a gift of gentle giants

To celebrate my upcoming birthday, I wanted to return to a city that left me awestruck after my last visit – Chiang Mai. Our traveling foursome planned a weekend in this laid back city filled with elephants, markets, hikes, and zip lining. We boarded another overnight bus, riding VIP and not economy this time, giddy about the weekend ahead.

Returning to a city and knowing your bearings and some good restaurants instantly changes the energy of the place. It felt as if we were returning home when seeing familiar sites and directing the red taxi where to go. Our first stop was to the best breakfast place in town, Nice Kitchen. Their gourmet pancakes rival Donna Barnick’s flapjacks – and that says a lot.

With full stomachs and caffeine running in our veins we headed to our hostel. We live in a small world and traveling, the internet, and social media make it even smaller. I planned to meet a childhood friend who was traveling Thailand for two weeks as part of her own life journey. It is funny how your childhood never leaves you, always sneaking up on you no matter where you are. Middle Road resurrected in Chiang Mai when I saw Shelby. We share a history of East Farms School, sisters riding at Riverfarms, and Farmington parties.  Both of us stand at different parts in our lives, yet we are both using Thailand as a tool for furthering our own journeys.


After weeks of research and scouring reviews and blogs, we made reservations at an elephant conservation home to ride and play with elephants for the day. Chiang Mai hosts countless elephant farms and sanctuaries.  We wanted to have an up close and personal day with elephants yet only through an organization that protects and betters the life of these animals. Unfortunately, Thailand’s animal world is riddled with exploitation and abuse. Monkeys, elephants, tigers, birds and reptiles are forced to put on shows. I can’t help but notice the parallels to the Thai school system – hitting the children into submission is accepted and pageants take precedence over learning (this is a whole other rant I will have another day).  Many organizations start out ethical with honest conservation efforts, but the greedy beast of tourism blinds their eyes by dangling quick money in front of them. We researched many organizations – EARS, Boon Lotts, Baan Chang, Patara, Thai Elephant Home, Woody’s – every one we could find. We cross referenced reviews and the missions of each home to narrow down the list. Some were clearly created for tourists and not for preserving the elephants. Other’s values were clear: protect the elephants for future generations and conserve the land around them.  After some time we decided on Thai Elephant Home based on what they stood for, what they offered, and their price.

Early Sunday Morning TEH picked the five of us up at our hostel and drove us into the heart of Mae Taeng Valley.  We gathered around a table to listen to their mission and way of life. Thai Elephant Home was founded by Nayok Satien and is run by the manager, Joe. Nayok grew up around elephants and has decades of experience in medicine and care for them. This organization focuses on rescuing elephants and caring for them in order for future generations to live in a world where elephants still exist.  Unfortunately there are not as many wild elephants any more due to deforestation, hunting, and the creeping influence of humans. Most of the wild elephants that roam free in Thailand are by the Laos and Burma borders. Thai Elephant Home is also an eco-friendly organization. The profits made from the home are invested into caring for the elephants and saving the local jungle. They have a massive reforestation project that extends into the local community by working together to preserve what is left of what they have and regrow what has been destroyed.  Joe explained the history of the elephants, the organization’s mission, and what takes place at Thai Elephant Home. Elephants are seen as part of their family and they are their number one priority. Tourists are invited into their home as a means of funding the upkeep and preservation of these animals.
 So after meeting all the elephants and feeding them racks of bananas we were set up to mount them. I have never felt so big and so small than in that moment I sat atop my elephant’s back and she rose to her full height.  Seeing the world from that view with a gentle giant beneath you changes your perspective. You feel invincible yet vulnerable. You think you are in control yet you really are at the mercy of the animal. It is a very humbling feeling for an animal to remind you of.

I must give thanks to my older sister Audrey, for letting me tail along on her barn visits to Riverfarms. Although I had to muck ten stalls to ride her horse, it introduced me to riding an animal and becoming comfortable on top of one. Although an elephant is at least double the height of a horse, I was not overrun by fear of being that high up but rather enjoying the adrenaline rush.

Even after I was on my elephant and moving around, I still held reservations about the day. Should I be on top of the elephant at all? Can’t they just roam free? Am I fueling the dark underworld of Asia’s animal abuse? I had to stop and gain some perspective. These elephants are rescue ones, they are not “broken in” at Thai Elephant Home. We take them on a walk through the jungle where they eat different plants, get a mud bath, play in the water, and have plenty of down time. Humans have been doing this for centuries. We tame wild horses and stick a bit in their mouth to control them. We hook heavy carts onto oxen to carry loads that humans can’t. We train dolphins to do flips and swim with humans.  Zoos across the world enclose wild animals into restricted mini habitats. We stick birds and rabbits in cages to call them pets. Where do we draw the line? Is all human interaction with animals inhumane? What if these animals are rescued from a tortured life?  What if the efforts behind the domestication are for the good of the animal?  Does uniting tourist and animal to fund their preservation and their environment’s sustainability add to the exploitation or serve as an alternative way to help them?  I am still fighting this internal battle.  I know I will ride horses and own pets in my life but I won’t attend an animal show or support a street entertainer exploiting an animal for a few coins. Alas, at the end of the day if human’s greedy appetite for land and control never existed, these animals would not have to be rescued from farmer’s poison, deforestation, and hunting - just another reason why human society has violated and stolen the innocence of nature’s beauty on this earth.

Nevertheless, I was atop this moving giant and made a decision to give this elephant all the love in my body in return for letting me ride her.  My elephant’s name was Tong. She is 30 years old and a mother. Her eyes are maternal and kind but she has a playful spirit. She is a big female with a massive appetite – always stopping to graze the plants or dig around in my purse with her trunk for a banana.  Elephants are truly just massive stoners, with smiles plastered on their face and munchies that never go away.

