Chiang Mai: Elephant kisses and cooking by emotion…

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How do you get an elephant to kiss you? No, it’s not a joke – just one of the things we learned during our stay at Chai Lai Orchid – the elephant camp in Chiang Mai. Visiting elephants in Thailand is fraught with ethical dilemma, since the beasts often have a fairly miserable life, carrying tourists on heavy metal and wooden chairs through the jungles all day. Chai Lai was our compromise – the hotel is a charity that works with trafficked women from the Karen hill tribe, many of whom have come from Burma. At Chai Lai, they are trained in the hospitality industry. So far, so ethical.

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Oh, and did I mention there are elephants? The hotel shares its land with a traditional elephant camp, so while the elephants don’t belong to Chai Lai, the hotel guests can choose to interact with them in a more natural way – no chair rides, plenty of food and of course, many happy baths in the river. You can bath an elephant whenever you want to – so perhaps it isn’t surprising that we didn’t do a lot else.

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We arrived at Chai Lai in an absolute downpour, across a slippery suspension bridge that made me feel like an extra from Indiana Jones and made Mum and Dad wonder what mess I was getting them into this time.

We were nervous walking across the bridge holding the children’s hands. The locals rode their motorbikes across it nonchalantly, sometimes hands free.

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The children were in elephant heaven and Dad (who does love to take a photo or two ..million…) was pretty happy too. First up we fed baby Chai Lai, who likes to take sugar from your hand and break your umbrella given half the chance. Then we spent plenty of time bathing Dee Dee – a five year old elephant (“she’s big for five”, Clover remarked sagely). That’s when we learned how to get an elephant kiss – Dee Dee will ‘kiss’ you with her trunk when you say ‘choop choop’ to her – a little like having a sink plunger attached to your ear, but very cute.

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Spending time in the water with Dee Dee was an amazing family experience. We laughed a lot, and the children bravely climbed up on her back and scrubbed her with a brush. As Dad – watching wisely from the bank – remarked, she really is the best bath toy ever.

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What was really nice was that the charity volunteers at Chai Lai love bathing her as much as we did. They are raising money to rent the elephants from the camp for six months to prove that tourists will care for them without chair rides – paying only for baths and bareback riding – you can find out more here.

Speaking of riding an elephant, we tried it of course – but bareback elephant riding is not for the fainthearted. Or the fainty in general, it turns out. I used to pass out a lot as a teenager, so Paul’s quite used to it, but even he will admit that my timing was pretty poor this time. I did manage to get off the elephant first, but it was touch and go – Clover continued to ride the elephant with its mahout, while the lovely Chai Lai volunteers got me back to camp.

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After two nights of elephant bathing and watching, we decided something a little more culinary was in order, so went to central Chiang Mai for a cooking course. Cue the girls in aprons, wielding huge knives, learning how to cook their favourite spring rolls. From our chef teacher we learned how to season a Thai curry (‘by emotion’, and using a lot of fish sauce), and made and ate an entire seven-course meal. No wonder we were ready for a sleep on the night train back down to Bangkok, ready for our flight to Cambodia the next day.

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And we know Daisy’s been dreaming about elephant kisses – she’s been saying ‘I want a choop choop’ in her sleep!

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