Bells tinkle and jingle and then out of the lush jungle come four little elephants about a few years old wearing bells on their collar. They head straight for a river where they frolic like children, splashing and even lying down. "Up!" Suddenly a mahout shouts out and soon the playful calves lift their trunks in the air and blow water out into a "sun shower."
This charming bathing scene is a popular "warm-up" show at the Maesa Elephant Camp in the jungles of Chiang Mai's Mae Sa Valley in northern Thailand. The young elephants and their elders then put on a more elaborate performance in an outdoor arena.
In Thailand, there are around 5,000 elephants, including 3,000 domesticated and 2,000 in the wild, according to tour guide Manop Saejia, a third-generation Chinese in Thailand. There used to be "several dozen thousand," he adds. But human encroachment on their habitat and poachers have taken their toll.
In Thailand, elephants are synonymous with the country and their images are featured prominently almost everywhere - in artworks, signs and public buildings.
A large herd of elephants lives side by side with their caretakers, and the Maesa Elephant Camp is home to one of the largest elephant assemblies in northern Thailand. Established in 1976, the camp is currently home to 73 of these magnificent beasts and about 80 mahouts.
Although technically owned by the camp, most of the elephants go home with the mahouts to their villages every night, says guide Saejia. Food is supplied twice a day. Mahouts are also very aware that the elephants must not be abused and they check on each other to make sure the animals are all treated well.
The villagers generate income by selling bananas and souvenirs to visitors. "Everything is very clean and well managed, with concern not only for the elephants and the mahouts, but for the environment and the surroundings as well," Saejia says.
While Chinese say human beings are shaped by the land around them, when it comes to Chiang Mai, that land has shaped not only a cheerful and hospitable people, but also these smart and intelligent elephants.
In the warm-up bathing routine, which lasts for 15 minutes, children in the audience laugh and scream with joy. It all seems natural and exuberant. In the following, more controversial performance lasting around an hour, about 20 elephants show off many other skills that require a lot of training. They play football and other games and even paint pictures, holding paintbrushes with their trunks. Everyone oohs and ahhs.
The hour-long shows are staged three times a day.
Although some animal welfare advocates say the shows are demeaning - some even accuse that elephants must be abused during training, the animals appear perfectly happy and willing and do seem to enjoy themselves.
"Of course, it is this enjoyment that creates the revenue so desperately needed for the camp to carry on its conservation work," says one trainer.
"The truth is that without places like this (Maesa camp), these animals would face a much tougher life, most would even not survive," the guide says.
The show starts with a grand parade as 20 elephants enter the arena, trumpeting triumphantly while their mahouts sit proudly on top. Then the trainers slide down the trunks to dismount and are lifted gently back up in a display of understanding between man and beast. An elephant also uses its trunk to gently take a trainer's hat off and then replace it. The applause are huge.
The crowd soon rises to its feet when two elephants start to play football -- one as shooter and the other as goalkeeper. Every time a mahout throws out a ball, the shooter gets it and kicks it back toward the goal. Although it often misses or is blocked by the "goalkeeper," elephant footballer never gives up and keeps trying, to the cheers of the crowd, until it makes the goal.
The most amazing part begins when five elephants walk into the arena, each carrying a wooden box of pigments and brush with their trunk. The mahouts hand them a brush loaded with paint, steer them in front of an easel and away they go. Trees, flowers and mountains soon spring into view and the results are stunning - some pieces are extraordinary in their realism and emotion.
"Guess what? Some of the artworks can fetch as much as several hundred thousand baht," says guide Saejia.
One of the stars at the camp is Duanpen, which means "Full Moon Month" in Thai. She is the first and only known abstract pointillist elephant artist to date. She fills the paper with dots and only dots, and does not stop until the canvas is covered.
Duanpen has a strong sense of composition and framing. She focuses on the blank canvas before starting, then she repeatedly strikes it with the brush - dot-dot-dot-dot. Her work is very beautiful, vibrant with color.
Everyone has a great time, elephants too, and all too soon the show is over. To get closer to these friendly, smart animals, visitors can book a ride in the dense forest surrounding the camp; they ride in a rickety wooden howdah or saddle chair that is strapped behind the huge animal's head.
On 30- or 60-minute rides, the mahout guides the elephants along forest paths and fields surrounding the village. The path sometimes is so bumpy and rutted that the howdah sways and riders feel as though they are in a rocking chair. Some women riders scream the whole way.
"This gives an authentic feel for the life of working elephants," says an excited visitor after a 30-minute ride.
For many visitors to Chiang Mai, the big draw is the chance to see animals. "They are few other places (like Chiang Mai) where you can see and get so close to nature," guide Saejia says.
A spectacular treat for people of all ages is a trip to the Chiang Mai Night Safari, one of the only three nocturnal zoos established after Night Safari in Singapore and China Night Safari in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.
Considered by many to be the world's most beautiful night safari - twice the size of its Singapore counterpart - it offers adventurers a chance to enter the animal kingdom while still being safe, and not far from creature comforts.
The park contains three enclosed zones. The Jaguar Trail, open 24 hours, is a 1,200-meter walk around a scenic lake. The Savanna Safari and Predator Prowl areas use trams to take visitors around. This is the ideal opportunity to observe wildlife at night.
The Jaguar Trail area contains more than 400 animals, including white tigers, jaguars from South America, leopards from Africa, tapirs, monkeys, camels, miniature horses and cranes. There are even wallabies and koalas from Australia.
The highlight, however, is definitely a tour of night-time areas that are open from 7pm to midnight. Visitors travel in the pitch dark (no streetlights) through the different zones in an open-sided tram. The one-hour trip covers 5km. A basket of carrots and bananas costs only 30 baht (97 US cents). The experience is awesome. Along the way, the tram operator puts a spotlight on the animals in various enclosures and the guide explains the different creatures.
