By Susan Viebrock
Maesa Elephant Camp:
Well-intentioned people will wag their index finger in your general direction when you tell them you are heading to a place like the Maesa Elephant Camp, which is southeast of Chiang Dao. They will say if you REALLY care about elephants, head for Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Taeng Valley, home to dozens of rescued elephants. And while it is true that founder Lek Challert has received international recognition for her efforts which have saved hundreds, if not thousands of Asian elephants, an endangered species, you may not have a day (or days) to work as a volunteer at the camp. And a willingness to work with the elephants is the only way you can visit.
Cabbages & Condoms is a chain of inn and hotel complexes whose patrons help fund a well-respected nonprofit ( of the same name) that promotes sex education and helps members of the minority hill tribes. A sign just outside the Hill Tribe Handicraft Store had a whole different message to put out about places like the Maesa Elephant Camp.
Not patronizing these parks, the sign says, because you believe the purists who think elephants should not be made to paint or play soccer, hurts not only the elephants, but also their mahouts. The alternative could mean elephants wind up working in Bangkok or other unnatural environments, where they are often hurt and have to be put down. The mahouts could end up at best laboring on a farm for pennies, or worse, on the streets.
Our guide Nat Poj told us Maesa Elephant Camp has an outstanding reputation. – and we have learned to believe everything our leader tells us – so off we went.
The camp, which flanks a river in a lush tropical valley, is just 20 minutes from downtown Chiang Mai. Open since 1976, Maesa, now home to about 80 pachyderms, has taken a leadership position in the field of elephant breeding, training, healthcare (including nutrition – the place grows special grasses and herbs for its animals – and sustainable tourism.
An elephant parade opened the show. And yes, we applauded as they played soccer. Ditto when they burst balloons with darts. More....