Trekking with elephants in Thailand

The Karen Experiance - Elephant Nature Park - Thailand

The decision to go trekking with elephants was not one we took lightly.

It had always been a dream of ours to ride an elephant through the jungle. Unfortunately childish dreams soon give way to harsh realities, and it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no way to do this without contributing to the suffering of these magnificent creatures.

For a long time we had dismissed the idea of any kind of elephant adventure, naïvely believing that any sort of experience would be supportive of the cruelty, and abstinence would lead to the elephants being allowed back into the wild to live happy carefree lives.

Then we heard about Elephant Nature Park.

The elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre in Northern Thailand has won numerous awards for animal conservation. There is no riding of the elephants, no Mahouts with sharpened hooks, and no chains.

The park offers a number of experiences that allow you to get up close and personal with the gentle giants.

We chose the Karen Experience.

The minibus collected us from our hotel in the centre of Chiang Mai at 8:30 am, and after a brief stop at the office on the outskirts of the old town, we were on our way.

We were told that the journey to the village normally takes about 80 minutes, but we were in for a slightly longer haul, as once we reached the mountains we would have to swap to a 4×4. Understandable as this was rainy season, and it had been banging it down for 2 days solid.

The first leg of the journey was comfortable, and we were shown video presentations highlighting the great work the Elephant Nature Park was involved in, as well as a distressing film about how elephants are forced to obey commands and perform in shows. The third film was a light-hearted safety video that painted the picture that you were almost certainly going to get kicked into oblivion if you got within 50 feet of an elephant.

We soon arrived at the base of the mountain and swapped over to the 4×4, and we were off again.

The second part of the journey was not so comfortable. Our second vehicle was a Songteow. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s basically a pick-up truck with benches in the back. The tarmac periodically gave way to heavily rutted tracks, as we were jostled and shaken towards our destination. Our driver had taken the extra precaution of fitting chains to the tyres before we set off. This soon proved to be a wise decision as before long we were picking up passengers from other tour groups stranded along the way.

30 minutes later we arrived at a number of bamboo buildings high in the mountains.

No sooner had we changed into our traditional “Karen” outfits we saw the first of our new friends emerge from the forest.

It’s feeding time.

Elephant Feeding

They say Elephants never forget. Well they certainly don’t appear to forget where they go to get fed!

We were ushered into a pen, and baby, mummy, and auntie came over to see what goodies we had for them.

Mmmmmm. Baskets of cucumber, pumpkin, and corn.

Baby was greedy, and couldn’t get enough reaching out with his trunk to grab handfuls meant for mummy. Mummy, and auntie were a little more discerning, often turning their noses up at the cucumber in favour of the pumpkin and corn.

They were so gentle, even the little one who was a bit eager.

After feeding time we followed the herd into the jungle, and walked with them stopping on occasion to share more treats. I was once again amazed how gentle they were, and was also surprised how close we were allowed to get. Despite the terrifying safety video we were often within inches of them, sometimes closer.

After a short hike we made another stop and had another feeding time (these guys can eat!).

This stopping point provided some shelter, so we’re able to break out the cameras and get a couple of pictures, before heading back the way we came, shoulder to knee with our new best buddies.

Time for a spot of lunch for the humans, a traditional Thai vegetarian banquet, and all very tasty.

Then on to part 2.

Elephant Spa.

We were led down a steep incline just behind the village to a field with a large muddy pool, and almost immediately our new friends emerged from the jungle.

Elephant Nature Park

They needed little encouragement and headed straight for the mud. Baby wasn’t waiting around for us guys, and started rubbing his face in the embankment before laying down and pushing the mud around with his feet. Once the troop were settled we were led into the bog, and passed handfuls of mud by the mahouts to apply to the elephants. You could tell they loved this, moving around to show you where you had missed, to ensure they got a thorough treatment. Having almost as much fun as the elephants, the mahouts delighted in getting as much mud on us tourists as possible. Subtly at first, almost accidental, but this soon descended into dumping handfuls of mud down our backs.

Mummy and auntie seamed to relish the attention, but baby was off doing his own thing, and we wisely gave him space to flail around to his heart’s content.

Elephant Nature Park

Once we were all thoroughly caked in mud, it was time to wash off at the waterfall.

Another short trek, though this one was quite steep (remember those walking sticks), and were at the waterfall.

The water was cold, especially when the mahouts tipped it down you back (thanks lads), but this didn’t slow down the big guys. Armed with plastic bowls and scrubbing brushes we soon followed.

Washing Elephants in Waterfall

As at the Spa you could tell the elephants were seeking your interaction. They clearly enjoyed the feel of the brushes against their skin, and again they were coming to us rather than us approaching them.

And I think this is one of the things that made the whole day so enjoyable. You never felt like the behaviours were forced. It always felt like the elephants were doing their thing and we just got to hang out with them.

Oh, did I mention it was still chucking it down?

I’d almost forgot myself.

And it’s surprising how quickly you do.

In the morning when we set off I was a little apprehensive. And I’ve got to say when we changed into the “traditional Karen clothing”, only to put a huge rain Jacket over it, I did think “what’s the point”.

