Temples and Elephants

We were not able to squeeze in a visit to an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, so we definitely needed to rectify that in Chiang Rai! There are different types of elephant experiences available in Thailand. So many tour companies claim to be elephant sanctuaries, yet still offer elephant riding which, as I understand it, is not a great thing for the elephants. Others offer the opportunity to bathe with elephants, and all offer the chance to feed them. We settled on a company called Elephant Valley (www.elephantvalleys.com). They very much emphasize the fact that they are a sanctuary; you are given the chance to watch elephants up close and learn about them, but do not ride or bathe them. They also offered tours that combined a half-day of touring local temples with a half-day elephant experience, both of which we wanted to do.

We were a bit surprised when we were picked up and were the only two people on the tour. We had a driver, Tima, all to ourselves for the morning. She would drive us to Wat Rong Suea (the Blue Temple), and then to a place on the Kok river to catch a long-tailed boat to Wat Tham Phra (Buddha Caves). From there, we would be picked up and driven to Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple). Lastly, she would drop us off at Elephant Valley. We also wanted to see Black House and were kind of hoping that since it was just the two of us, that she might be able to drop us by there as well, but no such luck. We did make arrangements for her to drive us there the following day. Communication was a real challenge; her English wasn’t strong, and she had a very quiet voice. Eventually, I wrote what I wanted on my phone and let Google Translate do the talking for me. That seemed to work.

The name of the Blue Temple means House of the Dancing Tiger. Historically, there were tigers in the area, but no longer. This place was incredible. I loved the colors here. Not much to say about it other than that my photos probably don’t do it justice.

After a half-hour at the Blue Temple, we returned to the car for a brief drive to the boat dock. We had ridden on a long-tailed boat in Bangkok – it was crazy! This boat trip was peaceful and serene. The river was very slow moving, which helped. About 20 minutes or so into the ride, we spotted a white Buddha in the distance. This was our stop! But, no dock – just rocks along the edge of the river. If you have any mobility issues at all, this boat ride would not work for you. I had a tough time getting off the boat and climbing through the rocks to reach the shore, and I am in relatively decent shape. Tima was waiting for us on the shore. She had us climb up the steps to the Buddha and took some photos of us. She explained that the gong is traditionally rung three times, meaning health, happiness, and…I can’t remember the third one. Maybe wealth?

We climbed back down the stairs and up into a small cave to take a few more photos. The cave wasn’t too impressive; if this was the Buddha cave, there wasn’t much to it! It turns out that it wasn’t; the actual Buddha cave was located around the corner.

According to the brochure we were given, the Buddha cave is still an active place of worship that has one resident monk and some resident cats. We didn’t see the cats or the monk, but there was plenty of bat guano on the cave floor. There were also quite a few fragments of the cave that had broken off from the ceiling. I guess the monk must be a lazy monk because they had not been swept up. Clayton decided to help.

Our final temple of the day was the White Temple. The temple was designed by a millionaire artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. The white symbolizes the purity of the Buddha; the glass (which is what makes the place sparkle) symbolizes the Buddha’s wisdom and the Dhamma (the Buddhist teachings). The White Temple is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. If for no other reason than to visit here, make a trip to Chiang Rai. Of course, every other tourist in Chiang Rai will be visiting the temple with you, but it is still worth the trip. Words fail me…I hope you don’t mind how many pictures I am posting. I actually took many more; I couldn’t help myself!

Our time with Tima had come to an end. She drove us from the White Temple to the Elephant Valley; a ten-minute drive. We were dropped off at the entrance gate and waited to be met by a volunteer from the sanctuary. Before entering, we had to dip our shoes in a tub of water. The purpose of this is to protect the elephants; it rinses harmful bacteria off of your shoes. The sanctuary is designed in a donut shape with the center of the donut being where the people that run the place live. Every time you move from the “hole” into the “donut”, you must rinse your shoes.


We were taken to a covered area in the “donut hole”. Plates of food were waiting for us, but we couldn’t dig in just yet; others would be joining us. There are several options for visiting Elephant Valley. Half-day tours are offered, as are full-day tours. There are also opportunities to spend the night. They call this “volunteering”, but rather than being offered free room and board, you pay for the privilege of volunteering. We met quite a few people that were volunteers for the day; they were passionate about elephants and wanted to spend as much time around them as they could. Good thing, since the volunteer duties consisted of scooping up animal poop for most of the day!

