly anyone there, a handful of visitors wandering around the large site in virtual solitude. Sukothai really deserves more attention.
Sukothai also provided us with our best hotel infinity pool experience yet, which is saying something given the ones we’ve enjoyed to date…..
Our third stop was less enthralling. It started badly with a four hour journey on a train carriage with no air/con in 30 degrees+ temperature. Everyone in the train carriage appeared to be struggling to manage the sweltering heat and we were so glad we’d decided to break the journey up and could escape before Bangkok. When we passed through Lopburi 10 years ago, the station was covered with monkeys scurrying around the station. On arrival there was no sign of any monkeys, other than ornamental ones, so we decided to head straight to the hotel and looked for a taxi, of which there were none. Instead two old fellas on 3-wheel bikes leapt up, crammed our bags, and us, into each of their tricycles and began to cycle….very slowly. In fact my cycling chauffeur was considerably older than Sam’s (who had overtaken us immediately) and after a short downhill stretch he had to hop off and push. Now I know I’m carrying a few extra pounds and could lose a bit of weight but I thought that this was a bit much. As he struggled to push the combined weight of his bike, bag and passenger guilt got the better of me and I hopped out and helped him push as well, much to the amusement of a passing van load of children, laughing at the sweaty westerner paying to push his own luggage on a tricycle.
After checking in we took the precaution of booking a taxi with a combustion engine and headed into town in search of Lopburi’s famous monkeys and oh my we found them! It was like stumbling on the set of Planet of the Apes. The ground was alive with the movement of wild monkeys eating, fighting, chasing each other through traffic, adorning buildings left, right and centre, and having the most blatant in your face sex!
Now we like our little simian ancestral cousins but quite frankly this was unpleasant, it was really clear who bossed Lopburi town! By a monument we met a man with dark glasses and a big white stick – we incorrectly assumed he was blind. In fact the big white stick was for beating monkeys that came too close. He gestured wildly to Sam speaking rapidly in Thai, but we were unable to get the gist of what he meant. A few more frantic gestures and it became clear he was indicating for her to take the sunglasses off her head, before the monkeys did it for her!! Looking at the numbers I couldn’t help feeling that his luck was going to run out soon and that stick was going to be appropriated by a pack of marauding monkeys and shoved in a place where the sun doesn’t shine ………sideways.
Two hours on from Lopburi we crawled into Bangkok for a one night stop before flying south. After the mixed comforts of our train journeys south we came across the complete opposite. Standing regally at the next platform was the Eastern Oriental Express that runs from Bangkok via Kuala Lumper to Singapore. An absolute beauty and thankfully not a monkey in sight!
Top Travelling Tips
Carrying travel books around for a year is not a practical option in the battle to keep luggage weight down. There are loads of good online travel sites that provide great up to date advice, maps, itineraries and recommendations. For S/E Asia we would recommend Travelfish for its detailed and excellent guides. Cheap to boot and well worth the investment. The other must have for train travel (anywhere in the world) is the superb Man in Seat 61. A brilliant source of information, timetables and advice.
Next Up: Island Life and a Treehouse in Southern Thailand