Chiang Mai, Thailand — Week 4: Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Elephant Friends, and Christmas

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I finally tried thai iced tea at, of all places, The Pizza Company. Oh. My. God. It is so good! From what I gather it’s basically just black tea with condensed milk and sugar. It was like drinking candy. So freaking good! Having it at dinner was definitely a mistake — I couldn’t fall asleep that night to save my life. My brain was so wired! Totally worth it though.

Thai iced tea from The Pizza Company, MAYA mall, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Alex and I went on an adventure to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. We had asked our driver to take us to the Sunday Night Market, but he took us to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar instead. Notably, the Sunday Night Market only happens on Sundays and this was a Friday, unfortunately this was not when we learned that…

There were a bunch of other night markets near Chiang Mai Night Bazaar and we started at one called Pavilion Night Bazaar. They had numerous food stalls including one with dumplings called gyoza. Gyoza is one of my new favorite foods and I get it whenever we see it now. So. Good! I got lost on my way to the bathroom and stumbled on this cool view of the Bazaar from above.

Pavilion Night Bazar from above, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

This was our fifth week in Thailand and I had yet to see any “thai” rolled ice cream. I was starting to think it was a lie Westerners made up for some reason, but we finally found it the night we went to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar! Actually, we ended up seeing at least four rolled ice cream places that night. While I was slightly disappointed there weren’t any rolled ice cream places in our neighborhood, it was probably a blessing, because otherwise I’d be getting mighty fat.

My favorite part of the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar was the underground art area, where some artists were painting, and others had work on display. Somehow, this was the first time I’d ever seen anyone paint with a palette knife and it was really fun to watch and learn. I loved that there were so many bright colors everywhere!

Artist’s space in lower level of Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Thailand.

Our Twilight Saddle Off Tour with Elephant Nature Park was something I’ll never forget. On Saturday we headed south of Chiang Mai to a village where we got to feed, observe, and interact with elephants on a short hike along a river and through the jungle. During the drive to the village we watched a documentary about Elephant Nature Park and its founder, Sangdeaun Lek Chailert. Lek felt compelled to save elephants and started doing so despite having limited resources. Now she is internationally recognized for her work as a conservationist in the movement to save the Asian elephant. Elephant Nature Park rescues elephants from all sorts of backgrounds. Some were used in the logging industry (when it was still legal in Thailand before 1989), some hauled tourists on their backs, and some begged for food/money on city streets. Can you imagine an elephant in downtown Bangkok?

Of the elephants we met, the biggest one, a male, had previously been rented out to the trekking industry. He was forced to carry hundreds of pounds of tourists on his back and was otherwise abused to be domesticated. The toll this had taken on him was evident just by looking at him. His spine protruded from his back with the muscles on either side sunken down from years of carrying heavy loads of humans.

Thankfully, the village has since partnered with Elephant Nature Park to allow their elephants to roam freely. Instead of renting out their elephants so people can ride them, the community hosts tours for people to come see the elephants and help bathe and feed them. This way the community gets enough money to care for the elephants, tourists get to see and interact with elephants, and the elephants get to live their lives as they please.

Elephants are majestic. When I first saw them from across the field I got really excited, but the closer we got the more frightened I became. I knew elephants were big, but once I got close enough I realized one swift hit with a trunk or a tusk and that’d be the end of me. It was humbling. Humans should get out and experience nature more, it’s a great reminder of how insignificant we are and how fragile life is.

We met the elephants on one side of a two rail wooden fence. Piles of bamboo were placed in between us and the elephants and we were encouraged to feed them. I was mildly terrified, but I took a piece of bamboo and approached the elephants tentatively anyway. I wasn’t expecting that much force. As soon as I was within range an elephant reached out its trunk and just yanked the bamboo right out of my hand. They are NOT messing around when it comes to food. Once I knew what to expect it was a little less startling, but definitely not something I think I’d get used to any time soon.

Can you tell I’m a little terrified? Karen Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand.

We converged with the elephants on a small path along the river just beyond the fence. I made sure to give the elephants a wide berth just in case a wayward trunk or tail came my way. Or, you know, in case they got startled and started running. I was not about to be trampled by elephants.