Lunch was fabulous – I think there were 6 stir-fried dishes, accompanied by sticky rice. Most were spicy, but not obnoxiously so. We had fun conversations with the others that were there and learned about all of their travels. We met a woman that lives in the next city just east of us – crazy! She was traveling with a friend that she had met while on a safari in Africa. They were spending a week volunteering at the sanctuary. We met a young couple from California that had sold their house and quit their jobs so that they could travel the world for a year and a half. We were definitely the “senior citizens” of the group. The folks that we were with were fascinated to hear about our traveling lifestyle. We, of course, were happy to share!


The volunteers headed out for poop duty and our guide talked to us about the sanctuary. It is patterned after the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia. If I could summarize what their philosophy is, it would be “We let elephants be elephants”. Their overarching goal is to rehabilitate the elephants so that they can move back into the wild. If you are interested in reading about their complete philosophy, go to http://www.elephantvalleys.com/sanctuary-ethos/.

There are only 5 elephants here because it is a small site (40 acres). The hope is that as they prove themselves, that they will be able to acquire more land and rescue more elephants. One of the elephants is male; 4 are female. It would be impossible to have more than one male elephant (too much testosterone, I guess). The elephants come from different backgrounds. Some were used in the logging industry to drag logs; others were used in the tourist industry (including circuses). Because they were so dependent on humans, when they arrived at the sanctuary, some of them had to be taught how to eat grass. Their elephant instincts had been almost completely forgotten because they were completely dependent on humans. At least two weeks is spent acclimating an elephant to the sanctuary. Each elephant has its own mahout to keep an eye on it and attend to it needs. After two years, some of the elephants will be ready to be moved to a larger facility (440 acres of land) where they will become more and more independent until they can be released into the wild. This sanctuary is only two years old, so they are just getting ready to move a few elephants into the second phase.

Though there were over 100,000 elephants in Thailand at the beginning of the 20th century, there are now only 3 to 4,000 in the wild, with an additional 3771 in captivity. 1200 of these work in the logging industry; 2500+ in tourism. It used to be that they were used pretty much exclusively in logging, but in 1989, most logging was stopped and the elephants lost their jobs. This is when elephant tourism really took off; it gave the elephants something to do since they could not be returned to the wild.

Our guide, JJ, went over some safety rules before we were led into the elephant area. We would not get closer than 30 meters from the elephants, because it makes them nervous. And, nervous elephants can charge. Clayton tried to tell JJ a joke about what you should do when an elephant charges, but she didn’t understand it. Humor is difficult when you are speaking a different language than your own. By the way, what do you do when an elephant charges? Take away its Mastercard!

Anyhow, we perched in a covered area and watched a pair of female elephants. They are quite good friends, apparently. Ka Moon is the older of the two and the leader; the younger one does whatever Ka Moon tells her to. They wandered to the banks of a large pond where they stood in the water and splashed mud and dirt on themselves. They didn’t want to go all the way in; apparently, they never do. A third elephant wandered over. JJ told us that this elephant has only been there a week or so, and the other elephants don’t like her. As she approached, the other two elephants turned their backs on her.

It was like watching an elephant version of the movie, “Mean Girls.” The new elephant kept trying to join the other two; they kept shunning her. Eventually, she went into the water and used her trunk to splash the surface over and over again. The other two definitely did not like that! They got quite agitated. Eventually, they walked away. In retaliation, she went over to the water basin and stuck her muddy trunk in and stirred up the water to make it undrinkable. Too funny!

We spent a fair amount of time watching these three before moving to another area to watch the male, Thong Inn, and his girlfriend, Jay. Thong Inn was severely malnourished from his time in the circus. They underfed him intentionally to keep him small. He is only 80% of the size of a typical bull elephant. He is not allowed to mate. If a male elephant gets rejected by a female, he uses his tusks to pierce her skin. Some guys just can’t take rejection!

We were given a 10-minute break to drink some water and use the toilet before heading over to watch the mahouts wash the elephants. Normally, elephants would do this themselves, but this particular piece of land does not have any running water, so the elephants must be hosed off every afternoon. They pee and poop in the pond water; skin infections can result. Elephants are great multitaskers by the way; they can eat, pee, and poop, all at the same time. And, they produce a prodigious amount of poop daily – just ask the volunteers!

The highlight of the afternoon was feeding the elephants. First, we gave them banana leaves. They would reach their trunk out and use it to grab the leaves and push them into their mouths. After the healthy vegetation, they got a treat – chunks of sugar cane.

After the feeding, it was time to go. We climbed into the back of a pickup truck and were driven back to town.

This was such an incredible day. The temples were so beautiful, and so were the elephants!