In some sections, animals such as deer, zebra and antelope are standing right beside the roadway, waiting to be fed. If visitors extend a carrot, the animals approach quickly and can be petted. Touching the animals is a moving experience and visitors feel the wonder of what Mother Nature has offered. (Don't worry. All the dangerous animals are well fenced in.)
No matter how tempting, visitors shouldn't give all their food to the deer and antelope. They should save some for the beautiful, graceful giraffe that will insistently bend their long necks down into the tram and reach out their tongue for carrots and bananas. Little children and some women may scream as the giraffe nuzzles and licks their hands!
While moving on, visitors see a veritable zoo - lions, cheetahs, wildebeests, ostriches, African hunting dogs, wolves, Asiatic black bears, even kangaroos, dingos and emus.
Maesa Elephant Camp
Opening hours: 8am-3pm
Show times: 8am, 9:40am, 1:30pm
Tickets: 120 baht for entry
Rides: 1,200 baht for an hour, 800 baht for half an hour
Tel: 053-206-247, 053-206-248
Address: 119/9 Tapae Rd, Chiang Mai 50100
How to get there: Mae Rim is about 15km north of Chiang Mai. From there take another songtao (shared pickup truck taxi) headed for Samoeng and jump out at the camp about 10km from Mae Rim.
Chiang Mai Night Safari
Opening hours: 11am-10pm (Walking Zone); 3-4:30pm (Day Safari) for Thai version departing every 30 minutes (the trip takes 60 minutes); 7-10pm (Night Safari)
Tram ride: Thai version departs every 15-30 minutes during 7pm-10pm
North Zone: English version departs at 7:45pm and 9:30pm
South Zone: English version departs at 8:30pm and 10:15pm
Walking Zone: 100 baht for adults, 50 baht for children under 1.4m
Day Safari: 800 baht for adults, 400 baht for children under 1.4m
Night Safari: 800 baht for adults, 400 baht for children under 1.4m
Free for children under 1m
How to get there: A short 20-minute drive (12km) from Chiang Mai and the taxi fare from town costs about 150 to 250 baht. There is a free return mini bus that runs every evening from outside the Tourist Police Office in the middle of the Night Bazaar.
If you go
Other sights in Chiang Mai
Rising 1,676 meters above the city of Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep is one of the most revered religious destinations in Thailand.
There are plenty of legends surrounding the mountaintop temple. Stories from long ago tell of a wandering 14th-century monk and a dying elephant, a hermit and of villagers coming together to build a road to a holy shrine.
There are two choices after arriving at the base of the temple - either hike up the 300 steps to the temple gate (admiring the longest Naga staircase in Thailand on the way) or take a cable car.
Once inside Wat Suthep, visitors are free to wander the grounds, admiring what each section has to offer. Like many temples in Thailand, there are elements of Hinduism mixed with Buddhism and an intriguing array of statues, including the elephant god Ganesh.
In the middle of the temple is the sacred square cloister area, where, upon shedding shoes and ascending another dozen steps, visitors can see the Lanna-style, copper-plated chedi topped by a five-tiered gold umbrella. It is considered one of the holiest areas in Thailand. Monks inside are kept busy blessing the devout with holy water and the smell of incense and burning candles fill the senses as one circumnavigates the cloister.
The lookout area is opposite the entrance gate and viewers can gaze down at the city of Chiang Mai and its international airport far below. There's a clear view of the winding Ping River and the surrounding mountains.
How to get there: It is easy to get to Doi Suthep by public transport. The road runs 16km northwest from Chiang Mai, past Chiang Mai University and winds upward in the mountains to the base of the temple.
Royal Park Rajapruek
This royal park used to be the Royal Agricultural Research Center where the International Horticultural Exposition was held in 2006 to celebrate the king's 60 years on the throne and his 80th birthday.
His Majesty gave the current name to the park in 2010 to promote and improve agriculture and benefit the people.
The complex retains the design and layout of the exposition, with various gardens and pavilions dedicated to different countries, organizations and corporations. It features a wide array of plant species and emphasizes sustainable development and energy conservation.
The most prominent structure is the Royal Pavilion that was built according to the unique Lanna architecture of northern Thailand. It replicates the construction concept of "Ho Khom," which was the royal pavilion of Northern Kingdom.
Opening time: Daily, 8am-6pm
Address: Royal Park Rajapruek Mae-hia, Muang, Chiang Mai 50200
Tickets: 100 baht for adults, 50 baht for children
How to get there
There is no direct flight from Shanghai to Chiang Mai. Many people fly from Shanghai to Bangkok (4 hours) and then take a flight to Chiang Mai (1 hour).
Where to stay
There are many accommodation options in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, from budget hostels to luxury hotels. One of the most convenient and nicest is Shangri-La Hotel, which in both cities is centrally located.
In Chiang Mai, it's only a rickshaw ride down the small quiet lanes within the old town. Many curio and antique shops nestled in teakwood houses are in the vicinity. From the hotel visitors can wand around shady tree-lined lanes that lead to numerous Buddhist temples. And it's only walking distance to the daily night market.
The room is beautifully arranged in a contemporary Northern Thai style. Special touches such as local celadon tea sets, Thai silk pillows, bed runners and artwork give a distinctive Chiang Mai charm.
At Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok, you can savor authentic cuisine in Thai-style teak pavilions while enjoying classical Thai dance performances. Or take a cruise along the Chao Phraya River while having an international buffet on the hotel's private riverboat.
At both Shangri-La hotels, a traditional Thai massage at CHI Spa can be a real highlight. The combination of gentle rocking, deep stretching and compression of the spine energizes yet relaxes you.