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Trip Report Trip report: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Krabi and Phuket

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Hi all! Thanks so much for all your help planning our Thai adventure! What an amazing country Thailand is! Here's the first installment of our trip report as we sit in Krabi drinking cocktails on the beach. Life is good!



Day One:
We arrived in Bangkok at 6am and had arranged to be picked up in one of the Peninsula’s BMW 7-series cars, which was a great decision and a very luxurious way to arrive in the city. This was our first trip to the city and didn’t want to worry about finding a taxi and negotiating a price in a language we didn’t understand! Not the cheapest option, but no doubt the easiest option. Our driver was super nice and told us all about the city. When we arrived at the Peninsula we were greeted very warmly by all the employees and whisked up to our room where they did in-room check-in. Our suite was amazing with floor to window views of the Chao Praya river, directly across from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Our first impression of Bangkok and the Thai people is very positive.




We got settled in and headed out to see the sites and get our first massage after being in the air for 22 hours. The Peninsula is on the quiet side of the river however they have three boats that go back and forth to the side of the river where most of the action is. We took the Peninsula boat across the river to the public pier and then took the public boat up to see Wat Pho, a famous temple that houses the reclining Buddha. The Grand Palace is in this same area and there are con men all over the place, trying to convince you that the Palace/Wat are closed for the day. They then try to get you to go with them to their shops to buy custom made suits and gems. It’s not a dangerous practice, but certainly unethical, and something to be on the watch out for.




After oohing and aahing at the Buddha it was time for massages at the Wat Pho Traditional Thai massage school, located on the in the Wat itself. The massages there are amazing and cheap. After paying 420 bath each ($12 USD) for a traditional 60 min Thai massage (no oil) they give you thai yoga-style pants and a shirt to change into and then you lay down on a bed with a mat. Patrick was right next to me and we both agreed the massages were among the best we've ever had. Our goal is to get at least one massage a day while in Thailand and we accomplished this goal in Bangkok!




We then headed to Chinatown via taxi. As this was our first day we hadn't heard about the taxi drivers whom scam you by offering flat fees which are (in some cases) 5 to 10x what you would pay via meter. Turns out we paid 300 baht to go from Wat Pho to Chinatown which would typically cost maybe 50 baht. Once we learned this we insisted on telling the taxi driver to turn on the meter. This worked out great…with one notable exception which will be discussed later.




Chinatown was a blast to our senses....the sites, the smells, the food, the people, the markets....it was sensory overload. We walked around and took in all the markets and then decided it was time to sample some street food. We sat at a little table on the sidewalk and ordered pad thai from a vendor. It was very good however it was not served with the peanut sauce as we're used to in the US. (which was probably a good thing since the peanut sauce adds tons of calories to the dish). We then strolled around some more and sampled chicken balls with a thai chili sauce - yumm!




After Chinatown we were feeling the effects of jet lag and decided to head back to the hotel for some pool time. The pool at the Peninsula is amazing and luxurious. Wish Bangkok didn’t have so much to see and do as we would have loved to have spent more time pool side.




We had dinner reservations at Nahm that evening but once we learned it was an hour away by taxi (which was a stretch as we rebooked the following evening and it was 20 mins tops, no traffic) we decided to cancel. Instead, we took the Peninsula boat down river to the night market and had dinner at Baan Khantiha which the concierge had recommended. While the food was good, it was a little too “touristy” for us…nothing traditional about it at all.


After dinner we strolled through the Asiatique complex which houses a night market in five warehouses. The Asiatique part of the complex was a little too westernized for our taste. Lots of clubs playing Lady Gaga, etc. I know some rave about the night market and it is a fun place to visit…but know before you go that it has become yet another tourist destination with very little to do with Thai culture.




We took the Peninsula boat back to the hotel and called it a night!




Day Two:
We woke up and had our first breakfast at the hotel. The breakfast buffet was included in our room fee and it was amazing. There were all kinds of fruit, pastries, western style breakfast (bacon, eggs, omelettes made order), Asian breakfast items, Indian items, etc... We sat river side and watched as the public boats went by full of Thais on their way to work and tourists on their way to sight-see.




