Elephants, rivers, hills, and waterfalls!!

So, I loved yesterday so much, and have some time to kill before my flight to Laos later today, that I had to go ahead and tell you about my favorite day (so far, at least). Warning- this is gonna be a long one! (I am now in Laos, and still writing!)

Now, before coming to CM, I had researched all about the elephants, and wanted to make sure I visited ONLY a responsible place that took care of the animals & all that. Well, those of course book up quickly, and also mostly you don't actually get to ride them (which is maybe the point?). Anyway, we found a day tour that didn't sound bad, eg: no "show", no elephants painting, ect., We all really did want a day with at least some elephant experience, so, off we went to the Maewang region up in the hills outside Chiang Mai. Our adorable guide (all Thai guides are apparently the cutest people ever), packed us into an actual mini bus for our hour & half trip out to the countryside and then explained the organization of the day. We would start with a ride on the elephants for about an hour, then a float down river in bamboo rafts, where we would get wet. Following lunch, we would visit briefly a Karen hill-tribe village, and finish with a trek to a waterfall. The group was much more diverse this time, with an American & his mom, his Vietnamese girlfriend/wife (?) with her son (around 10 I think?) & mother, a young couple from Lithuania, and finally a couple that was a Thai woman and an Iranian man. All were perfectly nice, it turns out, which helped our day go smoothly. Up into the hills, we pulled off the side of the road to find a few sheds & a small flat area for the elephants, who were just arriving from their last outing. Soo pretty, but they were about to turn around & be ready for us, so we had to go across a high, slightly wobbly bridge over the river to get on the mounting apparatus (I don't know what you would call the structure- but it was basically a 2nd floor deck that we had to walk off onto the elephant's back/shoulders). It then became clear that it was 2 people per elephant, which meant I was likely riding with someone else, who turned out to be the American lady visiting her son (who lives in Saigon). At first she didn't want to even go, but finally was convinced & climbed on with me. I have briefly ridden an elephant before, but only on flat roads for about 15 mins. This was clearly going to be a trek up & down hills, through the woods, and over the river at some point. Super fun, and we were all together taking photos of everyone else for a bit. Our elephant took the lead because it turns out he was the biggest bull. He was 34 and named something like Sun Chai, and the mahout was really nice. Never really had to do anything other than say commands out loud occasionally, and thankfully never took out his horrid looking training implement. The elephant who kept up with us was apparently Sun Chai's girlfriend, and then there was a family of a mom, dad, older child (big enough to ride), and a baby (soooo cute) who were fairly close behind, though a bit harder to wrangle it seemed. At one point apparently the baby had to stop & nurse! Gregg & Val were pretty far behind for some reason, so I have no idea what was up with their guy.

So, the first steep downhill was pretty scary, actually, because we were propped up on these metal benches, with no belt or anything, and you get pitched pretty far forward. I really felt like I was going to slip off & down at one point! At the top of the next hill, we stopped for a moment to let others catch up with us, and the mahout goes to me, "wanna get on?" Meaning- onto the neck of the animal, directly behind him (the mahouts sit Indian-style directly on the head). Of course I absolutely jumped at the chance, and proceeded to ride the rest of the way astride the neck, with my knees not quite behind his ears. My pointed toes didn't even get down much past the middle of the ear, I don't think, but unfortunately, bc G&V were so far back, I don't actually have a photo (bedsides the one below looking down at my knee). It was amazing. A little scary at times, mostly when going up hill b/c his shoulders would push me off balance a bit, but I could always reach behind me to grab one of the ropes holding the seat. At first the lady riding with me was not too happy, but once she got situated, she was actually much more comfortable I think. It really brought back my horse riding experience, so I knew I would be sore the next day (I am). It also didn't hurt that the woods we were in were lovely, and everything was just so peaceful!

Once we were done, we could purchase some sugar cane to feed to the elephants (who were, I have to admit, now chained to their flat area- sigh). They honestly seemed happy & peaceful though, and it was amazing to be so close up while they were eating & relaxing a bit. The baby was a bit rambunctious, but he was also 2, so maybe elephants have terrible two's also! Sun Chai was huge, but super gentle- I love the one shot I got of him from straight on.

Anyway, then we rode up the hill a bit further, changed into suits, and clambered onto the little bamboo rafts. The "seat" was literally just a larger piece of bamboo set perpendicular to the long pieces that formed the rafts, so, yeah, our butts def got wet. This time I rode with G&V, along with the Vietnamese grandma, who turned out to be hilarious. Instead of waving at the occasional locals eating along the banks, she would splash water in their direction- too funny. No cameras allowed (which is fine, b/c I was too busy worrying about tipping over to also worry about not getting a camera wet!), but it was overall beautiful & calm, with a few rapids thrown in for a bit of excitement. At this point, we were starving, so once back in dry clothes we were thrilled when we were delivered to a little roadside restaurant. Unfortunately, though I'm sure lunch was fine for other, vegetable-eating people, it was not really so bueno for me. The fresh pineapple was good, and the Vietnamese people shared their mangosteens with us all - yum!!!

The Karen hill-tribe village was, well, a bit uncomfortable really, but cute enough & interesting to see, I guess. All the ladies had babies, which I couldn't decide if it was just coincidence, or a ploy to make us want to buy more, but I did get a cool scarf (you could hardly NOT purchase something- they were so sweet!). From the village we set out across rice patties to hit the waterfall. Not a particularly interesting or dramatic walk over, but worth it. The waterfall was amazing! I loved clambering all over the rocks & getting different angles on the light rays coming through the trees. The Lithuanian couple & little boy did get in & swim a bit, and had it been a bit hotter out, I may have joined them, but changing would've been complicated.
There are some cool shots of me that Gregg or Val took, but I can't get them transferred at this point, but I'm sure the below will be plenty! It was a truly fantabulous day!!

Long post (sorry)- tomorrow may be a busy day, but will post about it & adorable Luang Prabang when I can!