We walked along and then into the river. The water was cold. We were handed buckets and told to help bathe the elephants by filling our buckets and tossing it on the elephants’ backs to rinse off their muddy sunscreen. I got in the water up to my knees to have enough space around the elephants so I could help bathe them. The deeper I got the colder the water was. Helping bathe the elephants was weird. I mean, if the elephants wanted to bathe they have massive trunks that could hold way more water than my dinky bucket and their bath would be over in a flash, but whatever I guess. Anyone else ever bathed an elephant? Was it weird?

After bath time we wandered along the river with the elephants. The herd split up into smaller groups and foraged the banks for food. I went rogue and stayed ahead and wandered with the front elephants. Eventually I circled back to Alex and the rest of the humans. Alex mentioned something about wanting to learn more about elephants. Meh, I can google about elephants, though I was interested in learning these specific elephants’ stories. This was when I learned that the massive male elephant had been rented out to touring companies for years and had to carry around humans on his back. That that was why his spine was so prominent — all those years of heavy loads literally displaced his back muscles. Humans are such assholes.

Massive male elephant with visible spine due to years of carting around tourists, Karen Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand.

The four year old, Boonya [sp?], was spunky. He was born in the nature reserve and had never been abused by humans or forced to work. He was playful and carefree, much more free spirited than the older abused elephants and that gave me hope.

The three month old baby elephant, Bang, was the cutest, but the momma and the grandma were always close. If he ever managed to slip away from them all the other humans on the tour tried to get near him. He was cute, but I mostly let him be, not wanting to cross the ladies in his life or swarm him like the other humans.

We continued walking along the river until we came to a path through the jungle. I wish I’d stayed closer to the elephants before we made it to the jungle. I ended up bringing up the rear of our group with Alex and our tour guide. The path through the jungle was narrow so it was impossible to get any closer and all of the elephants were super far ahead of us.

Everyone was so far ahead of us on the hike through the jungle, Karen Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand.

After our short hike through the jungle we came to an area with another two rail wooden fence. It was time to feed the elephants again. This was one of the highlights of our whole elephant excursion. Once all the bamboo was gone, the elephants kept trying to make a break for it. They would either just step over the fence or wrap their trunks around the log serving as the gate and take it down. I was amused and impressed by how smart they were.

When all the other humans went to clean up for dinner and Alex and I stayed to watch the elephants a bit longer, just the two of us. I wanted to say goodbye to the baby, because the four year old had already wandered off somewhere. Alex questioned whether it was wise to get between the two lady elephants, but I tried anyway. The ladies did not approve of my approach and I was not about to challenge two fully grown female elephants in protective mode, so I backed away.

Then, much to my delight the baby wandered away from his protectors and there happened to be a bench right in front of him on my side of the fence! I sat on the bench and watched as the baby tried to pull up some fabric buried in the ground that I think he thought was food. I started a video and then he put his trunk in my lap and I got to pet him! It was magical and definitely a memory I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

During the buffet style dinner there was a traditional dance performance by local students. Four girls ranging in age from five or six to about sixteen in various costumes. It was so neat. At the end they even invited people on stage from the audience and taught us part of a dance!

Local students perform traditional dance at Karen Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand.

That night when we returned to Chiang Mai we wandered around the Old City. We tried to go to the Sunday Night Market, but couldn’t find it. It was Saturday and we still hadn’t learned about the whole only-on-Sunday thing. Apparently Google lies and the Sunday Night Market is only open on Sundays and not every day of the week, go figure. Thanks for nothing Google.

We went to the Saturday Night Market instead. So much food. So many people. Such an awesome experience. We ended up taking an Uber home because all the tuk-tuk and red truck drivers were trying to charge four times what the Uber cost to take us home. Yes, they have Uber in Thailand.

Wall to wall people at the Saturday Night Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

On Christmas Eve Alex suggested we watch an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale which turned into a whole day marathon. We stayed up so late finishing season one of The Handmaid’s Tale that we slept in on Christmas Day. We had a very chill holiday and watched the sunset over the mountain from our bed and then fell asleep. Merry Christmas form Thailand!