We hired a tour guide named Ratt to take us around to all the sites and she picked us up promptly at 8am. We were told she would pick us up in a late model sedan, but we climbed into what seemed like a mid 90’s Corola. She was very nice however her English was extremely hard to discern and at times we had no idea what she was talking about. We went back to the Wat Pho (the temple of the reclining Buddha) then we headed to the Grand Palace and Wat Arun. Note to self: Never attempt to climb the narrow, steep and treacherous steps at Wat Arun again!!! My thighs were wrecked for days and felt like I ran a marathon...and I've finished six so I know how that feels, lol!!!



Our next stop was the National Palace where Ratt turned us over to a trained and licensed tour guide as that is all they allow in the Grand Palace. Thank God she did. He was amazing. Wish I remembered his name. He made this part of the tour a lifetime memory. He also reminded me why it’s always best to hire a licensed and trained tour guide. I don’t think Rat has these qualifications.




After, it was 90+ degrees and I was getting "templed out" and asked our tour guide to take us for a massage. She was less than accommodating and told us no, we would go to the largest teak mansion instead and then the Thai Parliament building and then go for the massage. She is a very slight, 60+ year old woman so we felt bad asking her to alter the plan so we went with her suggestions. However, we had made it very clear in several emails that we did not want to go there.




The teak mansion was beautiful and impressive but our guide didn't do a great job articulating what it was prior to our arrival so we had no idea where we were. She simply dropped us off at the ticket office and took off. We laughed it off and made the best of it asking the people who work there where we were.


The parliament building was beautiful and we did the walking audio tour. We then went into the textile museum which housed some of the Queen's beautiful Thai dresses. This was certainly my favorite part of the tour! Glad she made us do it!




We were now ready for our massages and our guide brought us to Health Land which ended up being a terribly long taxi ride due to traffic jams...of course, not her fault. She recommended the two hour massage which was 500 baht each ($15!). Health Land is a beautiful spa with 100 massage rooms. We thoroughly enjoyed our massages and felt like jello after!




We arrived back at our hotel and got read for our evening at Nahm which is in the Metropolitan Hotel. It is a Michelin rated restaurant and is considered to be one of the top 50 restaurants in the world, so we were excited to visit. Great dinner, VERY spicy, nice service. However, I would not put it in the top 50 world wide.



Day Three:
This was our final day in Bangkok and we wanted to sleep in a bit, have a late breakfast and then head out to the Sukhumvit shopping district as we had not seen this part of town. We took the sky train from the central pier and it was a breeze getting there. While on the train we saw the protestors' sites lining the streets. Thousands of tents in a row with a makeshift city surrounding them.




We walked thru the Sukhumvit area and saw some of the things that make this area famous. It’s both interesting and sad. Kind of like when you see a car wreck on the side of the road. You really want to look, but you know it’s bad news. After leaving this seedy part of town we walked to the other side of the Sumkumvit area to where the protesters main site was. This day it was peaceful and had a carnival like atmosphere. We did not approach the protesters or go into their area…but it was interesting to see what we’ve been reading so much about. (side note: the next day two people were killed nearby)




For our last dinner in Bangkok we went to Le Normandie in the Mandarin Oriental hotel and had one of the best dinners we've ever experienced anywhere. The food was amazing (caviar, foie gras, chateaubriand, crepes suzette), the service was outstanding, and I mean outstanding in every way. The evening view of the river was beautiful and it was just a very special evening. Our eyes nearly fell out of our head when the bill arrived but hey, we're on vacation right?! While the room is large, there are very few tables, each with a River/City view. We were escorted to the elevator by the 6 or 7 waiters who had attended to us all evening, all with typical bright Thai smiles and genuine farewells.





Next, get some sleep for our flight to Chiang Mai!



Websites:
http://www.comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok/dining/nahm
http://www.watpomassage.com/2014/#
http://www.baan-khanitha.com/
http://www.healthlandspa.com/

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    Wonderful start! I'm impressed that you're writing while you're still on vacationIt took me a week to start writing and, 2 wks later, I'm not even half done!

    I love that you got massages daily, as. M & I somehow ended up not doing this. The massage at Wat Po sounds amazing!

    Looking forward to the rest.