But the fact is as soon as you start interacting with these magnificent animals you really do forget everything else.

Elephant scratching on tree

We had a fantastic day, and were really glad we opted for one of the experiences rather than visiting the park. We would definitely recommend the Karen experience, but there are a number of other options available which also sound great.

You can check these out and learn more about the great work that The Elephant Nature Park does at their website. Click here.

 

A crazy night at Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Robot Restaurant, Japan

Surrounded by adult entertainment establishments and Pachinko arcades, an odd combination that appear to be comfortable bedfellows in Tokyo, Robot Restaurant is a beacon of neon light in the centre of the Kabukicho entertainment district of Shinjuku.

Two giant armour clad maidens mark the entrance to the psychedelic corridor which leads you into the pre-show area. The room appears to have been decorated by Libarace’s stylist during one of his more flamboyant moments. A robot band (not actual robots) play eighties classics whilst you wait to be lead into the show proper.

Robot Restaurant Band
Robot Restaurant Band

It’s at this point that you may realise that if you’ve come here expecting to get an insight into Japanese culture you’ve probably come to the wrong place. On our visit the clientele was almost exclusively westerners, the first clue should have been the staff who, unusually for Japan, all spoke perfect English.

One other thing worth clearing up. Robot Restaurant is not a restaurant. You can get a box meal, they have snacks, beer and soft drinks, but despite the name the food is definitely not the attraction.

Once in the bowels of the building and seated either side of a broad catwalk, reminiscent of a jousting stadium, you are given one last chance to stock up on drinks. Top tip, get some alcohol inside you, you’re going to need it.

What happens next is probably best left to the photos, but I’ll have a crack at it anyway.

Firstly a small aeroplane on a stand is wheeled around the place. This is done to show the people in the front row that if they lean forward too far they are going to get a face full of robot.

Then it’s on to the first act.

The show begins with a drum, and dance routine, which momentarily could be mistaken for a tribal dance. That is until Lady Gaga emerges, riding a 7 foot fish, and wielding an electric guitar. Waves of brightly coloured nonsense eventually give way to dancing demons with wild hair and swords. The first act is wrapped up when Ryu from Street Fighter shares a carnival float with an enormous prawn, and couple of robots make a brief appearance.

Drummers at Robot Restaurant
Drummers
A girl with a guitar and a fish at Robot Restaurant
A girl a guitar and a fish
Demon at Robot Restaurant
Fuzzy haired Demon

The Interval.

I’ll just let that sink in………………………..

OK.

Look I know that sounds horrendous, but it’s not.

I don’t know if it’s the rhythmic drumming, or the visual barrage on your senses. But somehow it’s absolutely captivating.

Now, another chance to get beer.

I’m going to need that…………

Surprisingly, despite the captive audience, and the astronomical prices that can easily be found elsewhere in Tokyo, the drinks are quite reasonable.

Food and drink prices Robot Restaurant
Food and drink prices

A brief pause in proceedings is bridged by a comedy dance act, and we’re off again.

Act 2 tells the story of a green and pleasant land attacked by the villains from Mad Max. Again you are lulled into a false sense of security with a tribal dance routine. However this is soon interrupted by the arrival of the War Boys. But what the baddies hadn’t expected was that the animals of the forest would rise up to protect their land.

Enter the monkey on a trapeze………..

And when, unsurprisingly, this does not thwart the enemy, he is replaced by a panda riding a cow.

Panda riding a cow

Take that.

Still not defeated, how about a 12 foot chicken, etc. etc. etc.

ChickenShark

This madness carries on for a while, and when all hope is fading……..

Spoiler alert.

A dinosaur comes to the rescue…….

Dinosaur

Bravo.

But couldn’t you have turned up a bit earlier and saved countless lives?

Another brief interlude.

And another chance to stock up on much-needed Asahi.

The second interval act is a pretty cool dance and laser show.

Laser Show
Dancers

And, then we’re back into it.

This time we get a warning that it’s going to get a little bit crazy, and are handed some luminous batons to wave about.

The final act is where we see the robots, along with dancing horses, dancing zebras, and even zebras riding horses. There’s a giant armour clad mannequin being chauffeured about by a clown, a fully grown Pinocchio, and a parade of dances in full carnival regalia.

Horse Robot restuarant Robot Restaurant

Robots Robot Restaurant Clown with Giant

Robot Robot Horse

Well we were warned.

And then it’s all over.

Surprisingly all too soon.

Apart from that song. “Robot-Robot-Restaurant”, that’s going to be going around my head for months……….

Top Tip.

Robot Restaurant is expensive, so expensive that we almost did not go (at the time of writing 8000yen), but we’re really glad we did. It’s worth shopping around for tickets. We managed to find a whopping 15% discount with the tour and experience booking agent, Voyagin. Their booking system was simple and we received an email confirming the booking reference, so we didn’t need to go in advance to pick up paper tickets. We just showed to the restaurant at the time of our reservation. Simple…

Book discount tickets through Voyagin

Have you been to Robot Restaurant? We’d love to hear what you thought. Leave a comment below.