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Ommm…melodious, tranquil and oh so inviting humming sounds move through the overwhelmingly beautiful temple entry and onto the street. They envelop you in a peaceful cloud, harmonizing every atom of your body and synchronizing your breath with your movement, your movement with your heartbeat, your heartbeat with your usually wandering and free-floating thoughts.
Chiang Mai: Regal capital of ever-present peace
This is the spirit of Chiang Mai, a place where over 300 Buddhist temples and a myriad of monks dictate the rhythm of the Northern Thai capital city, and where peace is much more than an abstract and removed concept – it becomes palpable as not just a theoretical idea, but as a tried-and-tested way of life.
Of course, there are the noises of countless motorbikes on the main roads of this city which has become a beloved expat haven and a thriving community for digital nomads. And there are the many visitors from all over the world who have come to explore Chiang Mai´s countless highlights. But notwithstanding, the lifeblood that pulses through Chiang Mai´s aesthetically pleasing veins is a deep and abiding peace, a peace that unceasingly cuts through the noise of daily life and to the heart of what the human mind is capable of – being completely at one with itself.
Maybe peace is the secret ingredient after all that connected all the dots and experiences of the 3-week- Chiang Mai stay I was blessed to experience a while ago.
Because there is peace even amidst the eclectic enthusiasm of a Muay Thay Boxing game, there is undeniable harmony in taking in the many vegetarian culinary delights the city has to offer. There is also peace´s cousin´s joy in experiencing the city´s vibrant and surprising night markets, and alas, there was even some peace to be discovered at the end of a 2 day Thai-massage-workshop led by a rather dominant She-Boss-Lady. And, of course, there was peace in communing with Leila, which is where we left off last time…
Walking with elephants: A dazzling day with Leila
Do you know/ remember that feeling when you´ve had a crush on someone for a while and then you finally get to go on a date with them? It´s exhilarating, intimidating, breathtaking, and inducing anxiety and euphoria in equal parts, I find. Palms are sweating, it gets a little harder to breathe, nervous butterflies have a tumultuous dance-party in your stomach… well, that pretty much captures all the feels I was feeling when meeting Leila! Plus a little concern she might, you know, stomp on me. Which she obviously didn´t – or is this a ghost, writing you this? Who knows 😛
Anyways, our mahout-trainers were about to teach us some command-communications which we were very keen to try out. Up until that day, I had not heard anything about mahouts – these elephant keepers have quite an important place in Thailand´s story! They are called “kwan chang” in Thai, which translates to the poetic phrase “one who walks with an elephant”.
I also found out that elephants are Thailand´s national symbol and are deeply entwined with the country´s history, culture and self-image. Leila´s ancestors have loyally served proud kings as well as humble commoners throughout Thailand´s history, be it in warfare, as a pretty up there means of transportation or for agricultural purposes. Elephants got therefore elevated to the rank of shining stars of Thailand´s magnificence. Good on them! They embody prosperity and power and, due to their stardom, also feature heavily in Buddhist art, architecture, and sculpture.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were a whopping 100.000 elephants in the former kingdom of Siam. Nowadays, Leila just has around 5000 mates left. Many of them are domesticated, around 1500, though, are free-roaming in the wild. (How cool is that! Imagine just randomly walking through the Thai jungle and casually jumping on a tree because you are suddenly catching two elephants making out!)
With Leila through the jungle: Down to the nitty gritty
After our group of about ten happy campers greeted Leila and her gorgeous elephant-mates, and after watching the mahouts demonstrate how to go about mounting a gigantic animal, it was time to test our courage and learn to steer the elephants through a piece of jungle ourselves.
So, how do you jump aboard an almost two meters twenty tall elephant, you might ask while scratching your head or devouring a handful of chips in front of your slightly too bright screen? It´s nothing like jumping aboard a train or a bike, my friends, I can tell you that much! There were basically two ways to mount Leila (ahem, you know what I mean!):
Option A – Get a running jump over her head onto her back (for real). Option B – Slightly more elegant version: ask Leila to kindly lift her leg in Elephant-speak, get on there and from there, continue onto her back.
Option A was only a feasible possibility for one of the XXL-tall German guys amongst our group. He actually fit in well into the general environment because he looked a bit like a tree himself – tall, nice to look at, and skinny. Watching him jump over Leila´s twin sister Lulu´s head and onto her broad shoulders woke associations of a new Olympic discipline in me. That pretty unusual image is still vividly etched into my memory!
I refrained from over-ambitious Option A – as it already felt like a massive achievement for me to gently step onto Leila´s massive leg (sorry Leila, honesty is just the best policy) and somehow manage to get myself up onto her bare back from there…
We had learned a few commands for straight, left, right, turn, stop, as well as a command called “Bon Soong”, which is Elephant-speak for something like “lift your trunk and open your mouth and I’ll feed you a delicious banana“. We gathered our bravery and employed those commands diligently, keenly attempting to steer Leila through the thicket. Leila being the exceptionally smart elephant-lady she was – she owns the largest brain of any land animal after all, and has three times as many neurons as a human (Take that, Mensa-members-who-are-people-with-very-high-IQs-including Sharon-Stone-who-has-an IQ of-154) obviously had her own viewpoint on things.
Which included following her impulse to scratch her enormous behind on a tree and almost squashing my leg in the process. Oopsie! Next up, our mahouts guided the elephants, with us holding on for dear life, to the river. Again, Leila had a mind of her own and veered off the planned path and straight into the river when she wasn´t supposed to yet. Ah well, you gotta love a little, ahem massive, rebel!
In the end, we all ended up in the middle of the river anyways- splashing each other with muddy water, and bathing Leila, who, let´s be honest, would be totally capable of doing that herself! Kudos to her for allowing us some playtime with her and the other members of this absolutely incredible species.
Tips for finding ethical elephant encounters
Elephant rides can often be a tricky one – do avoid all elephant rides where saddles are involved, as they can injure the elephant´s backs – their spine is not their strong suit (hey, I recommend Yoga for that). For a more compassionate way of elephant riding, stick to where the mahout usually goes – behind its ears, and for a limited amount of time of about 30 minutes max.
Stay clear of any ivory products or elephant paintings and choose elephant- interactions, not entertainment – like time spent bathing and feeding an elephant. Or, and this might be the best option, volunteer at an elephant camp to make friends with the immensely intelligent gentle giants.
In our next Chiang Mai article, published in a week or two, we will finally get to hang out at an exciting night market, get handsy at a Thai massage workshop, and take in some more of Chiang Mai´s best things to experience. The passion for Leila and her elephant mates swept me away this time, friends, what can I say!
Back to you, dear reader: What is your country´s national animal? Also – as Leila is kind of a celebrity now, and this is a fun question: Who are your celebrity crushes? You tell me yours, I´ll tell you mine 😛 As always, would love to hear from you!