    Paule

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    Good report, will follow along. I know the jelly feeling in your legs after climbing Wat Arun. Glad you were aware of the con men at the palace. We agree with you about Asiatique. While it serves a purpose, it has become very touristy, as was the old night market, but you do see a lot of Thais enjoying the area also.

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    Nice report! You were lucky as the real, or normal, hot weather is starting this week and what you experienced was very mild. Looking forward to your review of the 137 Pillars.

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    I agree about asiatique--leaves me a bit flat.

    ratt is a driver not a guide, so I feel she provided what you paid for with some additional commentary thrown in...
    we liked her very much and had no trouble with her language skills.

    your meals sounded fantastic.. in what range was the Normandie dinner?? we love Lord Jim for their daily luncheon buffet.

    anxious to read more.

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    Warm morning greetings again Sue - and many thanks for the brilliant opening post; looking forward to more. Glad the Peninsula, Bangkok worked well for you (suspected it would; such a fine place with those most knowledgable and gracious drivers, staff - and those special suites).

    Keep up the wondrous writing Sue, and should you ever desire lodging - and even aviation - suggestions for our fine home of Singapore, always honoured to assist. (Perhaps Raffles for you; over the past few weeks, some particularly enjoyable business and leisure times at that SIN icon.)

    Warm wishes and travels to you and all,

    macintosh (robert)


    ... Singapore Airlines, You're a Great Way to Fly ...

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    Day One – Chiang Mai

    We arrived in Chiang Mai mid-day after a quick one-hour flight from Bangkok on Thai Airways and were greeted by a host and driver from our hotel, 137 Pillars House. We were welcomed warmly by the hotel staff upon arrival and they did our check-in in the beautiful open-air veranda. They gave us colorful, purplish fruit drinks which were very refreshing and a nice touch. After showing us around the luxurious gardens, main pillar house, pool and restaurant we were escorted to our room which was a lovely Rajah Brooke Suite complete with a very comfortable bed, an outdoor shower and beautiful traditional Thai décor. Thanks to our friends at Fodor for recommending this property – it’s truly gorgeous and the service is outstanding! We are very pleased.

    We decided to head out and see the the old city so we took a tuk-tuk to the main gate. The driver dropped us off and we browsed the main road which is lined with bars, restaurants, chops and massage parlors. Our first stop was for one-hour foot massages at Lila massage for 250 baht each (appx $7 USD). We then stumbled upon Morrodaoke for lunch which I had read about on Fodors and TripAdvisor. It’s a very casual little Thai restaurant with great food and drinks and I continued my “one pad thai meal a day” goal. Pat started with a curry dish and we shared the chicken satay – great food! Lunch set us back appx $8 USD while our two margaritas each set us back appx $18 USD. The local Chang or Singa beer would have cost far less but we felt like margaritas.

    After that we shopped a little and then spent some time hanging out at a cute little Thai bar watching life go by. As we did this I noticed a trend that I had also seen in Bangkok: entire families or multi-generations riding a motorbike at once. What did I do? I decided to document it via photographs while Pat served as my look-out - “I see a foursome coming down the road, baby in front.” And “I see grandma, mom, daughter and baby next”. We had fun and the Thais seemed to enjoy being the topic of this project. We got waves, smiles and peace signs as we photographed them.

    After that it was getting dark so we walked back to the hotel area and stopped at the Riverside restaurant on the Ping River. We were tired and hungry by this point and craving something other than Thai food. We opted for a small ham pizza, a couple of Chang beers and called it a night. Fun first day in Chiang Mai.


    Day Two
    We had a full-day tour planned for this day and Tuk, our guide, and Yai, our driver from Untouched Thailand Tours met us promptly at 840 am at our hotel. Tuk was all smiles the entire day and provided a wealth of information about Thailand, it’s history, culture and his life as a monk prior to becoming a tour guide. The vast majority of guides with Untouched, including the owner, Siphon, are former monks. Tuk is also a licensed tour guide. He spent two years at University learning this skill, and it was more than apparent that this schooling paid off big time. Also, Tuk grew up in a Thai village…not in the city…so he was totally versed in the ways of village life, which I find extraordinarily interesting. He would talk about his mother and father, brothers and sisters and how they grew up living off the land.

