Up close and personal with Northern Thailand’s native animals

Thailand has something for everybody. Sprawling cities, beautiful beaches, plenty of diving sites and jungles.

In the Chiang Mai area of the somewhat mountainous terrain of Northern Thailand, you can get close to nature in other ways besides enjoying the scenery. On a previous visit, I joined the locals for a morning of rice farming, which was very educational, but this time my wife Susan and I wanted to see some of the native animals up close and personal.

There are a few elephant parks near Chiang Mai, two of most popular ones being Patara and Elephant Nature Park. These institutions do much for the welfare of elephants, and provide a natural environment for their rehabilitation. At one time, elephants were used for logging, but because of substantial deforestation, they were out of work when the government enforced a ban in 1999.

Rescue and rehabilitation centers were setup to care for these wonderful animals. Volunteers and visitors contribute to maintaining these centers, while providing an opportunity to learn more about the how the elephant lives day to day.

We met with our elephant tour guide who introduced us to Crystal, a twenty year old female. There was an area, somewhat like a boat dock, but on land, where our guide led Crystal to the edge, where Susan and I climbed on a saddle strapped to her back, where a small bench was secured. We were also given a bunch of bananas, so we could keep her well feed while she gave us a tour of the neighborhood. Our guide sat up front on the elephant’s neck, with his legs underneath those massive ears. He also carried a small stick. The makeshift seats that Susan and I sat in did not have safety belts, but rather a strap to hold onto. The guide used his stick and feet movement behind the ears to basically tell Crystal where to go on the short tour.

Crystal started to walk downhill towards the river, but the pathway was very uneven. I remember Susan saying after a couple of steps downwards, “I don’t think I like this”.  She had that worried look on her face as our ride continued to navigate the rugged pathway.

She wants a banana

She wants a banana

Into the river we went, but it was shallow, no more than a foot deep. Time for a banana. I waived one in front of Crystal’s eyes and immediately she flung her trunk back. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to peel it for her or not. I only had to worry for a short time, as she grabbed it from me, with the skin on.

Waiting to take customers for a tour of the countryside

Waiting to take customers for a tour of the countryside

As we crossed the river, I noticed another elephant taking a bath. My immediate concern was if Crystal followed suit and did the same thing. Fortunately, she wasn’t in the mood for one at that time and came out of the river and started to climb up the bank.

The bananas were going down well, to the extent that she flipped her trunk back without prompting several times. A hungry animal she was, and by the time we crossed back over the river to home base, the whole bunch had been consumed.

She was a happy elephant we were told, because of her tail wagging. I don’t know if that is actually true, but it was obvious to me during our visit that they are well cared for and there was absolutely no sign of abuse.

We then went to Tiger Kingdom. As we entered the facilities, a staff member approached us and asked, “Small cat or big cat”

I must admit, I have never been asked that question before. The entrance fee is marginally more expensive to spend time with the large tigers than the youngsters.  It was an easy choice for us, it had to be the big cats.

Before entering the tiger’s den, we received important instructions. No flash photography, no waving of hands in front of the tiger’s face, and no staring at them face to face close up. Inside the cage were two or three staff supervising.  What we did was amazing.

Nice Kitty

Nice Kitty

We met Caesar, a very large muscular cat, laying down, just chilling out. We took turns in sitting next to him, leaning on him, playing with his tail, and stroking his long

Looks at those fangs

Looks at those fangs

silky body. He didn’t care. He yawned a couple of times which showed his massive teeth. Being bitten by one of these animals in the wrong place would be a quick death. Not once did he complain, but rather enjoyed the attention he was getting, not too unlike a domestic cat. The staff at Tiger Kingdom do a great job of taking care of the beautiful animals. The cubs are also well looked after and everyone wants to cuddle with them.

The staff took plenty of photographs of us during the time with Caesar, and on one occasion he roared a little.

Our 15 minutes were up, and we left with smiles on our faces and picked up a couple of tee shirts on the way out.

The day was spent with two of nature’s wonderful creatures, a once in a lifetime experience.

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