I’ve tended to spend my Christmases surrounded by friends and family, tucked under a blanket and hiding from the heat in Canada. While on international exchange, it wasn’t financially feasible to return to Canada to spend Christmas with my family, so I decided to spend it in the next best way – at an Elephant rescue camp in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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I had been wanting to go to an elephant camp for a while, but was debating with the costs. A lot of them costed a lot of money just to go watch the elephants, and the ones that were cheap were cheap for a reason; the elephants were treated poorly and were only there to serve the customers – that’s not what I wanted to participate in at all.

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Looking around though, I was recommended Woody’s Elephant Training by my friend Tamlee, who had been the month prior. After doing my research online, I determined that the cost for this adventure was reasonable, and that the elephants were treated with respect. I booked my Christmas present to myself, and anxiously awaited the day.

I got up early on Wednesday morning and a van came and collected me. The night before I had purchased a Christmas hat, and to my surprise when I got on the bus, there were three girls who also had them on too – awesome.

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We drove for about an hour arriving at the camp, getting settled in and checked the amazing views from the back porch. Over the first hour, we got to know each other’s names, learned some history about the camp, and learned the commands for the elephants. We also got dressed in our Mahout clothing, as we would be traditional elephant trainers for the day.

The elephants were much bigger than I imagined, and spoke better Thai than I did. They understand quite a few commands – though we only learned a few, like Yo-kaa (leg up), Yud (stop), and a few others. I kept mixing up the words for “stop” and “fast”, so you can imagine how that turned out for me.

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We then spent the next hour feeding the elephants, cleaning up after them, and learning to control them. You use a hook on it’s head, which doesn’t hurt the elephant as long as you’re gentle with it. It was explained to us that it’s important to remember that when the elephant is young, even though nobody wants to hurt it, if it does something dangerous, it has to be immediately taught that it’s behaviour is not appropriate with a negative stimulus. It is sad to think of, but in order for them not to be killing people – it’s necessary precaution.

After that, we had a great lunch, and got to ride the elephants across the camp. It was actually a lot more scary than you’d think, since they’re huge creatures, and can be difficult to control.

Returning from the hike, it was time to take the elephants for their baths. The Mahouts lead the elephants into the river, handed us brushes and we followed suit. The water was absolutely freezing at first, but I sucked it up, since it was Christmas, and how many people in the world get this opportunity, right?

Not going to lie, it was a little scary to have the elephants carelessly rolling over in the water, but so much fun. They began sucking water up into their trunks and spraying people, and even stamping their feet, making the entire river boil.

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Once they were “clean” we went for a swim with them, where we rode on their backs through an incredibly deep pool of water. Our elephant had the habit of buckling it’s front legs, keeping it’s trunk above water, essentially submerging us for brief periods of time. Later on she reared up on her hind legs, as myself and the two others hung on, trying not to tumble over backwards. It was a lot of fun, a little painful, and our elephant ended up deafening us from her trumpeting.

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Finishing up our swim, we said our goodbyes, took a couple pictures, and headed home for the day. Not a bad way to spend Christmas, right?

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