    We chose the Eco-Nature tour and started the day with a tour to the Long Neck Karen tribe in northern Thailand. This was definitely something that I found intriguing and had read several posts on Fodors and TripAdvisor regarding how to take pictures of the women without coming across as rude and ungrateful. I made sure to buy a hand-crafted product from each woman, give them 20-30 baht extra and then ask if I could take a photo prior to doing so. Most were very gracious and if I got the feeling they didn’t want me to take a photo, I would politely smile and walk away. We learned about their background – Burmese refugees who live in this little village and wear the copper coils as protection from tiger bites, as a sign of beauty and to appear attractive to others. We met one recent Burmese refugee who really stole my heart – a sweet little girl missing her two front teeth but with a smile that could light up a room. Very memorable visit to the tribal village. Unfortunately, this particular tribe is not allowed to leave this land where they farm and sell hand-made crafts. They are not Thai residents and do not have Thai work permits. However, their children are eligible for work permits once they come of age.


    Also worth noting is that we witnessed several people marching right up to the tribe members, without saying a word, putting their arms around them, and expecting everyone to smile for a photo. The tribe people do NOT appreciate this and will not cooperate with this type of ego-driven approach. These are not animals; they are people, like you and me and have feelings.


    Our next stop was to the Tiger Kingdom where we had the opportunity to go right into the tiger cages with the tigers who had been brought up as domesticated animals and were considered safe. Before entering we had to choose the package we wanted. We chose the Big, Little and littlest tigers. Always the worrier, I was not very excited about jumping into tiger cages. That said, Pat was excited for this so I went along…such a great wife I am! We did not initially plan on doing this because of concerns about drugged and abused tigers. Our tour guide assured us this was not true and since he had already gained our trust we went along. True to form, he was right. We started with the “little” tigers…those around 9 months, but still huge. They were jumping, playing, splashing, having a great time. They sat with customers for pictures, but didn’t do any tricks or show any other signs of being trained like a circus animal. A trainer was always by our side as we hugged and played with the beasts. Next were the “littlest” tigers…those 2-3 months old. In terms of behavior, they were like any kitten you’ve ever seen. Playful with each other and the guests…wrestling, scratching, nibbling, etc. It was our favorite part of the tour because these cats are so cute, loveable and playful!

    We ended the tour with the biggest cats. Huge. Like 200 kilo huge. They were awake, but lazing around in the shade, like most adult cats of any breed. They were peaceful and calm and didn’t seem to be put off by human interaction, which I guess is what you’d come to expect from tigers raised domestically around people. Of course, these are still tigers, and I don’t suppose you can totally take away their wild instincts, but on our visit, the risk was worth the reward.

    After our fun with the tigers we stopped for a traditional Thai lunch in the Thai countryside and then set off for a 90 min drive to the national park where we stopped at a beautiful waterfall and then headed for the Hmong market. The market was similar to other markets however the thing that I enjoyed most was seeing the little children of the market. There was a very happy baby in a wooden crib that looked to be made out of an old pallet, a one-year old-ish little boy drinking water out of a two-liter Fanta bottle while his friends played below him and there were several other little children having a great time hanging with their friends and the resident roosters. If we saw this scene in the US we would be concerned by the poor conditions however this is the simple life they are used to and despite the unsanitary conditions and very poor way of life, these people were happy, full of smiles and going about their day chatting, gossiping and having fun with the village friends. We could all learn something from them.

    We got back in the car and headed up the mountain a few minutes more and were met by a local Karen villager who led us on a two-hour trek thru the jungle to his village. As someone who has lived in this village his entire life, he was not educated in the traditional sense and didn’t speak English but was full of smiles and was very smart in terms of living off the land. He stopped many times along the way, took a huge machete (!) out of his bag (phew – someone to save us from wild animals!) and pointed out and cut samples from things like a tiger balm tree, a cinnamon tree, beautifully scented pomelo flowers, coffee trees/beans, a long piece of grass that emits a high-pitched bird sound when folded and held to the mouth (used as bird calls), hanging vines we could literally swing on, fish caught with his hands, etc. All of this and more he learned in the jungle he grew up in. So while he didn’t go to high school and college like many of us, he was so much smarter than us in other ways.

