“Is this real life?” Rae asked me.

“What?” I replied.

“Is this real life…” she repeated, “or is it a dream?”

“It’s real life Rae.”

“I can’t beleive it.” She said through a beaming smile.

That was the “real life” conversation I had with Rae while floating and splashing in the waterfall after our elephant bath experience. And although it’s impossible to put into words the experience we had at Hug Elephants Camp in Chiang Mai, that’s about as close as words could get.

Waterfall Chiang Mai

Warning For Families: It's Not ALL Fun and Elephant Games

I’ll just get this out of the way, making it clear first that I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. But families should know that there is an unexpected price to be paid for the privilege of experiencing this, and it’s not a financial one.

  1. Getting there and back. It’s about 45 minutes on the highway in the back of a truck, then another 45 minutes up the windiest, bumpiest, dirt road I’ve ever traveled. I can’t believe Nicole and Rae made it to the top with their breakfast still in their bellies. I’m usually pretty good with that kind of travel, but when I got home I headed straight to the toilet and puked my guts out for 10 straight minutes.
  2. It caters to 20-year-old backpackers. While the guides were more than excited to have Rae along, this is an attraction that expects 20-year-old backpackers. Particularly if you’re an introverted family like ours, you’ll feel a bit out of place listening to the 20 year olds chatter non-stop about full moon parties and their latest bout of salmonella. Yes, I’ve been there and done that, and I fully realize we’re now the awkward old folks on the trip, but I can’t help it… it’s exhausting listening to those kids talk about themselves for hours on end without taking a breath.
  3. There is some trekking. It’s not like you’re climbing Everest or anything, but there is a bit of hiking and climbing, and some parts are a bit difficult. It wouldn’t have been bad at all if we didn’t have a 4-year-old who tends to get whiny at the first sign of physical stress or heat. We often had to alternate between shoulder rides and dragging her limp body up the hills, which would have made it a bit hard to keep up with all the fit young folks except that those folks also have to stop every 2 minutes to take selfies.

All that said, knowing the reward, I would have ridden twice as far with tweens instead of twenty-somethings, and hiked much longer and harder with a much whinier kid before I’d even think about giving up this memory.

After a bit of a trek, we arrived at this little hut in the forest. Someone asked how much further to the elephants. The guide said “Not far, you can’t see elephant but elephant can see you.” He gave us a little talk about elephants, warned us not to tease them, and then we grabbed our bags of fruit and set out. Sure enough just behind the bush were about 6 elephants all anxiously awaiting their snack.

Within seconds there were elephant trunks coming at us from all directions, prodding and poking us for more fruits. It felt surreal being in amongst these massive animals, frantically trying to keep up with their demands for more fruit. Actually, after about 5 minutes it started to get too much to handle. Rae bowed out to the sidelines, and I even found my own nerves tingling as people’s bags of fruit started to get depleted and the elephants started to focus on the people who still had some left. I got cornered by a few of them and pushed up into the bushes while I dished out my last few fruits and then flapped my bag up and down in surrender to show that I didn’t have anything left.

Elephant Camp Chiang Mai

After the feeding frenzy, the Elephants calmed down and we walked around in the forest with them for a bit before grabbing lunch back up at the hut. The food was great, but lets skip ahead to the main event…

We trekked down to find a little babbling brook. The guide told us we could go for a swim in the swimming hole, so we did. We were splashing around, having a nice time cooling off, when down came the elephants. These giant animals lumbered in to the swimming hole one by one, slowly heaved themselves over and with a giant tumble they’d be in the pool rolling around with us. Their legs kicking up against us, trunks splashing water, bodies almost snuggling up with us and one another. Then came the guides, jumping into the pool with everyone, laughing, swinging, and jumping from elephant to elephant like they were lilly pads. They gave us all buckets and scrub brushes so we could help wash the elephants, and before we knew it, it was a big water fight between the guides, guests, and elephants.

Bathing Elephant

At one point all the elephants started trumpeting and growling. As I stood there in the middle of all this, listening to their songs echo through the forest, the feeling was so incredible and surreal that I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real. I looked at Rae and her eyes were so wide I thought they’d fall right out of the sockets. I had read reviews of people saying how special of an experience this was to them, but nothing can describe the actual feeling of being there.

Bathing Elephant

After the last elephant got back out and dissapeared back into the bush, we headed out along a narrow path that followed along the river. On the other side was a huge rice field sat in the middle of the forest and climbed up the hill. There was a bamboo hut perched off in the distance. Every time I looked up I thought “you couldn’t possibly paint a more beautiful scene than this.”

Rice Field Chiang Mai

And then we reached the waterfall. It was just one mind-blowing scene after another. I took photos, but they just can’t possibly do it justice. I thought I had seen some pretty amazing waterfalls out here already, but none have come close to this.  You could walk in behind it, take showers, run through it and jump into the pond underneath. I floated on my back for a while and felt just like a leaf gently spinning with the current, looking up through the trees at the clouds. That’s when Rae joined me and asked me if she was dreaming. I half expected to wake up at that moment myself.Waterfall at Elephant Camp

So in short… if you’re in Chiang Mai, DO THE HUG ELEPHANT TRIP!

 

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