Tunnel Temple and the Gentle Elephants in Chiang Mai
We were being picked up at 1:30 pm so what to do in the morning. A friend Gemma, who lives in Chiang Mai, but back in the UK for Christmas, kindly recommended a few things to see here plus a great list of Vegan restaurants. Food, Temples and Elephants were the order of the day.
With Gemma's recommendations, we visited the superb Goodsouls Kitchen on the way here yesterday. Today we decided to go to Free Bird Café for breakfast. It wasn't anywhere near to where we were staying, but we were intrigued about this place and wanted to support it.
Gemma's friend, Lisa Nesser, the owner sounds to be a great social entrepreneur with a huge heart. She first founded the Thai Freedom House in 2005 for refugees from Burma and minority peoples of Thailand. Starting with a basic education centre, this has now evolved to a full resource centre that "educates, trains, nurtures and inspires the refugees to make the most of their circumstances in life."
As well as much needed donations, Lisa has set up the Free Bird café as well as her zero waste and 2nd hand clothes store where 100% of the profits go to support Thai Freedom House. What a shame we didn't get to meet her. Lisa aims to live her life as an example of loving-kindness, hoping this emanates and spreads from her heart to others." A fascinating woman. Oh, and our breakfast was delicious.
Tim had seen that there was a 700-year-old Temple nearby; that was our next stop. It is in 15 acres of wooded grounds and was lovely wandering through the trees, watching butterflies flit around and reflecting on proverbs hanging from the trees. We had come to Wat Umong, the full name Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham, meaning "Temple of the tunnels and Buddha Dhamma garden", situated on the foothills of the Doi Suthep mountain.
After paying our 20 baht, we climbed some old worn brick steps to the main attraction, the ancient tunnels, taking our shoes off to walk through.
The tunnels were constructed on the order of King Mangrai, the first King of the Lan Na dynasty and founder of Chiang Mai (translates as New Walled City) in 1297. It is said that the King had the temple and tunnels built for Thera Chan, a monk who he received solace from. The monk liked to meditate in the silence of the tunnels. When these were first built, it is believed that they were covered with paintings of Buddha, It must have looked incredible. The tunnels were abandoned during the 15th century, and it wasn't until 1948 that these were restored.
After exploring the tunnels, we climbed up to see a large, circular bell-shaped Chedi or Stupa, as they are named in other countries. I wonder if the remnants of the monk lie here. And later we found a rectangular area of mainly broken sculptures of Buddha. A sign informed us that the large head of the Buddha image and the other Sandstone sculptures made between 1400 and 1550 AD were collected from deserted Monasteries around here in the late 1960s. Phayao Craftsmen made these, an area renowned for its generation of proud traditional carvers, locally known as Sala.
We needed to get back; we had more plans. At 1:30 pm, we waited at the barrier of our complex, and finally, the minibus arrived. Sitting in the last seats at the back, we got chatting to a lovely family from Dublin; Kevin, Clara and Eimear. It's great when you meet people, and the conversation flows easily. We were all excited about our trip. We were going to Kanta Elephant Sanctuary.
I had done an extensive research to ensure we went to an ethical place. Gemma had recommended some, our son John and Georgia recommended another, which was a bit too far. And finally, based on reading excellent reviews, we chose Kanta. Its mission is to provide a retirement home for elephants who have previously worked hard for tourism entertainment or in the logging industry. They offer the elephants health, freedom and happiness they truly deserve.
We put on groovy elephant shirts and shorts, not our colour though. Our guide, Woody, informed us about the differences between African and Asian elephants; such as the size, weight and diet.
He then explained that we would receive a bag of food and to make sure that it hangs off one shoulder, not over our heads, as sometimes, the elephants can be sneaky and put their trunks in the bag and then pull. If it's over your head, they tug you with it.
We ventured off to see the elephants. The Sanctuary has fifteen altogether, and we were with a group of four females. What a delight it was holding out three sticks of sugar cane and an elephant coming up, curls the end of its trunk around to take it from us gently. We patted the elephants, continued feeding them this snack, they eat approx. 300 lbs a day of food!
It was fabulous watching these wonderful gentle giants enjoying the interaction with us visitors.
I know that some people are against places like this. However, if animals were domesticated in the past, then they are not able to care for themselves in the wild.
After all the food was gone, we went and made some medicine balls, basically squashing bananas with tamarind, calcium and other minerals together. We joined our Irish friends and had a laugh getting messy.
After making several balls, we each put one in an elephants' mouth. Its large tongue (which it cannot stick out), sucking in the medicine to chew on its four molars.
This was an extra treat as it wasn't included in our itinerary; however, we didn't give the elephants a mud bath, which was included in the description.
Later, we went down into the freshwater lagoon with the elephants to wash and scrub them. I was a bit wary of going close to one, as it had done a massive poo, which came floating up near me! The elephants seemed to love lying in the water.
It was funny to see half of the group refuse to join the elephants, not wanting to get wet. As we got out of the water, we lined up for a final photo with our four elephants behind us. As Woody shouted 3..2..1, suddenly a shower of water poured all over us. Unbeknown to us, each elephant had a large bucket of water to spray us. I got soaked! It was great fun, but is this party trick freedom? How are they trained to do this?
I walked away, uncertain about the ethics of this. Selfishly, it was a joy and privilege to be so close to these incredible elephants; touching their thick wrinkled skin, noticing their loo brush of a tail, their massive toenails, their funny mouths and bottle brush hair, seeing their trunk sniffing for food, reaching out and with such dexterity, grabbing hold of leaves or sugar cane. Yet, even more of an honour was seeing a herd in Botswana silently walk to the watering hole with real freedom. Now that was truly marvellous.