    After many downhills and uphills, treks across bamboo bridges and natural stairs we descended upon his village which sustains itself by growing and selling coffee beans. Unlike the long neck Karen tribal village which was more touristy, I got the feeling that you needed to be with a tribal member to be welcomed into this village. We were the only tourists there, surrounded by the 250 villagers who live there. We were greeted into the village by one of the main coffee growers who served us small cups of coffee to welcome us. While I’m fond of milder coffee, my husband is a fan of very strong coffee and he loved the tribal coffee. We bought two bags of it for 100 baht each (appx $3 USD) and then made our way into the village. Their wooden houses were on stilts to allow the villagers to keep their pigs, chicken and other animals below. Some have electricity, some don’t. Some villagers had cars (we learned you don’t HAVE to trek thru the jungle to get here – there’s a main road nearby) which seemed very modern compared to their stark and simple lifestyle.

    As we approached the center of the village there were several men who were clearly stoned. Their perma-grins and happy dancing feet said it all as did the unmistakable aroma in the air all over the village. We asked our tour guide about it and he laughed and said it’s only their local tobacco. Ok, then…

    We descended from the top of the village and said our goodbyes to our guide. Big hugs for our new friend, who clearly wasn’t ready for an American hug!! We departed for Chiang Mai as the sun set and enjoyed seeing the way Thais live as we drove thru many little towns/villages on our way home. Just like in the rest of Thailand, people here prefer to eat their delicious street food than dine at a traditional restaurant as we are used to in the US.

    We finally got back to Chiang Mai around 8pm and said a fond farewell to Tuk and Yai. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at the Riverside restaurant and walked back to our hotel.

    Today was definitely a highlight of our trip to Thailand and we would highly recommend this tour to those interested in seeing how the tribal village people live.

    Day Three
    So here’s where the trip took a very scary and terrifying turn…

    Since we started planning this trip (maybe 9 months ago) I’ve been looking forward to visiting the very well-regarded Patara Elephant farm know for rescuing circus elephants and other elephants in bad situations (ie, logging elephants, etc.). This farm is among the best in Thailand in terms of breeding elephants (there are only 6k elephants left in Thailand, only 2,500 of those in the wild) and rehabbing elephants & rescuing elephants. Well what started out as an amazing day ended up being one of the most terrifying experiences of my life which ended with a trip to the emergency room. But I digress…

    The Patara staff picked us up at the hotel at 7:45am and we set out for the farm which is 45 mins from downtown Chiang Mai. We arrived and met our “team” of four couples: honeymooners from Seattle, a couple from Sydney and another couple from Los Angeles. We had a great group of people and I just knew we would have a fun and exciting day together. Or so it seemed…

    Before we went down to the farm we were give a 30 min overview of Patara, a run-through of what our day would entail, a high level overview of elephant behavior and then we walked down to the farm. We were told they would assign us each an elephant based on our personality – the older folks in the crowd would get the older elephants and the younger among us would be paired with younger elephants. I was assigned to Poi, a 14 yo female elephant and Pat got a much larger pregnant female.

    We spent time feeding our elephants, examining them to be sure they were happy (wagging tails and ears), examined their poop to make sure they were hydrated (don’t ask) and checked to make sure the tears from their eyes were consistent in both eyes. All the elephants passed our physical exams so next step was to bathe them by the waterfall. I had fun bathing Poi and scrubbing her back however when it came time to walk her to the deeper area by the waterfall I was told to help Pat with his elephant and they held Poi back (hmmm…). Pictures were taken, we did group and couple shots while the elephants sprayed us with water and then it was onward to learn how to ride bare back…and this is when my crazy vacation story and terrifying experience begins!

    We were brought back to our original spot and taught how to climb onto the elephant and also taught how to ride bareback –head down parallel to the elephant’s back while going downhill and lean back while going uphill. We were also told how to make the elephant go forward, turn left, turn right, etc. Ok – I got this!

    Five of the eight people (Pat included) in our group got on their elephants and headed up the steep hill. I was next and ascended with no problem. Poi and her trainer (mahout) were ready to go and we set out. As someone who hates heights, turbulence and roller coasters, I immediately felt like this was NOT my cup of tea. I was up eight feet in the air on an animal weighing several tons with nothing holding me in place.

