The great thing about Baan Chang is that they are completely open and honest about how they run the place and why they do certain things. Our guide, Nai, was very friendly and easy going and answered all our questions.
He took great pains to educate us about the realities of rescuing elephants. The great costs involved, the potential danger of being around an elephant that has known nothing but abuse its whole life, the misunderstandings from tourists who impose their own set of unrealistic utopian ideals on this place, etc.
You get to feed the elephants. Not just the incidental stalk of sugar cane, but for a good half an hour to 45 minutes. Then you are taught some basic commands to control the elephant (the mahout is there all the time so don't worry). Eventually you get to ride the elephants, bareback, through the jungle. This was great. It was humane, definitely more natural, for both rider and ridee, and the elephants get to have a jaunt too. Then it ends with you getting a chance to wash the elephants in their watering hole.
It was great to be so close to the elephants, which are really beautiful, sentient creatures who are capable of so much strength, but really are gentle giants. The elephants are rescued from a lifetime of servitude and horrid treatment. Many of them still bear the scars of unthinkable abuse. Some of them are so emotionally scarred that they can only be approached if a mahout is around to supervise.
It was a truly wonderful experience and if you talk to your guide, just talk, not as a customer but as a person, they can really give you some insight into their lives, the nature of elephant exploitation around north thailand and burma, and the facade of a "tour" quickly evaporates. Instead, you get something of a "real" experience - which is the best part of any travel.
I did say it was slightly pricey but then again, as long as the money goes to running the place, paying everyone and so on, it's fine by me. (Besides, all the other elephant camps cost around the same).
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