Her mahout is a very small man with a big grin. He never used his hook to hurt her but rather to pull on her rope if she was veering off the trail to get food. He primarily opted for vocal commands of which she listened well to.  He hugged her and spoke to her as if they were old friends, giving her fruit and leaves throughout our walk. Meanwhile, 8 feet above the trail, I was having my own conversation with Tong, giving her my thanks and whispering my prayers of her happiness and well being.  

We hiked into the jungle where thick green cover surrounded us and grand viewpoints of the valley peaked through the trees. The terrain of rural Thailand can be described in one word: lush. The rolling hills, steep mountains, and fertile valleys are a seamless landscape of thriving life. The vibrant greens of the vegetation are a gorgeous contrast to the hazy blue backdrop of the sky.  We stopped for lunch for both us and the elephants. They independently wandered over to a watering hole to hydrate and play in the mud. We dined on a delicious Thai meal wrapped in a banana leaf, with mountains behind us and elephants before us – was this real life?

After lunch we received kisses from a young elephant that were more of suction than a kiss. Then we got down and dirty and gave the elephants mud baths. They moseyed over to the mud hole and happily laid down in the black mud. We coated their thick skin with a layer of mud to protect it from the sun and insects. This turned into a spa day for all as we gave ourselves facial masks with the mud. In our group that day there was a lovely Australian family with four young children.  These parents have done an incredible job raising their children to be polite, adventurous, and educated. Well-mannered and well-spoken, these children fearlessly sat atop elephants back and played in the mud with them. Also in our group were an expecting mother and her husband who were on their babymoon. To be five months pregnant and ride at elephant takes guts. 

I looked around at these people and made a silent promise to myself that I will never lose my sense of adventure and that I will introduce the wonders of travel and exploration to my one day family early on. We had to wash off our spa treatments so we got back on our elephants to wander over to the river. This was a mad house of massive animals in the water and people swimming along with them. You could easily tell which elephants were young and which were the parents. The young ones played as if they were children on a hot summer day, squirting water and rolling around. The adults basked in the cool water, relaxing and welcoming the refreshing bath.

The entire day I was hit with flashbacks of watching the Jungle Book in our rec-room on Middle Road.  I used to be jealous of Mowgli’s adventures with Baloo and Bagheera – now I was the one in a jungle eating bananas off the trees and riding elephants. We wandered through the trails with all the elephants in a line and their wide behinds swaying left to right. Once again I was reveling in the blessings of my life – who would have thought that I would be riding elephants in Thailand for my 25th birthday?

Unfortunately the day was nearing its end and we had to say goodbye to our new friends. Tong left a massive footprint in my heart. This gentle giant gave me a once in a lifetime experience. Elephants symbolize the overcoming of obstacles. I have been faced with numerous barriers in my life, yet they were all necessary learning moments.  Now I feel that I can easily clear these hurdles as they will never be too high to stop me from at least trying.  Elephants are wise and strong and they gain this power by conquering any problem.  I believe there is an elephant residing within us all. We too can hold eternal wisdom and strength by overcoming our obstacles and learning from them rather than letting ourselves be defeated and backing down.  

We returned home to our hostel, exhausted but feeling high from a magical day with gentle giants.  Next on our list of things to do was wander through the famous Sunday Night Market of Chiang Mai. Countless streets are closed down and transformed into a maze of markets every Sunday.  It is a somewhat overwhelming experience.  Burning incense and fresh cooked Thai food fragrant the air.  Vendors call out prices and buyers bark back bargains at them. Waves of people force your body to travel down the road and trap you in the never-ending sea of the market. Unfortunately for me, I was caught in a wave of extreme nausea. I had to leave the Sunday Market early to go home and lay down. Nausea took over my body and took away all my strength. Eventually, I succumbed to the horrible feeling and hugged the porcelain goddess throughout my sleepless night. I was hit with a bad stomach virus leaving me weak, fevery, and delirious. The following morning we were meant to go on a trek through the jungle and zip line all afternoon. I couldn’t even put sentences together let alone hike through the jungle so I stayed in bed all day praying my fever would break and I would feel normal soon. I was finally able to keep water down but I wanted to spend the evening resting because we planned to visit the mountain temple at sunrise Tuesday morning – so most of Monday was spent horizontally for me.

 We woke at 5:30 the next morning and made a deal with a kind taxi driver to bring us to and from Doi Suthep. He raced up the massive mountain in the dark. Chiang Mai slumbered peacefully below us – the quietness almost felt uneasy after getting used to the constant bustle of Thailand.  We arrived at the bottom of the temple and began to climb the 309 steps to reach Doi Suthep Temple.  What a fitting environment for a holy place. The temple greets the clouds as a gateway to God and protects the worshiping inhabitants below.  I wandered through the temple alone since the others were not covered enough to enter. Just the monks draped in vibrant orange and myself were the only ones roaming the grounds.  I watched them sit and pray together as well as give their morning offerings. Inside the temple, where the golden stupa glows against the dark night sky, is one of the purest places of peace I have entered.

I returned to my friends where we stood together and watched the sky change colors from royal blues and purples to fiery orange and yellows. We welcomed a new dawn and new day while overlooking a magical city. My stomach virus may have kept me from a hike in the jungle, but I am so thankful I did not miss that sunrise. Our world gifts us with such natural beauty every day. How can people see this and not believe in something grander and more divine than humanity?  

God has graced me with a life full of adventure and has bonded me to incredible souls; I will be forever thankful for every sunrise and every sunset.


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