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We visited the Mae Sa Elephant Camp, in the hills above Chiang Mai, and it was amazing. While it’s a very commercial operation, it looks like their elephants lead happy lives. And it’s a great place to get up close and personal with pachyderms.

They have something like eighty elephants, and our day started with feeding them bananas and sugarcane. We’d never spent much time with elephants, so it was fun to watch their personalities come out. A big one with a pink speckled face telescoped its trunk toward us (or our bananas, to be more precise), and hit us with a blast of warm air to encourage donation. A younger, smaller ‘derm stole a bunch of bananas from behind a woman’s back. I stroked an elephant’s trunk, and discovered it was surprisingly sweaty in the hot sun. While a Japanese man posed for a picture with two elephants regally raising their trunks, one reached down and dripped snot on his head, startling him so much he ran away. I posed with two large ones encircled me with their trunks, which, I was startled to discover, were slimy with snot and mud. Another grabbed Jason a little harder than he expected… It was so much fun.

They bathed in a narrow river after their feeding. Their handlers led them to the river, where they frolicked in the water and rolled around.

Then we watched an elephant floor show of sorts, where they demonstrated various skills. During the soccer portion, giant soccer balls were brought out so the elephants could kick them into a goal, which they did with surprising dexterity. The giant goalie was even blocking shots with his or her head. The "Thai massage" portion was a little bizarre with an elephant gingerly pressing it’s foot onto a man’s back as he lay on the ground. The painting segment was more interesting, with trunks delicately holding brushes, and actually creating paintings — images they’d probably been taught to paint, but still. What bright animals. At one point, several elephants came out playing harmonicas with their trunks and dancing. They held the harmonicas like this.

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Some would vigorously wind up their trunks like a baseball player, others would bob their heads or stick their legs out like disco dancers. This one was swinging its trunk around.

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I had no idea how much elephants personalities could differ. All of them had their own favorite things — one might play soccer well, while another liked to dance. Often, after a performance, they’d make a sharp AAH! sound, looking for applause. Sometimes this seemed spurred by the handler, but it often seemed spontaneous.

After the show, we took a one-hour elephant ride, which was fun and bumpy. Ours kept reaching its trunk up to our platform for banana, and blasted us with air if we didn’t deliver.

Before leaving the camp, we visited the youngest elephant, a two-month old baby, who was actually larger than us. We fed mom a snack, and felt the baby’s delicate trunk.

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After the elephant camp, we visited the nearby botanical gardens, which are quite lovely. They have plants from around the world, as well as native plants. We liked the unusual ones, like this carnivorous "Monkey Cup," with a rim that looks like a human lip.

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