    Poi started out fast and I was immediately scared. She passed several of the elephants that had set out before us and I made a joke of it with the others as we passed by. She then went far too close to the edge of the valley that was to the left of the trail and I asked my trainer to please pull her away (I get heart palpitations just thinking about what would have happened if we fell down into that steep ravine). At that same point, another team of elephant riders came around the curve and Poi got very agitated and walked straight towards another elephant and then walked in circles, obviously agitated. I was eye to eye with a woman who was smiling and having a delightful experience (the one I had HOPED to have) while I’m sure I was pale white with a look of horror on my face. I caught her eye and told her quietly that I was scared and wanted to get off of Poi.

    I’m not sure what happened next – or why/how this happened – however next thing I know Poi and another elephant are running full speed down the very steep hill with me on top. I was thrown off her back, another baby elephant ran over me (by the grace of god not on TOP of me) and I rolled down the hill and then picked myself up and ran up into the woods afraid there would be a stampede of elephants behind me and I would end up being run over and killed.

    The next few mins are a blur of medics, trainers and Patrick coming to my rescue, taking care of my bloody right knee, swollen right hand and bruised right foot and basically trying to calm me down. My hand and foot were throbbing and getting swollen so we decided to go to the emergency room for x-rays. The Patara staff was extremely helpful and kind and drove us there. A couple others including the owner came to the hospital and stayed with us while we waited. I was happy to escape this incident with no broken bones and only some pulled tendons in my hand and road burn down the right side of my body (face/neck excluded). I don’t think I will ever get on an elephant again or for that matter any large animal. This day at the Patara Elephant Farm – which some people call one of the best moments of their life – was definitely one of my scariest, for sure.

    After the team at Patara dropped us back at the hotel I soaked in the tub for awhile then we headed out to the town – scratched, bruised, bloodied and bandaged. I was quite the site to see. We went to the Sunday night walking market and did some shopping, got 30 min back/shoulder massages for 80 baht each ($2.50 ea) which I needed badly and then headed back to our hotel area and had a very nice, quiet dinner at the Gallery on the Ping River.

    Not at all the day we expected but it could have been far worse, for sure…

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    progol - we enjoy doing trip reports while on vacation. Life gets too busy once we return and we often forget important details.

    Hanuman - We LOVED 137 Pillars - thanks for the tip!

    rhkkmk - We thought Ratt was a tour guide not a driver. Not sure where the confusion originated. La Normandie dinner was one of our most expensive meals..nearing four figures USD but worth it for this special occasion.

    AskOksena - Thank you. We will keep Singapore in mind.

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    Oh my, what a terrifying experience at Patara, and truly a humbling one to read about. Thank you for sharing this. I'm glad to hear that your injuries were only superficial -- I can imagine the terror, though, having recently been on the back of an elephant at another camp in Chiang Mai.

    Really enjoying reading about your trip, now that I'm back. I know what you mean about not having the time to write -- as I'm 2 weeks home, life is definitely interfering with my time to write it up -- but it does keep the trip alive that much longer!

    Hope you're enjoying a very relaxing end to your trip right about now!

    Paule

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    By the way, not so odd that you thought Ratt was a guide -- in correspondence with her (and her daughter, I believe), I received a list of tours that they do and the costs associated with them. So she is clearly offering these services. I later asked about fees specifically for driving, and there was a completely different fee.

    Ultimately, I didn't hire her, but I can understand why you thought she was a tour guide.

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    Thoroughly enjoying your report, but so so sorry to hear of the elephant experience, it must have been terrifying.

    I've been on an elephant once, riding up the walls of Amber Fort in Jaipur. That was with a saddle, and I thought a cruel mahout, wielding an iron spike. The ele had open wounds on her head, no doubt from the iron spike.

    I'd considered the bareback experience in Thailand, but ultimately decided that these animals are lovely to look at. Thanks for justifying my decision, a wild animal is a wild animal. Domestication only goes so far, and you never know what you'll get.

    I hope your journey gets less eventful, and look forward to the next chapter !

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    Thank you for your report. Wow--so glad you are okay from the elephant encounter!! I read on TA another similar experience that took place at Patara. My fiancée and I will be traveling to Thailand in July, 2014. I am in the process of booking an elephant experience Chiang Mai.

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