Elephants (& tigers) & butterflies, oh my!

Riding elephants while they feed  in the jungle

Today was the day we ride elephants in the jungle! We’d booked this outing months ago, deciding on Blue Elephant tour on the recommendation of my niece-by-marriage, Christie. This was something we really wanted to do, but there are a lot of elephant tours in the area–some of questionable repute–so it was good to have real data we could trust. We wanted a private tour, caring treatment of the elephants and extended, quality time with them. Christie didn’t steer us wrong!

Our day started at 8:30am with a pick-up by private car at our hotel. Our driver and guide for the day, Zen, turned out to speak good English and we enjoyed visiting with him about Thailand, America and children. (He has a teenaged daughter and son so we spent some time discussing university and job opportunities and costs in our countries.) We had a full day scheduled with the elephants to come at the end.

Our first destination was the temple at Doi Suthep on a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. We could see the golden rooftops of the temple complex sparkling in the distance from our hotel balcony. The drive took thirty minutes or so after leaving the city, winding our way upward through lush jungle. Zen let us off at steps leading to a cluster of souvenir stalls at the base of the long stairway leading to the temple complex.

400+ steps to Doi Suthep, flanked by the customary dragons
At the top of the stairs
View of Chiang Mai from the terrace of Doi Suthep
With our flower and candle offerings before beginning our ritual 3 circuits of the golden stupa

Zen gave us all the time we wanted to explore the temple complex. We did the ritual 3 circuits of the golden stupa with our flower and candle offerings which we laid before the Buddha afterwards. The weather was delightfully cooler up in the mountains and the crowds relatively light although more and more people arrived during our well-timed visit. At the rate the complex was filling, it looked to be crowded by midday.

Our next stop was an orchid and butterfly farm. I wondered if this might be a bit of a tourist trap, but it turned out to be a beautiful place, filled with orchids of many colors, and with no sales pressure whatsoever. The butterfly portion of the visit made me laugh out loud with delight. Butterflies were everywhere! I was some yards in before I registered the truly huge butterflies on the net roof above–mottled tan and at least 8″ across! I couldn’t resist pointing them out to 2 Chinese girls ahead of me who were equally amazed.

So many butterflies!
Orchids grown suspended with roots trailing

We next made a quick stop at a local market where Zen purchased fruit and sticky rice snacks for later.

Fruit and other snacks at the market

Lunch was scheduled for “Tiger Kingdom,” a stop I had some misgivings about. When we booked, I was told we could take advantage of this stop to take photos with tigers. In looking into this, I was put off by posed photos of people draped across tigers, pretending to bite their tails, etc. The only way this seemed possible was to seriously drug the tigers, something I wanted no part of. Sure enough, when we got to Tiger Kingdom, that was exactly what seemed to be the set-up. Dining areas were set up around large open-air pens where tigers lay sleeping until visitors were led in to pose with them. Sometimes, a handler would raise the tiger’s head and it would hold its head up, eyes open, but not moving. When the photo was taken, the tiger would plop its head back down, out again. A buffet lunch at Tiger Kingdom was actually very good, but we wanted no part of the tiger pics.


Our next destination was Mok Fa Waterfall in a nearby national park. We changed into bathing suits, expecting to swim in pools like we’d found at Kuang Si in Laos. Instead, there was really only one swimming hole at the base of the falls. The falls were beautiful, no doubt, and I loved the idea of being able to get in and under a high fall like that…but not when I had elephant riding to do next. I just didn’t think I wanted a head of wet hair. David–whose hair is a lot shorter and quicker-drying than mine–did get in, enjoying the water with a group of tatooed French backpackers.

Mok Fa Waterfall

Finally, it was time for elephants! Zen gave us our traditional mahout (elephant handler) clothes to change into at the waterfall dressing rooms. We looked kind of ridiculous in the cropped blue tunics and huge, baggy knee-length pants. Oh well, we were all-in for the experience. Zen briefed us on elephant commands as we rode:

  • “sigh” (shake your right leg) = left
  • “kwa” (shake your left leg) = right
  • “bye” (push with both feet on the elephant’s ears) = go
  • “houww” (push down with feet) = stop
  • “toy” = back up (hop back with your body)
  • “dee dee” = “good elephant” (a praising phrase)
  • “bone” = lift trunk

The car rolled through rural areas, past several elephant camps, before pulling into the driveway of a building where we swapped the car for a pick-up truck for the final, bumpy stretch to the Blue Elephant camp.

We arrived at a dirt parking area around which a number of buildings clustered. Three elephants were in a clearing just beyond a long, open structure with picnic tables where we left our things. In no time, we were introduced to our elephants and led to a stand where we mounted and were on our way. We sat far forward near their heads to reduce the side-to-side motion of their walking. Our palms rested on the twin bumps atop their skulls, soft flesh under rough skin sparsely covered with thick, prickly hairs. We liked petting and stroking them, leaning over to rub their trunks or cheeks. On steep downward slopes, we could grab onto the loop of a rope around their middles.


The true elephant handlers walked with us as we rode, more in control (usually by grabbing an ear as they spoke) than we were with our newly-learned commands. It didn’t really matter much, though; the idea was to let the elephants graze where they wanted, within reason, in the jungle. I say “within reason” because there were a few times where David’s elephant drifted off up steep hillsides and where both of ours seemed alarmingly close to very steep drop-offs as they stretched and reached for the choicest flowers, banana trees or bamboo. At 2-3 tons each, the thought of tumbling downhill with one was sobering. I couldn’t even imagine the physics behind their natural counter-balancing, though, so had to assume they knew how far they could reach without falling. Their power was impressive as they ripped up huge chunks of bamboo, munching 1.5″ diameter poles like we would shredded wheat. At one point after David’s elephant was pulled back onto the trail with a big banana leaf and stalk trailing from her mouth, mine grabbed the other end, stripping the tasty leaves in a funny, lumbering tug-of-war.

I loved watching my elephant drag her trunk through the cool water as she walked; it obviously felt good.

We made our final way back to camp, wading through a creek. [There’s a video with the handler singing on the way back on Wanderwiles’ FB page. Beautiful!] We were handed baskets of cut sugar cane, a routine clearly familiar to the elephants as questing trunks reached up for the treats. We dished the sweet sticks out quickly as the demanding trunk made rapid trips from our hands to their mouths. As a final end to the experience, we waded into the water of a dammed spot in a stream to bathe a lucky elephant. She kneeled down to let us scoop water over her and scrub her thick skin with brushes. A perfect end to our elephant time!

Back at camp: Feeding the girls sugar cane treats after their dinner buffet
A bath after dinner is always nice!

After changing back into our own dry clothes, we found a feast of fruit and sweetened sticky rice treats laid out for us on one of the picnic tables. It was enough for 4 people and I couldn’t eat again until the next day. We had about a 1.5-hour drive back to Chiang Mai, putting us back at the hotel around 6:30pm.

The entire day with Zen and Blue Elephant cost 12,000 baht ($342.86) for the both of us (6,000 baht per person). We tipped another 1000 baht ($28.57), most of which went to Zen and 100 baht (Zen’s suggested amount) to each of the 3 elephant handlers. Blue Elephant offers 1-3 day tours. We chose the 1-day Elephant-Doi Suthep tour. You can learn more at: http://www.blueelephantthailandtours.com/index.php

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